By Paul-John Ramos (Yonkers, New York, USA)
Despite how gruesome Get Carter becomes, its opening sequence indicates just where director Mike Hodges, Michael Caine, and producer Michael Klinger are drawing from. While riding on a train, the vicious, calculated gangster Jack Carter reads a copy of Farewell, My Lovely in an allusion to the crime genre mastered by Raymond Chandler and colleagues like Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett.
Released just a year later, Pulp appears a direct response to Get Carter in which Hodges, Caine, and Klinger offer a foil to the nihilistic world they set in the English city of Newcastle. Pulp can be viewed as Get Carter’s companion piece, as it takes the crime thriller to a humorous extreme and creates a unique atmosphere seen through the eyes of an author conceiving its story.
Pulp is a tough film to appreciate if one isn’t familiar with the ‘cheap thriller’ novels that were so common at the time of its release. Just like in filmmaking, the 1960s and 70s were a period of major licentiousness and risk-taking in crime fiction. Besides long-time standbys like John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, and Mike Shayne author Brett Halliday (real name Davis Dresser), there were others even further willing to push the envelope with chock-full excesses of violence and sex.
While there is ongoing allusion to more literate authors like Chandler and Hammett, Pulp’s basis rests mostly on the trashy mass market paperbacks of the 1970s whose stories defied taste and logic as much as humanly tolerable. Pulp, in fact, is a cinematic embodiment of the cheap thriller novel’s themes, pacing, and characterizations with its focal character and narrator, Mickey King (Caine), a successful writer of the form. And of course, there is plenty of respect given to Hollywood crime landmarks, going as far as taking place in Malta (Maltese Falcon – get it?).
Indeed, the entirety of Pulp was shot and takes place on Malta, where its story opens just before a major election. The atmosphere is one of inherent corruption with the Mafia controlling all public institutions from government to the street sweepers. When the film begins, best-selling pulp author Mickey King is quite fine with this; it may actually give him material for his books. King even gave up his part-ownership of a London funeral home and the relationship with his wife and children in order to make this comfortable living. His latest novel, The Organ Grinder, comes flying out of a transcription office where an all-female typing pool listens intently to his taped dictation of the carnage.
Through his publisher, King meets Ben Dinuccio, a representative – well, the enforcer, really – of an aging Hollywood actor who wants his autobiography to be ghostwritten. This coarse heavy, played by the impeccable Lionel Stander, arranges for King to spend time in a Maltese villa with Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), who left Hollywood many years ago due to alleged Mob ties. As a blatant plot convenience, Dinuccio arranges for King to travel by bus (!) and sinister things begin happening. There is confusion between King and an American traveler (Al Lettieri, Mr. Majestyk) over a hotel room on the way, King soon finds him dead, and he discovers the next morning that his body had been moved. Was King the actual target of a killer and the American (revealed as a cross-dresser) an unlucky victim of the switch?
Things are no easier with Preston Gilbert, as the actor turns out to be an obnoxious, foul-mouthed crank who dons mascara and a hairpiece to recover his departed looks and is paranoid over his lack of height. Surrounded by Dinuccio, Gilbert’s ancient mother (Cettina Borg Olivier), and his young trophy girlfriend Liz (Nadia Cassini, Starcrash), King goes to work on his memoirs and learns that Gilbert is himself a marked man for knowing an unpleasant secret tied to Betty Cippola (Lizabeth Scott), wife of a politician running for office. As it turns out, King will need to rely on his writing experience for setting things right and keeping his own self alive.
Entirely removed from the sociopathic Jack Carter, Caine’s role in Pulp is much closer to Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s immortal detective. While more stylish than Marlowe in his white sport coat and boxy eyeglasses, King has comparable persistence and investigative know-how that combine with a strong wariness for danger. He also shows a pervading sense of justice in trying to do right by Gilbert, despite thinking him a repulsive character, and other, more innocent victims. Though arrogant, King charms the viewer with his offbeat mix of drive and vulnerability.
