Wednesday 21 September 2016

Hickey & Boggs

It may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the idea of Bill Cosby as a repellent sleazebag with an enthusiasm for drugging then groping women would’ve been unthinkable.

He seemed as cuddly and harmless to US audiences as Rolf Harris was to Brits. No, wait. As trustingly avuncular as that weather chap off This Morning. Hang on. As chucklingly innocent as Dave Lee Travis. Oh, sod it. You know what we mean.

Things went badly south for ‘America’s Dad’ a couple of years ago when scores of ignored but persistent women with strikingly similar sexual assault allegations, like brave little Lilliputians, brought the celebrity giant crashing down.

All of which makes Hickey & Boggs (1972) a fascinating curio. Especially as you may be more than a little weirded out to learn that Cosby’s character in Walter Hill’s buddy cop movie has a singular hobby – illicitly spying on people when they’re asleep. Who knows: maybe this is the flick that first gave him those alleged ideas.

The plot

Hickey and Boggs (Bill Cosby and Robert Culp) are two down-at-heel private investigators who are hired to find a missing woman.

It seems a routine job. But when the people they interview start turning up dead, the pair realise they’re pawns in a much bigger game. One that involves rival criminal gangs and the search for the missing loot from a big bank robbery.

With our heroes caught in the crossfire between warring gangsters and with the police content to blame them for the escalating body count, their quest becomes less about solving the mystery than simply finding a way to stay alive and stay in business.

The cast

The stars of the film are Robert Culp and everyone’s favourite comedian-cum-allegded-pharmacist Bill Cosby.

Here Cosby plays a depressed private investigator who likes to sneak into the home of his estranged wife so he can stare at his children whilst they’re asleep. So definitely not creepy.

The duo had previous worked together on the ground-breaking Sixties espionage series, I Spy (it was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role).

Robert Culp
Much of the series’ popularity rested on the easy chemistry between Culp and Cosby, who famously ad-libbed much of their dialogue. That easy rapport can be seen in this film. Culp certainly looks relaxed. Perhaps Bill fixed him one of his special cocktails we’ve heard about.

As for the supporting cast, it’s a veritable who’s who of reliable character actors: Jack Colvin (the dogged Jack McGee in The Incredible Hulk), Michael Moriaty (The Last Detail, Law & Order) and Vincent Gardenia (Death Wish). Not to mention Ed Lauter who it seems was contractually obliged to appear in every TV series filmed during the Eighties (Magnum, The A Team, Murder She Wrote, Automan, and The Equalizer to name but a few).

Eagled-eyed film fans should also keep an eye out for a disturbingly fresh-faced James Woods in what was only his second big-screen role. At the time, ‘Woody’ must have only been in his early twenties – which coincidentally is also the age of most of his present day girlfriends.

Is this any good?

Assuming you can put aside some of the casting issues, Hickey and Boggs is a great neo-noir. The genre has always been concerned with the darker side of humanity. But few entries in the canon are as bleak, or so utterly lacking in the possibility of redemption.

Our under-gunned and under-manned heroes survive shoot-outs and police harassment to make it through to the end of the film. But it’s not by dint of their own resourcefulness. Ultimately, it’s their insignificance to the more powerful forces around them that saves them.

As the pair cynically observe at the end of the film,
“Nobody cares.”
“Nobody came.”
“It’s still about nothing.”

Exploding helicopter action

At the end of the film the two competing groups of gangsters look to cut a deal over the missing loot.
They arrange a meeting on a deserted beach but, natch, one of the gangs plans a double cross. (In fairness, they are gangsters.) Machine gun-wielding henchmen arrive in a helicopter to wipe out their rivals. A gun battle breaks out, bullets fly and the chopper is inevitably damaged.

It spins around out of control and crashes into the sand. A fire breaks out on board as some of the crash survivors try to escape. But before they can clamber out of the wreckage, oh no…the helicopter explodes! Fiery death for unnamed characters ensues.

Artistic merit

This is an unexciting helicopter explosion. The confusion on board the damaged whirlybird is decently done but the lack of exterior shots betray the film’s lack of budget.

This scene also features the cardinal sin of low budget action movies - the off-screen crash. What? No money for special effects? Don’t worry, just don’t show a crash at all. No-one will notice! (Note to film-makers: EVERYONE notices.)

What we get here are a few frenzied interior shots as the ‘bird’ goes down followed by an incredibly brief glimpse of something approximating a helicopter fuselage, then a big non-descript explosion. Poor. Very poor.

Exploding helicopter innovation

None to report. The circumstances and method of destruction are very routine.

Favourite line

“I gotta get a bigger gun. I can’t hit anything.”

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