Wednesday, January 25, 2012

PopMatters Feature: ReFramed No. 18 - Robert Culp's Hickey & Boggs

This time out, our discerning duo take on one of the last great LA noirs, directed by one of the '60s/'70s most recognizable TV stars.
Calum Marsh: Whether you want to call it the last great contemporary film noir or the first great buddy action film, Robert Culp’s Hickey & Boggs deserves far more recognition than the paltry sum it’s accumulated over the last forty years. It should come as no real surprise that the cultural high guard has ignored a film of this kind altogether—unless they come conveniently prepackaged with Point Blank-style arthouse frills, action flicks rarely find their way into the canon—but I’m genuinely surprised that a movie as fun and exciting as this hasn’t found at least some sort of niche audience to embrace it after all these years.

You’d think Hickey & Boggs would be an easy sell on pedigree alone: though clearly the passion project of director and co-star Robert Culp, the film has the distinction of being the very first screenplay written by Walter Hill, who went on to create The Warriors and, most famously, the Alien series. And it co-stars Bill Cosby, which should be reason enough to make this thing more widely known. As it stands, it languishes in seemingly permanent obscurity, going largely unseen and totally undiscussed. Honestly, why isn’t this thing a cult classic?

Jordan Cronk: Well, unfortunately, as is the case with a great deal of the films we cover in ReFramed, availability in the home video market has left Hickey & Boggs languishing in obscurity for quite a while. Only recently did the film receive a DVD release—or, rather, a DVD-R release, available through the Warner Archive series, which is an online made-on-demand service that isn’t really all that well known to anyone other than hardcore fans of noir, which is what the series specializes in.

This is also another one of those films that I feel would gather a rather devoted following if simply granted proper release. Besides Bill Cosby and the related I Spy angle, there’s also, as you point out Calum, the Walter Hill connection, who’s 1972 film The Driver has been referenced in many an article recently in conjunction with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a homage to Hill’s feature and films of a similar nature. Which is all to say that, yes, there’s no aesthetic reason that Hickey & Boggs isn’t more well known—it’s certainly one of the more entertaining films of its kind that I’ve seen. But I personally wasn’t even aware of the film until a couple of years ago when it played as part of a retrospective series at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Needless to say it left an immediate and indelible impression, becoming not only one of my favorite crime films from the era, but also one of my own definitive L.A. films, joining such richly detailed and geographically intimate works as Alex Cox’s Repo Man and John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz. It’s also one of the films profiled in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, which we’ve effusively covered in these pages in the past. However, now seems as good a time as ever for the film to find a long-overdue audience.

Marsh: That Los Angeles connection seems rather significant, too—and not only because the film’s many notable set pieces are established in and around recognizable city landmarks. I’m not an L.A. resident, of course, but even with my limited familiarity with the city I can tell that this is an uncommonly authentic document of the look and feel of the place. And the look and feel of the city as it was in 1972, then, becomes the look and feel of the film as a whole: as with the classic ‘50s noir Kiss Me Deadly, which Thom Andersen described as a “literalist film” for how closely it nailed the details of its setting, Hickey & Boggs begins in L.A. but is ultimately about it in some sense.

Of course, Hickey & Boggs is now four decades old, so much of what it transcribes about Los Angeles has unwittingly become a historical document, and I’m sure you’re in a better position than I am to appreciate the nuances of difference between the L.A. of 1972 and the L.A. of 2012. I mean, I’d like to believe that you can still order four dirt-cheap chili dogs at a food counter in the middle of a city block, but I suspect that kind of thing is as lost to history as Cosby’s deep green suit.

Cronk: I’m sure the prices are slightly different, but there are certainly still curbside eateries just like that in the Los Angeles area. In fact, the one they go to in the film is called Pink’s, and it’s still around and one of the most famous and popular places in Hollywood (on a culinary side note, there’s a similar scene in Minnie & Moskowitz where Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel visit Pink’s—it’s appeared in quite a number of films, most out of convenience and not with nearly as much pride as these two films).

It is true, though, that Culp—who we haven’t mentioned not only stars in the film but also directs (in fact, it’s the only feature film he ever directed)—turns the city into a character unto itself. Perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, and certainly its greatest set piece, is a lengthy shootout in the L.A. Coliseum, where the NFL franchise the Ram’s once played. The film thus carries with it an unmistakable air of nostalgia—the locations are recognizable only as those of Los Angeles, but this is the Los Angeles of a bygone era, one once associated with a grittier type of character-based crime film. Only a few filmmakers such as Michael Mann and the aforementioned Refn have really been able to accurately capture subsequent eras of the city’s expanse. You know who this film reminds me of more than anyone, though? Robert Altman.

Hickey & Boggs would make a hell of a triple feature with California Split and The Long Goodbye, each made one subsequent year from the next. Needless to say this was a fertile time for films such as these. Altman may have even picked up on some of the buddy-film aspects of Hickey & Boggs—and if not necessarily him, certainly dozens of others have, nearly all to lesser effect.

