Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hey, Did You Ever See (Either of These Movies)? HICKEY AND BOGGS / FREEBIE AND THE BEAN

For all the peace and love touted during the ‘60s, the main entertainment by-product of the era seems to be disillusionment, which didn’t become readily apparent until the decade ticked over. When Richard M. Nixon took over the Presidency in 1969, his election was primarily based on his promise to end the Vietnam War. Troop reduction was implemented during his first term, but so were secret bombings, which gave way to the “credibility gap”. By 1972, amidst disintegrating cultural values and near-complete distrust of the government—coming to a head in 1973 with the Watergate Scandal—the American people who marched and sang and protested finally hung their heads in defeat. There was no joy in “tuning in, turning on and dropping out”, and only the latter two seemed to give any escape from the corruption, Capitalism and consumerism.

At the same time, Hollywood was waging a war of its own, still competing for audiences with the rising standards and production values of television. The studio system had shattered to pieces and executives were getting job applications from weirdo types with film school degrees and crazy ideas. And it was then established that the new motto of Hollywood would be “whatever works”. War pictures, science fiction, fantasy—all the genres the film school kids had grown up with—were getting a major overhaul.

While the new Turks started concentrating on creating pictures that would speak to their generation, the older dogs, who’d gone into the ‘60s with a little perspective and came out angry and tired in the ‘70s, had a few things of their own to say about the state of the world.

Enter Hickey & Boggs. On the surface it seemed like “more of the same”—a crime-drama about a pair of wrung-dry private detectives hired to find a missing girl—starring a pair of likable actors introduced to the majority of the population due to the success of their mid-‘60s television show, I Spy. Robert Culp and comedian Bill Cosby broke new ground with the Sheldon Leonard-produced NBC series with one small decision: to make a statement without “making a statement”, by never explicitly calling attention to Cosby’s race. He was not a black sidekick to Culp’s groovy white spy. They were partners and equals, relying on each other as partners and friends would. By treating this relationship as completely normal, I Spy gave the Civil Rights movement a boost and established a team that audiences would tune into week after week. I Spy also told grittier, down-to-earth stories than their gadget-heavy, James Bond-influenced contemporaries like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which hipper audiences also responded to.

So when it was announced that the acting pair would team up again on the big screen for the first time since the show went off the air in 1968, the audiences of all ages caught in the “credibility gap” were interested. But Hickey and Boggs was not I Spy. Not even remotely.

Quickly establishing the characters as hard-luck, burned out private detectives, Al Hickey and Frank Boggs (Cosby and Culp) rely on the local police for both back-up and their private licenses. New legislation is coming down that will make private eyes little more than “process servers” and the cops are looking forward to that day coming. When their new case starts turning up bodies, Hickey and Boggs realize that they’re not the only ones searching for a Mexican woman named “Mary Ann”. The Syndicate is after her too, as she’s holding $400,000 of their money stolen by her incarcerated boyfriend. Each lead ends with either a dead body or massive property damage, and the crime fighting pair start thinking about alternate lines of work while the cops pile on the charges. Facing jail time and about to call it quits, the partners are made by the Syndicate and are sent a violent message to drop things entirely. When it’s finally personal, Hickey and Boggs upgrade their weaponry and set out to solve the problem once and for all.

Much to mainstream America’s surprise, Hickey & Boggs was not I Spy. Far from it. With Culp himself directing Walter Hill’s grim screenplay, Hickey & Boggs details the life of two very tired men who are sick of the game, sick of their lives, but see very little way out. Hickey’s relationship with his girlfriend, Nyona (Rosalind Cash), is strained to say the least, so there’s no solace there. Boggs pines for a stripper who wants nothing to do with him until she needs something. Their own relationship is primarily professional, and while they may bicker about the others’ personal shortcomings, neither plays a great part in the other’s life. They are both middle-aged, their dreams are behind them and now everyone around them wants to “burn them up”. They’re not the glamorous, playboy secret agents from I Spy. They’re the two guys you see drinking their lunch in the middle of the day in very dark bars. And the world they inhabit is ugly, violent and as angry at them as they are at it.

Upon its release, Hickey & Boggs was not a financial success for all of the reasons listed above. With disillusionment the atmosphere of America, audiences didn’t want to see a pair of beloved TV buddies so worn down by life. But the era of the private detective—declared officially glossless two years later in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye—was over, summed up by an exhausted Hickey after a shootout in a slum: “It doesn’t mean anything, Frank. Nothing means anything.”

Refreshingly, the “straight” cops are not portrayed as crooked or inept. They’re doing their jobs just as the title pair, only they have stricter rules to follow and, perhaps, more to go home to every day (as illustrated by a late-night call to Woods where he is roused from bed, in his underwear, his children woken by the phone, to hear about the latest catastrophe caused by the detectives. His reaction is not only appropriate but understandable.). Those on the side of law and order are not the bad guys—they’re not “pigs” by any means—but by the end, there’s little distinguish them, even in their own eyes, from the villains.

