It’s not hard to understand why Hickey & Boggs found almost no traction upon its release in 1972. Audiences can be forgiven for expecting a big-screen version of I Spy, and assuming Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were united again for a series of humor-laced adventures. That’s not exactly what they got.
Hickey & Boggs is an unrelentingly bleak film, with Cosby and Culp as the liquor-swilling, hot dog-chowing, debt-amassing Hickey and Boggs, a pair of private eyes with the weight of the world on their shoulders. In his only feature directorial effort, Culp helms a unsung minor masterpiece of ’70s crime cinema, displaying an impressive ability to stage effective action scenes and a willingness to bring his characters into deep focus.
Walter Hill makes his debut with a screenplay that has private eyes Hickey and Boggs taking on a case to find a missing woman, but discovering she’s actually the possessor of $400,000 in stolen cash. Naturally, there are many parties interested in recovering the loot, not the least of which is Hickey and Boggs, who have a lot of bills the $25,000 reward could help pay.
Hill’s script was surely another big hurdle for audiences to surmount. Convoluted and poorly defined, it tries to weave a tale of robbery, hidden identity, murder and betrayal, but features too many characters and too little exposition for its own good.
But it doesn’t really matter. Like Richard Rush’s similarly adored (and narratively underdeveloped) ’70s cult cop movie Freebie & the Bean, Hickey & Boggs is more about sustaining a mood, filtered through the worldviews of the pair of lead characters. But where Rush’s film exults in its characters transgressive behavior, Hickey & Boggs has a sense that every action the protagonists make takes every ounce of energy they have left.
Culp and Cosby turn in career-best performances, and it’s especially impressive to see the way Cosby buries any comic persona beneath a mountain of broken dreams and self-defeatism. Now, even more than 40 years ago, Cosby’s comedic nature is part of the fabric of his being, but it never once entered my mind throughout the film.