Sunday, April 28, 2013

Keep Firing Until You Hit Something -- Anything! :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Robert Culp and Walter Hill's Hickey & Boggs (1972).

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“Nobody came.”
“Nobody cares.”
“It’s still not about anything.”
“Yeah, I know, you told me.”
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Paid $500 to resolve a seemingly simple missing persons case, two been there, done that, and screw the lousy t-shirt detectives sober up long enough to get to work on the mean and dirty streets of Los Angeles to try and flush her out. But when every lead turns up a dead body instead of a clue to the missing woman's whereabouts, our detectives quickly unravel -- and become some unwilling ingredients of -- a conspiracy involving her, their client, and about 400,000 missing dollars from a mob-backed bank robbery in Pittsburgh five years prior that left several guards and all the robbers dead, save one, and his girlfriend, who disappeared with the money -- until now... 

Born in Long Beach, California, soon to be a legendary producer (the Alien franchise), director (Hard Times, 48hrs.) and screenwriter (The Drowning Pool, The Warriors), Walter Hill tried his luck at being a cartoonist, a journalist, a roughneck, and a construction worker before breaking into the industry as an assistant director on a couple of Steve McQueen thrillers, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt. Wanting to move up the chain of command and into the director's chair, Hill was told the easiest way to accomplish this was to write and direct his own material. And being a huge fan of manly men doing manly things, Hill, a self-proclaimed western and film noir nut, coaxed the script for Hickey & Boggs out of his typewriter; a lament for the dying breed of private detective it features that, honestly, deconstructs -- no, demolishes these hard-boiled archetypes, laying it out bare and naked and ugly without the usual romanticizing and macho-posturing: 

A former cop, Hickey (Cosby) is trying and failing to reconcile with his estranged wife and daughter. Boggs is a fractured but functional alcoholic, who is currently stalking his ex-wife through the seedy joints she strips at. These men are schlubs; damaged and beaten down and barely functional, doing just enough to barely scrape by. This isn't about right and wrong or seeing justice served. This is about getting the phone bill paid with enough left over for an occasional blowjob.(Paving the way, I think, for Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe in Altman's The Long Goodbye, Jack Nicholson's Gittes in Chinatown, and James Garner's Jim Rockford for the small screen.) Cosby and Culp are great, and have great chemistry together. I think Culp is one of the most under-appreciated actors to come out of the 1960's, and the range Cosby shows here makes one wish he had tried more dramatic roles. (Or stuck with the likes of Mother, Jugs and Speed instead of Leonard Part 6.) And, holy crap, what a supporting cast, with Robert Mandan and Michael Moriarty as the mobsters, and Jack Colvin, Vincent Gardenia and James Woods as the cops who constantly bust their balls. Another character in this fantastic neo-noir we cannot discount is the city of Los Angeles itself. And even though the smog occluded sunshine evaporates the usual shadows and nullifies the neon rain, everything is still just as dingy, dirty and bent when you get right down to it. 

Now, the mystery Hill plugs these guys into in this setting has the layered conspiracy of a bourbon-addled Raymond Chandler whodunit, the brutality and maledicted criminal malfeasance of Jim Thompson, and the violent buffoonery and comical snark of Donald Westlake as our protagonists become pawns in a deadly game of chess between "the bitch" who is trying to launder the hot money and the mob who wants it back no matter how many people wind up in the morgue. And to make things even more complicated, as the bodies pile up around them, the cops are ready to punch their ticket, too, by removing them from the board altogether by pulling their licenses. 

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"I very purposely -- more and more so every time I do a script -- give characters no back story. The way you find out about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue." 
-- Walter Hill xxxx
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Also serving as the film's director, Robert Culp showed the same sensibilities. And together with noted cinematographer Bill Butler (-- who would go on to shoot JAWS for Spielberg next), let the camera's eye linger, each frame a story unto itself, really, if a person wanted to take the time and freeze frame their way through the whole picture, to tell the audience all they needed to know about the players involved:

Boggs' silent encounter with a prostitute and the montage of hotdogs, mustard, and a phone book is nothing short of brilliant. Silent, or ambient noises only, with minimal dialogue. Amazing. And, yes, there are many scenes in this film that seem to linger too long but wind up being terribly important later on. The best example of this is a scene where the most brain-damaged thug takes great pleasure in dismembering and fondling a child's doll. This may seem morbidly comical when encountered, or even stupid, but later, when these same thugs send a message to our detectives, who catch Hickey's wife (Cash) in the wrong place at the wrong time, all we see is a bloodied pair of fettered legs and that's all we need to know the who and the how, which, I think, does more damage to the viewer via our own imagination than watching the act itself. And this punch to the kidneys is intensified by a follow up scene where Hickey is shredded by his mother-in-law (a brief cameo by Isabel Sanford) in the presence of his daughter that is just devastating.

