Monday, January 26, 2009
Not About Anything
Each evening of this past weekend was spent at the Egyptian for the American Cinematheque’s New Hollywood Strikes Back series, focusing on some of the undeservedly lesser known titles of the seventies. It started off on Friday night with the double bill of Peter Yates’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (an excellent low-key crime drama set in Boston starring Robert Mitchum) and Sam Peckinpah’s remarkable BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (which I want to write about, but that’s going to take some time). Saturday night, the one I had really been waiting for, was Richard Rush’s hysterical, offensive, massively enjoyable Alan Arkin-James Caan buddy-cop team-up FREEBIE AND THE BEAN followed by the considerably more subdued private eye buddy-film HICKEY & BOGGS. I wrote a short thing about FREEBIE when the Cinematheque showed it a few years ago and it was a blast to see it a second time. Hopefully it won’t be nearly as long until they bring it back yet again—I actually know a few people who wanted to go but weren’t able to and seeing the reactions from people I knew who were seeing the film for the first time made me want to get even more people to see it, with exactly the sort of packed house we were in responding the same way. It’s a great film to see with such a crowd and I know that I was just one of many who were in hysterics throughout. If you could have driven over to the Egyptian that night to see it but didn’t, you only have yourself to blame. There’s no reason that the film isn’t better known these days aside from its (considerable) political incorrectness but even so, the fact that it isn’t available on DVD is flat-out inexcusable (the studio, by the way, is Warners but hey, it’s not like the movie features both a recent Oscar winner and the co-star of one of the most successful films of all time or anything).
FREEBIE AND THE BEAN was a definite highlight of the night, but I was also excited to see the near-unknown and definitely unavailable HICKEY & BOGGS, made in 1972, which managed to work in this context as the complete polar opposite of what we had just seen. Starring Robert Culp, who also directed, and Bill Cosby, it’s also a buddy movie from the early seventies set in a city on the west coast (FREEBIE is San Francisco, HICKEY is L.A.) but while the first film of the night is at times unbearably funny, HICKEY & BOGGS is an unrelentingly grim and downbeat piece which comes pretty close to not having a single light-hearted moment in its entire running time. Any fan of the two actors who had previously starred together in the much lighter I SPY tv show back in the sixties would be genuinely surprised by the harsh tone of this film. Compared to FREEBIE AND THE BEAN which in its way is like an enjoyable six-pack of great beer, HICKEY & BOGGS is several tall, slow glasses of very strong whiskey.
Down on their luck and badly in need of cash, L.A. private detectives Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Robert Culp) take on a case to find a missing girl who, we already know, is more than just a missing girl. Since the two guys aren’t dummies, they figure that she’s more than just a missing girl as well but they can’t anticipate who they’re going up against or what the personal price they pay is going to be.
And I thought when I saw THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN that I’d seen the absolute grimmest 70s crime film out there. The first screenplay credit for Walter Hill, HICKEY & BOGGS gives us two guys who do what they do and barely seem to know why anymore. They muse about what their profession has become, are aware that they’re one step away from being glorified process servers and that it’s “not about anything” anymore. There’s absolutely no romanticizing about the private eye profession here and there are points where it seems the two of them are barely going to be able to stop drinking long enough to do anything about their case. What they eat isn’t any better—in one scene the partners order two chili dogs apiece and when we get a look at them I briefly thought that the film might not need any villains to try to kill them off. They have women problems as well—major women problems. The office the partners work out of appears to be just off Hollywood Boulevard, just a few blocks away from the theater we were seeing this film in and there’s some very good L.A. location work throughout including a terrific shootout at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum—I even recognized a house in one scene that was also used in John Boorman’s POINT BLANK. But in spite of this Culp’s direction presents a completely bland, colorless look at Los Angeles—I mean this is a good way—letting us know that these guys have long since stopped looking at their surroundings with any kind of pleasure and even the numerous beach scenes don’t feel like they’re a particularly pleasant place to be like they would in any other film. There definitely isn’t any cool ROCKFORD-like vibe to this 70s private eye world. It’s unfortunately the only feature that Culp ever directed and he does an excellent job in presenting this world to us in the most matter-of-fact way possible, as unpleasant as some of it is, with some occasional striking imagery. When the action kicks into gear it never feels tonally off, even when a big explosion occurs. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some kind of relief would have been nice, but HICKEY & BOGGS definitely gets points for sticking to its nasty view of the world and making no apologies for it. The climax is also on a beach, just like the John Wayne 70s cop film McQ, but by this point we’ve long since thought of any of this as being cool action and I was impressed that the film actually regards the fates of some supporting characters here with some sympathy—almost any other film would just note the deaths and move on.
Because of what we expect from the Cosby and Culp personas it’s fascinating to see them commit to these characters so fully. Both of them are absolutely terrific. Rosalind Cash of THE OMEGA MAN is very good as Cosby’s estranged wife and lots of familiar faces turn up in early roles, including Vincent Gardenia, Michael Moriarty, Isabel Sanford, Ed Lauter and James Woods who, no surprise, is the most motormouthed person in the whole film.
The characters of Al Hickey and Frank Boggs have long since given up any illusions that their profession is about anything or that anyone is going to notice if it matters and how this winds up only confirms their belief. HICKEY & BOGGS is not a great film—like anything in this genre the complexities of the plot are tough to completely follow on first viewing and some of the smaller details seem needlessly murky at times. But it is an important example of the genre from the period and one that I hope to see again at some point, even if it’s not something I would want to watch all the time. Each of the films I saw this weekend had at least something of interest to them and the good part of this sort of series is that the Cinematheque shows films that are otherwise impossible to see. The bad part of it is that it doesn’t always feel like one viewing is enough to fully appreciate them. Either way, it just makes me want to see more films from the period and not see something made recently that genuinely isn’t about anything instead. Of course, that always seems to wind up happening sooner or later.