Marsh: You know, I was actually going to ask you about Minnie & Moskowitz—I just assumed it was a similar eatery rather than the exact same one. In any case, that kind of location specificity is clearly what Culp is going for, and it is, I think, one of the film’s most salient features. And you’re dead-on to bring up Robert Altman, because his best films share exactly that sensibility; Short Cuts, The Player and The Long Goodbye, in particular, are quintessential Los Angeles pictures, the city so much more than a backdrop.

And beyond that, The Long Goodbye shares with Hickey & Boggs an approach to film noir that’s both playful and subversive, a kind of postmodern take on a genre declared dead decades earlier. I don’t know if Hickey & Boggs could be said to be a conscious influence on Altman or any of the crime-film stylists that followed—it’s hard to gauge the reach of a film so few have seen—but that’s part of what makes it such a revelation to rediscover now.

It’s easy to see it as a blueprint for the wave of buddy action films through the ‘80s and ‘90s, particularly given that more than a decade after this film dropped Walter Hill went on to pen 48 Hours, a similar picture that’s widely misperceived as the first of its kind. What distinguishes it from its followers, however, is its intensely bleak perspective; where most buddy cop movies are marked by their levity and irreverence, Hickey & Boggs is dark, treating the profession of its protagonists as grueling and thankless.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable film, to be sure, but the fun and humor is of the gallows variety, the jokes made mostly amidst misery and despair. Hickey and Boggs are on the verge of bankruptcy, torn between paying the bill for their phone or their answering service, and Culp plays up the amusing irony: without the answering service they can’t take calls from new clients, but without the phone they can’t return them. And a recurring gag finds the duo sticking a homemade “out of order” sign on whatever parking meter they pull up to—it’s funny, yeah, but it speaks volumes about the rut they’re in.

Cronk: And the Culp character is also an alcoholic, eventually jeopardizing their case with his bouts with the bottle. A lot of the film’s most memorable dialogue takes place in bars or over a drink, and it’s in these scenes where these characters’ personal lives are exposed and their inner demons are revealed to the audience. Each has their own funny quirks, of course, but there’s an undercurrent of weariness beneath even the film’s more outwardly light-hearted moments. The plot itself is extremely dense too.

I feel like it’s so rare for an American crime film to weave an intricate plot nowadays. The genre the world over isn’t much better, but when as film like, say, the recent British hit Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes along, it’s refreshing in the faith its filmmakers put in its audience. And yes, it seems more of a similar case of early-‘70s, independently minded aesthetics that brings together this film and the concurrent work of Altman. Peter Yate’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the films of William Friedkin also approach the genre in similar manner, and taken together one could argue this as one of the most fruitful periods in American cinema. These are all rather bleak films, and the third act of Hickey & Boggs in particular is extremely sad, with a certain peripheral but important character being killed in retaliation for our duo’s sometimes selfish pursuits.

The ending even carries with it that quintessentially mournful ‘60s/ ‘70s vibe, one more realistic than most films which have followed have dared construct. To me, though, these qualities are what keep films like these so rich with character insight and lasting entertainment value. I’m not sure why these idiosyncratic little crime films seemingly died out, but sometimes after the mid-’80s things seemed to take a turn toward the comedic, leaving behind the bleaker human elements which so distinguish these films. I suppose that’s why we cherish them and why we’re still discovering and discussing films like Hickey & Boggs today, though.

Marsh: Not to generalize too broadly, but I think sometime during the ‘80s these kinds of thematically bleak, narratively complex action films came to be supplanted by more lighthearted, simple-minded spectacles, and gradually action filmmaking become associated exclusively with fantasy wish-fulfillment. I think in a way it’s harder now for audiences to accept genre films as anything other than simplistic exercises in escapism, because the divide between ostensibly “serious” arthouse films and lighter blockbusters is practically unbridgeable—it seems that for a genre film to veer into seriousness or complexity, it has to adopt the attitude of an arthouse film, which is what Refn’s Drive did last year. Hickey & Boggs, like several of the other films you mentioned, wears its cynicism right on its sleeve, but it doesn’t try to shield itself with arthouse tropes or trimmings; it’s still thoroughly a neo-noir, an action film for multiplexes. That’s pretty exceptional

Cronk: Yeah, I’d be inclined to agree. After all, the late ‘70s brought Jaws and Star Wars, unknowingly creating the blockbuster in the process. And by the ‘80s, the new template for mass entertainment was written. The ‘80s did end up producing other films that feel somewhat like spiritual successors to this ‘70s movement such as Midnight Run. But even that is first and foremost a comedy. But like we’ve said, these similarities are what make the obscurity of a gem like Hickey & Boggs that much more unfortunate. I’ve seen little glimpses of evidence that the film could be gaining some curiosity, and with the film now available in at least some kind of digital format, I’m thinking we won’t be the last converts.

It’s discoveries like these that continue to intrigue me and ultimately make me wonder just how many other wonderful films from this era are lurking just beyond the frame of pre-blockbuster American cinema. Hickey & Boggs is a film I would and could recommend to just about anybody, and I get the feeling they’d react in a similar manner. These characters, coupled with the Los Angeles locales and all these humorous and humanistic little details, will hopefully one day elevate the film to at least a cult-like status appropriate for such a satisfying film. I think I can speak for both of us when I say we’d be proud to be at the ground floor if such an occurrence ever transpires. [PM]

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