This very same deliberate and nuanced visual approach to character definition is also used narratively by Culp as we watch Hickey and Boggs unravel this conspiracy. We're never really told anything -- I don't think Mary Jane (Moreno) has any lines of dialogue, at all, as she sets all of this into motion; but if you pay attention the puzzle pieces are easy enough to keep track of and start falling into place. But each step forward winds up finding our heroes taking two steps back, as Mary Jane always seems to stay several moves ahead of them, especially when the bullets start flying.

One of Culp's first breaks as an actor was playing a Texas Ranger in the TV series, Trackdown, where he first met Steve McQueen when the show spun off the series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. And it was for the small screen where Culp first moved behind the camera, writing and directing episodes of The Rifleman and The Westerner for another friend, Sam Peckinpah. A trained firearms expert, it was Culp who showed the likes of McQueen and Chuck Connors on how to properly handle their firearms. (And I believe it was through these mutual revolving circles of friends that he met up with Hill for this feature.) And one of things I absolutely love about Hickey & Boggs is the potshots it takes at the .44 Magnum, so recently celebrated as Dirty Harry's weapon of choice for urban renewal, de-myth-ifying the gun as being too cumbersome and a total a pain and the ass to fire and reload, let alone toting the damned thing around. Both our protagonists are armed with one, and neither can hit anything with them. Another hard-boiled dick illusion shattered, am I right?  

And as Hickey & Boggs progresses, not only does the shit hit the fan, but the resultant splatter is then doused in kerosene and set on fire. Nice. Soon stripped of everything but each other, our battered and bruised heroes rally just long enough to take that long walk off a short pier for the bloody denouement. 

Even though it seems to finally be getting its much deserved due these days, audiences weren't ready for Hickey & Boggs back in 1972. Too cynical, too bleak, too downbeat, too depraved, I'm not really sure if pre-Watergate audiences weren't necessarily not ready for it or just didn't get what they were expecting, especially those coming for an I Spy reunion only to watch their heroes fail so spectacularly on almost every front (-- even the final shootout turns on a lucky shot.) It died at the box-office and critics pasted both Culp and Hill, calling the film a confusing mess of contradictions. How a film that unfolds this slowly and deliberately can be called confusing is a puzzlement. Perhaps it was too slow people couldn't see the forest for the trees? That's me shrugging right now...

Culp would never direct again, which is too bad, because he really had something special going on here; a style I would love to have seen nurtured through several more films. Hill recovered almost immediately, penning the screenplay for The Getaway the very same year, which eventually paved the way for his directorial debut with Hard Times two years later. And even though he basically used the same deliberate approach, audiences and critics ate it all up, triggering a decade run of success for Hill where everything he touched seemed to turn into box-office gold. So maybe audience just weren't ready for Hickey & Boggs after all back then. Now? You have no excuse at all for not seeing it and I encourage all of you to watch it as soon as possible. 

Okay, folks, this post is just part of a trio of reviews put together by a motley triumvirate of Blogs, originating over at Checkpoint: Telstar, focusing on the film career of Walter Hill. 

Micro-Brewed Reviews: Hickey & Boggs 

Please check 'em out, won't you? Thank you. 

Hickey & Boggs (1972) Film Guarantors :: United Artists / P: Fouad Said / AP: Joel Reisner / D: Robert Culp / W: Walter Hill / C: Bill Butler / E: David Berlatsky / M: Ted Ashford / S: Bill Cosby, Robert Culp, Carmencristina Moreno, Louis Moreno, Rosalind Cash, Robert Mandan, Michael Moriarty, Jack Colvin, Vincent Gardenia, James Woods

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