Do not be misled to think that Pulp is a full-on comedy. While there are plenty of amusing moments, nearly all of them will make you smile rather than laugh out loud and the plot takes a serious turn when King begins to piece together the crimes and matters become grim. After not taking itself seriously for most of the way, Pulp reveals its unpleasant twist that makes an important statement on art – this ‘trashy’ art of crime fiction – as a reflection of our sordid lives. There is a touch of slapstick in places, perhaps too much, but most of the humor comes from wry situations or a gentle elbow into our shoulder whenever literary or film references are made.
Mike Hodges, who also wrote Pulp’s screenplay, had a task in finding the right balance of seriousness and frivolity that was needed for the film to work. Most of the performances are dead-on but Caine’s typically aloof demeanor is what makes Pulp go. Feeling artistically better than his writing and more ‘with it’ than many around him, a quiet sense of superiority keeps Mickey King in the eye of a world that has gone mental. Rooney, playing a slimy and morbidly delightful has-been of an actor, is like chalk to cheese in his interactions with Caine. The late star is clearly poking fun at his own background, including his place in the boom years of Hollywood and experience as a vaudeville entertainer.
Lionel Stander’s role of Dinuccio is ideal for those wanting to see him as the typical Stander: cigar-smoking, jovial, yet physically overbearing. Lizabeth Scott, in her final screen appearance, has a limited role as the vamp for which she was known during the 1940s and 50s. Nadia Cassini, whose film career was dominated by titles in the Italian erotic genre, provides an extraneous love interest to King and serves as eye candy with platform boots that accentuate her long legs. Cult actress Janet Agren appears briefly as a publishing house secretary and English character actor Dennis Price (Venus in Furs) plays a fellow bus traveler obsessed with the writings of Lewis Carroll.
Hodges’s screenplay and direction are tightly paced, with a great deal happening in 96 minutes. The film takes full advantage of old Maltese locations (including an ancient ruins) and Iraqi cinematographer Ousama Rawi (The Tudors television series) lets in plenty of light to capture the warm Mediterranean climate. James Bond veteran John Glen provided the film’s editing. The soundtrack by Beatles producer John Martin is lilting and suitable for Pulp’s odd treatment of its themes.
Because of Pulp’s irreverence in seasoning itself with literary and film allusions, snide dialogue, and ridiculous plot elements, it has never been very popular since its release and nowadays has a following amongst cultists. It is certainly an acquired taste and might only win the attention of ‘off the beaten path’ enthusiasts, fans of Michael Caine, or those who are in the know on crime literature and film. But for members of these groups, Pulp has great potential to entertain and may at least enjoy its future as a well-kept secret.
Pulp is occasionally aired on television and its newest DVD was released in 2007 by MGM Home Entertainment. The MGM disc, made in cooperation with 20th Century Fox, offers Pulp with no extras or supplemental material.
Pulp is presented in widescreen with the original English mono track and an English stereo option. There are also a Spanish mono option and subtitles in English and French.
The DVD’s print looks in adequate condition with sufficient hues and contrasts. Visuals at times have a washed look but may have resulted from the sun-drenched locations where they were shot. There is visible grain in darker scenes but nothing out of the ordinary for films made at that time.
There are issues in the mono audio balance, as is common for pre-21st century films being handled by 21st century sound mixers. While sound effects like typewriters and gunshots are clear, dialogue seems to be kept at a lower register and is especially hard to make out when spoken with an accent. John Martin’s soundtrack is given a key spot in the audio mix without overpowering, as well his light music shouldn’t.
No material outside of the film is provided – not even the theatrical trailer, which can be found on YouTube courtesy of a generous poster. Considering that Pulp has a small audience, it’s not that great of a surprise or disappointment that MGM decided to pass on extra content. Overall, the MGM disc release is adequate and Pulp’s followers will no doubt be glad to have it.
Rating: ★★★ out of 4