Action and suspense films from the early 1970s have a distinctive period flavor to them. The surprisingly effective Hickey and Boggs co-star Robert Culp's sole directorial effort embodies that disillusioned and dissolute era of movie making. The rough and choppy editing, the oddly cropped shots keep the viewer on edge; so do the less than pristine cinematography and the cacophonous sound track, with dialogue overlaid on a constant, dull background roar of ambient noise. Often this proved to be a recipe for pretentious but empty disasters and cynical exploitation films; here, it all works to keep the level of unease of menace uncomfortably high.
Bill Cosby and Robert Culp play the title characters, a couple of down-on-their-luck Los Angeles private investigators. (Many moviegoers of the era apparently expected a big-screen reprise of their successful pairing in the television spoof of the 1960s, I Spy; how wrong they were.) They are engaged to find a missing woman by one of those creepily effete characters who, since Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon, exist only to set up private eyes in the movies. And as they go about their sleuthing, they uncover a trail of brutally murdered corpses, a situation which does not endear them to the police. They come to learn that the woman they're tracking holds the take from a robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank in Pittsburgh some years before; they've been hired as finger men by one of a number of murky but vicious groups seeking to retrieve the cash.
The movie forgoes crisp, clockwork plotting for a generalized miasma of corruption, duplicity and malaise. There are allusions to the turbulent politics of the times in the involvement of black militants and Chicano radicals; there are whiffs, too, of the specter of newly hatched sexualities that threaten the status quo. At the scene of one murder, they find crushed amyl nitrite poppers and gay porn, while the jaded oldster who engages them suns himself on a towel sited suspiciously close to a set of swings where young children are cavorting; for that matter Culp, in his cups and a masochistic, self-pitying mood, watches his ex-wife flaunt herself in a strip club to be ogled by drunken strangers.
The malaise, of course, becomes murderous in Walter Hill's very violent screenplay, touching Cosby's character (his estranged wife ends up tortured to death). Still, the two dead-end dicks soldier on, more though one another's goading than from any code or commitment they're both on the verge of giving up and sliding down into the vortex of lust, avarice and revenge that has become their world (and by extension, THE world). Describing Hickey and Boggs makes it sound like the ultimate downer; it is, but it's an uncommonly compelling piece of film making, and one that has pretty much fallen through the cracks of movie history.