‘Hickey and Boggs,’ starring Cosby and Culp, shouldn’t be so hard to find

Hickey and Boggs. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Hickey: “Nobody came. Nobody cares. It’s still not about anything.”

Boggs: “Yeah, you told me.”

Hickey and Boggs, the last film to be shown in the IFC Theater's recent Walter Hill retrospective, is the most idiosyncratic pick of the series; it's an early film that the renowned action filmmaker only scripted.

Directed by co-star Robert Culp, Hickey and Boggs is a deliriously hard-boiled neo-noir that reunites Culp with his "I Spy" partner Bill Cosby. Hickey and Boggs is also impossible to find today unless you know what you’re looking for.

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Amazon Instant Video currently carries the film and it recently became available on DVD. But you can’t rent Hickey and Boggs from Netflix, and while it was once available via their Netflix Instant program, it no longer is. Hickey and Boggs has become, in other words, a real cult artifact that the fine folks at the IFC Center are helping to find its audience. 

The most charming things about Hickey and Boggs is how seriously it takes itself. This is a buddy-cop film starring characters who are totally pickled in their own sense of alienation. When they’re not reconnoitering at their local bar, Hickey (Cosby) tries to reconnect with his estranged wife and child while Boggs (Culp) tries to think about anything but his go-go-dancer ex-wife, who recently screwed him out of house and home. These are hard, tough guys who spend a lot of time pouting.

Hickey and Boggs’ soured relationships with pretty much everyone except each other makes them noir archetypes. These characters are not defined by backstory but by actions: Many of their scenes almost resemble a silent film, like the one in which Boggs pays a prostitute with a 20 dollar bill he gingerly places on his companion’s coat. We never directly see this woman, just her silhouette and her coat, with the money on it, sliding away from Boggs’ grasp. The wordless scene's implications are devastating: Boggs is trying and failing to reassert his own sense of agency on his entire world.

And that makes the missing-person case that he and Hickey take on, not knowing that the missing person has stolen laundered money, especially meaningful. While Hickey later says “it means nothing,” he doesn’t really want to believe it. Finding Mary Jane (Carmencristina Moreno) is the title heroes' way of determining if they can affect change on their rapidly devolving lives. It's why they only selectively share information with the cops: They have to solve this case. It's a point of bull-headed pride, a matter of money (there's a $25,000 reward involved) and also a way to confirm that they still matter.

But like the best fictional private detectives, the film's beleaguered gumshoes are underdogs par excellence. They, like the viewers, are dropped into the middle of a volatile robbery, unsure of who's who or why they matter to each other.

The film's first scene confirms the film's flinty cynicism by showing us the only tangible reason why everybody is hunting Mary Jane: a suitcase full of cash. The loot exchanges hands without any glib or unnecessary talk. But this opening shows us that the time for discussion has passed, for everyone involved.

In fact, Hickey and Boggs are introduced in the next scene sitting at a bar. They're both on edge but show it in different ways: Boggs drinks to excess while Hickey quietly but bemusedly smokes a cache of cigarillos (Hickey must have very deep pockets in his signature lime-green blazer). They're waiting, maybe even hoping, for the other shoe to drop with their respective spouses. So they warily pursue Mary Jane, hoping that they can do something while they wait and do nothing.

Still, Hill and Culp make a point of showing that their antiheroes are not nearly as far gone as they think. These guys show fleeting signs of undiluted affection throughout the film, like the sad, last look Boggs gives to his ex or when Hickey, without any prompting from his surly wife, slips a handful of loose change under his daughter's pillow.

But Hickey and Boggs' domestic strife is just too knotty to be neatly fixed. Hickey's wife is a sympathetic character with serious needs, as is shown when she chews Hickey out for thinking he can just show up unannounced, fool around and be forgiven. Likewise, Boggs's impotent longing is totally squashed by the taunting looks his wife exchanges with him. She's a monster, or, to use Boggs's curse of choice, a "bitch." But her choleric anger is also too fierce to be denied.

So it makes sense that Hickey and Boggs feel like constantly hitting dead ends in their search for Mary Jane is just another way the universe has elected to kick to them in the balls. Hickey and Boggs can thus be seen as a lovingly salty testament to two guys who just can't catch a break. It's impossible to watch the films' big set pieces and not be moved by their desperation. They need a win so bad it hurts, and that shows in the way that both Cosby and Culp trip over their own feet in a scene where they're fleeing a bunch of armed and very angry heavies. Great care and energy was clearly put into the making of Hickey and Boggs, a film that will reward anyone adventurous enough to find it.