Monday, June 10, 2019

Hickey & Boggs

Hickey & Boggs, by Phillip Rock
No month stated, 1972  Popular Library

Hickey & Boggs is a cool crime movie from the ‘70s – the decade when all the best crime movies were made, in my opinion – but it’s been semi-forgotten in the ensuing decades. And now what with Bill Cosby’s name being ruined and all, it will probably stay forgotten for many more years to come. This is unfortunate, because Cosby and co-star Robert Culp (who also directed) are great as hard-bitten, cynical, weary private eyes in this Walter Hill-scripted caper.

But as good as the film is…well, if it had been more like this novelization by Phillip Rock, it would’ve been great, and perhaps might’ve done better upon release, and be better remembered today. I can only assume Rock was more faithful to Hill’s script than Culp was. Because Rock gives us Lethal Weapon about a decade early – black-white partners bicker and banter their way through a case that turns out to be a lot bigger than they expected.

I can tell you another thing: Warren Murphy without question read this book. His Razoni & Jackson series, which began the following year, is so close as to be plagiaristic. The only thing changed is the locale (New York instead of Los Angeles) and the profession (cops instead of private eyes). Otherwise Murphy’s series is identical to Rock’s novel, even including the same sort of recurring jokes; for example, early on we learn that Boggs (Culp’s character) is trying to sell his house, which is small and located directly underneath a highway. Hickey (Cosby’s character) pokes fun at him about this through the entire book. It’s all exactly like something you’d get in Razoni & Jackson…but the thing is, none of it’s actually in the film! Hickey and Boggs’s dialog mostly just sticks to plot advancement in the movie, with none of the colorful commentary we get in this novel. Indeed the film protagonists are basically terse ciphers when compared to their much-more-memorable novel incarnations.

I rewatched Hickey & Boggs after reading the book and had to wonder why so many changes were made. If it was the director’s doing, then Culp did himself a disservice, because Boggs has all kinds of extra dimensions in the novel when compared to the film. But then, all the characters have more dimensions, even the trio of hoods who shadow our heroes and periodically try to kill them. These three are given their own share of the narrative with their own recurring bickerings and banterings in what comes off like a proto-Tarantino sort of thing. In the film these characters barely even talk. 

Just to close out on the Warren Murphy angle, I realize of course he was already a prolific writer and was doing similar sort of bickering protagonists stuff in The Destroyer. But the thing is, in an interview with Justin Marriott years ago Murphy specifically stated that he was thinking of Culp and Cosby when he created Razoni & Jackson, though he was referring to their work together on I Spy. I’d say in reality it was this particular film, and probably this very novelization, which was the true inspiration behind his series.

Anyway, Rock’s novel is great and if it weren’t “just” a movie tie-in it would likely be remembered as one of the better crime novels of the ‘70s. It is in many ways the opposite of Leonore Fleischer’s Prime Cut novelization; whereas that one stuck close to the film, only elaborating here or there, Rock’s novelization comes off like an original work and features all kinds of material that didn’t make it to the film.

This is evidenced posthaste in a Prologue that comes off like a self-contained short story; here we actually witness the heist of the $400,000 that will serve as the Maguffin of the plot. The movie merely opens with a woman getting off a train and then riding in a taxi. The book is so much better; a team of heisters in rubber animal masks hit an armored truck in Pittsburgh, and it gets bloody quick. Rock doles out some admirable gore, like one dude’s arm literally getting blown off by a .357 Magnum slug. This was probably my favorite part of the entire novel, just a fast-moving and bloody crime story…again with the kicker that none of it’s actually in the movie!

All but one of the heisters are killed on the scene, and the one who manages to escape is himself dying from wounds he’s sustained. When next we see him he’s already dead and his girlfriend has the stolen money; she puts it all in a case and leaves his corpse behind. The woman is named Mary Jane Bower (actually this is a fake name, we gradually learn), and she acts like a phantom through the rest of the novel – everyone, including the syndicate, is after her, but she proves almost impossible to track down. She is a completely different character here than in the film, which features a lame-in-comparison opening of Mary Jane arriving in Los Angeles via train and burying a suitcase of money for her husband to find. The film also has a similarly lame subplot about Mary Jane having a daughter. In the novel Mary Jane stays behind the scenes, only appearing at the very end.