In 1972, audiences were still too shell-shocked, still at “credibility gap” ground-level, to accept the harsh reality of the movie. Viewed through modern eyes, Hickey & Boggs is a tough, tense thriller, hard-boiled in all senses of the word and filled to the brim with now-familiar faces in supporting roles including Vincent Gardenia, Robert Mandan (later hysterical on television’s SOAP), James Woods and Michael Moriarty. But the movie still may have missed its audience for now, modern viewers may be shocked at the sight of familiar funnyman and family man Cliff Huxtable coldly blowing people away with a .44 magnum. Al Hickey is not Ghost Dad—he’s even a far-cry from the angry paramedic in Mother, Juggs and Speed—and Cosby plays him perfectly. Anyone who grew up associating the actor with The Cosby Show and Jell-O pudding is going to have a rough time—perhaps just as rough as those who did seeing the antithesis of I Spy’s “Alexander Scott”.

And that is likely the best explanation as to why Hickey & Boggs does not yet have a DVD release. An exceptional movie both ahead of and behind its time because it was, exactly, of its time.

To that end:

FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) is the flip-side of Hickey & Boggs. Taking advantage of the disillusioned audience’s feeling of powerlessness, Freebie and the Bean filtered the “break all the rules” attitude into an action comedy that simultaneously defined both the “buddy cop” and the “mayhem” movie. Using the establishment for the benefit of the anti-establishment, the title characters played by James Caan and Alan Arkin, are two plainclothes detectives of the “intelligence division” of the New York police force. When we meet them, they’re sifting through the stolen garbage of a local transportation boss, who they suspect of racketeering. Finding a piece of evidence, they beat some information out of a local snitch and discover that there’s a contract out on a man who can prove the case for them. They spend the rest of the film bickering like old ladies, beating up suspects and driving recklessly through the city—at one point they fly off the freeway and into the apartment of an elderly couple watching television. “Hello, dispatch, we’re gonna need a tow,” Freebie says after asking the couple to borrow the phone. He gives the address and then, “Yeah, apartment 304. Third floor.”

Obnoxious, loud, homophobic, misanthropic, irresponsible and racist, Freebie and the Bean was, of course, a hugh hit in 1974, spawning countless imitations and a short-lived television series. Under the muddy direction of Richard Rush, who would later go on to make the exemplary The Stunt Man, the chase sequences are well-edited, but the dialogue is difficult to hear and the story nearly unnecessary. The partners scream at each other and physically assault one another all the way through the movie. Much is made of “The Bean’s” Mexican heritage, but Alan Arkin makes a less-credible Latino than Valerie Harper (who plays his wife in an extended cameo wherein he loudly accuses her of infidelity because, among other things, her “dousche-bag” is missing from the bathroom). Caan’s “Freebie” shoots first and asks questions later, maybe, if he remembers. They wound numerous bystanders during their gunfights and chase escape vehicles into crowded areas. At one point, both the heroes and the villains run over participants of a parade, wherein much hilarity ensues.

Viewed through the eyes of the era, there is no question as to why Freebie and the Bean became such a hit. Our two inept heroes are part of the system but are accidentally destroying it from the inside. They don’t play by the rules because the rules, apparently, have never been explained to them. It’s okay to identify or even root for these assholes because they’re utterly make-believe. They’re “hero pigs” fighting people only slightly worse than they are. Indeed, everyone around them wallows in the same shit; their superiors are corrupt or ineffectual; the villains are rich and despicable; the only by-standers ever spared are a pair of hippies who escape arrest time and again when cars crash into police vehicles (they’re never seen explicitly, but the unfortunate hippie pair can be glimpsed in cuffs at the side of the road throughout). Authority is stupid, blind and violent. And so is everyone else. That seems to be the message, and that was a message people were ready to hear. In fact, Freebie and the Bean was simply preaching to the choir.

The movie even parodies the now-familiar down-beat ending of anti-establishment establishment movies like Hickey & Boggs, with the resurrection of an apparently dead character, which underscores just how nonsensical the precedings were. Al Hickey said it best: “It doesn’t mean anything, Frank,” but he said it about the wrong movie. Hickey & Boggs is very much about the death of American trust. Freebie and the Bean is a celebration of that death. And to that end, it succeeds beautifully and at the top of its chaotic lungs.

In the following years, ‘70s audiences watched as familiar genres morphed and reflected the times they were in. Dramas got heavier as more taboos were addressed, comedies became cruder and the popular genres were re-imagined to be relevant (2001: A Space Odyssey) or brightly-polished and much-needed escapism (Star Wars) (or both, ala Silent Running). During that era, very little was left unexplored, for better or worse. Movies today would not be what they were without the disillusioned of that period and you can take that for what it’s worth. Even the cynical among us may actually prefer Freebie and the Bean (which is actually easier to find on DVD thanks to TCM) to Hickey & Boggs because the former is easier to mock while the latter’s truth may still be a little too bitter to taste.

1 comment :

  1. Belatedly reading this. I like Hickey and Boggs, though it was depressing to watch at the time.

    Note on Freebie, though--it takes place in San Francisco, not New York.