This is where we meet our protagonists and Rock introduces them to us with little fanfare; like the movie poster says, Albert Hickey and Franklin Boggs aren’t “cool slick heroes;” “they’re worn, tough men.” They’re also down to their last dollars, living in veritable poverty in L.A. and co-running a P.I. agency that’s doing so poorly they had to let go their secretary. They can barely even pay for the answering service. One gets the impression these men haven’t bathed in a long time; Rock drops the gross tidbit that Boggs only has one suit, which he’s worn so much that the collar has turned yellow at the edges. None of this is reflected in the film, where Hickey and Boggs come off as much more presentable and less destitute.

This is another crime novel that takes place in the midst of a grueling, hellish summer; Rock excels at conveying the brutal heat of Los Angeles. And for that matter the guy clearly was familiar with the city; he drops street directions and names of various places with the casual familiarity of someone who has actually lived there. But as for our main characters, we don’t get much background for them, other than that Hickey was a decorated cop back in the late ‘50s and Boggs was a top soldier in Korea.

Now though they’re at the bottom of their respective barrels; there’s no backstory on why or when they became partners, nor even much detail on how Hickey fell from grace in the police force. And any expectations that Boggs’s military service will result in an action-ready protagonist, a la Riggs in Lethal Weapon, are soon dashed in the few action scenes; Boggs’s advice is to run from anyone with a gun, and in another of those recurring jokes we see that Boggs never actually hits anyone he shoots at, even though he carries a .357 Magnum!

The details behind the heist are never made clear. But long story short, the money belongs to a syndicate bigwig based out of Los Angeles named H. Hammond Brill; he has his own share of the narrative, trading memorable dialog with a flunky named Floyd Ballard. Brill tasks Ballard with finding the money and Mary Jane. To this end Ballard calls in the three-man team he apparently uses for all such jobs: a “wheel jockey” named Monte, a Browning Automatic Rifle-toting killer named Nick, and finally Fatboy, a gargantuan nitwit who serves as the muscle.

Hickey and Boggs come into it thanks to a guy named Carlton Rice, who leaves a message with their answering service and meets with Hickey along the beach the next day. Rice is clearly gay and there’s a fair bit of gay-bashing in the text for those readers who are sensitive to such things. He hires Hickey and Boggs to find Mary Jane, just saying she’s an old girlfriend – something Hickey immediately doubts. Rice gives Hickey a paper with various names written on it, people he claims knew Mary Jane.

So this is the simple plot of Hickey & Boggs; our heroes drive around Los Angeles (either in Hickey’s Nova or Boggs’s half-dead ’59 Edsel) and track down various leads, all while bickering and bantering like an old married couple. And speaking of which Hickey’s subplot has him trying to get back with his ex-wife, Nyona, with whom he has a five-year-old daughter, and Boggs is desperate for the love of a stripper who has left him so many times it’s become a joke. Boggs is also a drunk, and Hickey is a straight arrow.

While the plot is simple it’s all done so colorfully that I figure I’ll read the novel again someday; that’s how much I enjoyed it. As with Murphy’s novels the highlight is the bantering, like when a hungover Boggs grudgingly takes a ride on the L.A. freeway with Hickey, who turns out to be a wildman behind a wheel – when Boggs informs Hickey that their exit is here and Hickey’s not even in the right lane, Hickey’s casual response is, “I will be in a second,” and then immediately cuts over three lanes of traffic.

The violence comes from the three heavies who themselves are trying to find Mary Jane; in one gruesome moment Fatboy literally crushes a guy’s skull with his bare hands. Hickey and Boggs run into the trio three times; first at the home of one of the names on Cartlon Rice’s list, where Boggs slams a window on Fatboy’s hand and then blows up their GTO, and later in two big action setpieces, the first at the L.A. Coliseum and the second at Dodger Stadium.

Both of these sequences are cool because they come off as big setpieces even though they’re relatively smallscale. In the first Nick guns down a “bagman” with his BAR while Hickey and Boggs seek cover and deliver ineffectual return fire. The final big action piece in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium is even better, with Nick strapped into the back of a station wagon (a replacement for the destroyed GTO) and blasting away with the Browning. This time Hickey actually hits someone with his .38.

These setpieces seem so big because Hickey and Boggs are such menial protagonists, at least when compared to the genre average. When the bullets start flying they’re more about diving for cover and screaming for each other in all-caps. I mean it’s not like we’re talking about a pair of Mike Hammers. Boggs for that matter can barely even run, due to a hernia, and doubles over in pain anytime he chases someone. Part of the concept is that Hickey and Boggs are downtrodden, loser P.I.s up against a syndicate so big it has its own private army, but despite it all they keep hammering away at the case, and Rock conveys it all so wonderfully that the reader is fully swept up in it.

The action also brings in the mandatory “stupid chief,” an LAPD captain who is determined to revoke Hickey and Boggs’s licenses. But our heroes aren’t entirely losers and are able to figure out things the cops can’t. Like when Boggs visits a crime scene after Hickey’s aborted attempt at finding anything there; Boggs is able to bullshit his way past the patrolman guarding the closed-off area, makes nice with the landlady who barely even let Hickey inside the apartment (a nice, subtle bit of racial commentary here), and proceeds to find a few hundred thousand dollars hidden inside an otherwise empty package of frozen peas. Something the cops completely missed in their search.

The action has more dire consequences: in another mandatory development for ‘70s pulp, those closest to the hero must suffer. Thus Hickey comes home after the Dodger Stadium fracas to find Nyona’s nude corpse waiting for him, and Boggs finds his home trashed. It’s never outright stated in the text who the perpetrators were, particularly Nyona’s murderer, but we know H. Hammond Brill was behind it. However there’s no comeuppance for the main villain; our heroes are much too small to handle the big fish.

Instead the finale proceeds on that smallscale but hard-hitting vibe; having determined that Mary Jane Bower is actually Mary Quemando, wife of one of Brill’s thugs, the heroes stake out the rural area where Mary Jane intends to finally unload the cash, using her just-released-from-prison husband as bait. But this too quickly goes to hell, with Monte now in a helicopter and Floyd Ballard manning a machine gun – and once again it’s Hickey who manages to take anyone out, despite Boggs trying to shoot at the ‘copter’s engine with his Magnum (and missing).

While much is changed, at least the ending stands the same, with Hickey gesturing for Bogg’s .357 so he can dispense justice – namely, blowing away Fatboy, who happens to be charging toward them while brandishing a helicopter blade! The film at least makes it more clear that Fatboy was behind Nyona’s murder, thus Hickey was exacting his vengeance; the novel isn’t as obvious in this regard. At any rate, the end leaves ample opportunity for more adventures for the duo, but it’s my understanding Hickey & Boggs didn’t much resonate with viewers of the day, most of whom probably yearned for the less-grim vibe of I Spy.

Phillip Rock published other novels, most of them originals, but the only other book of his I currently have is another novelization, for the first Dirty Harry movie. I definitely look forward to reading it.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Very interesting! I like that movie a lot and didn’t know about the novel. Thanks for another great review, Joe!

Graham said...

Great review, that's another book on my 'to find' listing. Here's hoping that someone like Brash books can sort out the rights to get this one republished.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments!

Invisible Customers by Earl Pilkington said...

Very, very interesting, considering that Warren Murphy co-wrote Lethal Weapon 2 and I think also took a swing at the very, very early Lethal Weapon script in 1986 (I can't remember the source that I heard that from).
I will have to dig out the movie and have a watch, I know I have a copy of the book Hickey and Boggs which I bought when the movie came out on VHS, but I never read or watched it.
Looking forward to this weekend now!
Cheers and thanks.

John Nail said...

I learned about the movie Hickey & Boggs from Charles Taylor's book Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You and thought it sounded cool, but Bill Cosby was retroactively off-putting. (I'm not sure why I can't do the same mental gymnastics for him that I do for a Roman Polanski movie, but there you go.) Finding out that the novelization is even better than the movie is just the work-around I needed. I'll be seeking this one out. Thanks for reviewing.

Felicity Walker said...

Boggs looks like a frazzled Nick Nolte character on that cover. Maybe if the movie had been made in the eighties or nineties that’s who would have played him.