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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Pulp (Blu-ray)
Pulp (Blu-ray)
Arrow Video // PG // December 12, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 15, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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Made by the same principals behind Get Carter (1971), the seminal British gangster film of its era, Pulp (1972), likewise directed by Mike Hodges and starring Michael Caine, is an unusually quirky neo-noir with an amusingly dark sense of humor. Like Robert Altman's not dissimilar The Long Goodbye (1974), Pulp's critics and audiences didn't warm to the film initially, though both pictures have since developed minor cult followings.

Partly at issue is the film's tone: it's hard to take seriously as a straight neo-noir, and while rich in funny narration and eccentric, intriguing characters, it doesn't entirely work as a spoof, either. Nevertheless, once seen Pulp is impossible to forget. Caine is a delight, and co-star Mickey Rooney, though somewhat miscast, makes it his own and is a revelation of vulgarity.

Caine plays ex-mortician Mickey King, now enjoying a decent if disreputable living writing trashy pulp fiction under various outrageous aliases, effortlessly composing them in real time on a Dictaphone. (In this respect, his career path was not unlike director Ed Wood, doing much the same in 1972.) In an amusing opening scene, a team of Maltese women, whose varied reactions to his hot-and-heavy prose raises eyebrows, transcribe his words.

A stereotypical gangster Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander) approaches Mickey to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mysterious celebrity living in seclusion on an island many hours away. Mickey eventually agrees to the assignment and is instructed to ride along with a busload of mostly older tourists. They wind up in a second-rate hotel where the man Mickey believes to be his contact (Al Lettieri) turns up murdered in his bathtub.

Eventually all is revealed: the mysterious patron is ex-Hollywood star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a George Raft-type with very real old-time Mafia connections. Preston has kept himself and his book under wraps, fearing his underworld pals would be none-too-pleased to learn of his tell-all book.

Pulp's appeal is hard to describe. Caine, obviously, excelled in parts like this, with his Philip Marlowe-like narration being exceptionally dry and witty: "She looked like a distant relative of Rocky Marciano. It looked like her honor was on the missing list. So was her cash. I got the feeling it was too late to retrieve either."

The real surprise, however, is Mickey Rooney, a force of nature since his child-star days, who so overwhelms the film in the good sense that when he disappears for the film's last act the picture suffers a bit. (In the extra features, editor John Glen discusses how difficult it was to make that part of the film play well without him.) Rooney had played unpleasant characters as early as the Playhouse 90 episode of The Comedian, written by Rod Serling and based on the self-implosion of Red Buttons earlier that decade. But in Pulp Rooney really lays the ugly side of a soul bare. Director Hodges seemed to think Rooney had played lots of gangsters (he hadn't but was Baby Face Nelson in a 1957 film) but he doesn't draw on that, nor actors like Raft and Cagney. Instead, Rooney more or less plays himself, a volatile, unpredictable man subject to extreme mood swings. Take a listen to Rooney's downright surreal audio commentary for "Last Night of a Jockey," a 1963 Twilight Zone for evidence of this. I recall seeing Rooney signing autographs for a long line of absolutely adoring fans. Rooney was all smiles until a disgusted look suddenly swept across his face. He jumped up, announced "The Hell with this! I'm going to the track!" and promptly walked out.

In Pulp Rooney, is his own peculiar way, dazzles. Before meeting Caine's Mickey he gazes at himself in a mirror, paunchy and stripped to white briefs while adjusting a toupee. At a party he engages in a very Mickey Rooney-type bit of comedy that's profoundly unfunny, even embarrassing. He barks Trump-like, vulgarity-laced orders to Ben and his attractive secretary, Liz (Nadia Cassini). Much as one might like to, like a grisly car accident you just can't look away.

Pulp is likewise notable as the last film of noir favorite Lizabeth Scott, here playing some sort of man-hungry social climber, though reportedly several of her big scenes were cut. Only 49 at the time of filming, she's aged prematurely (she looks at least ten years older) and had difficulty overcoming her stage fright and concerns about her appearance. In another great extra director Hodges discusses how he was forced to be blunt with the actress, essentially telling her it was impossible to hide her waning looks.

Other noir references abound, notably Robert Sacchi's role as an FBI agent with an unstated yet uncanny resemblance to Humphrey Bogart. (Sacchi made a career out of this doppelgängerism, eventually starring in the not-bad The Man with Bogart's Face, 1980.)

The crux of the humor, predictable but done with great finesse, is the pulpy, hard-boiled narration by Caine that's always at odds with the absurdity onscreen, Mickey being a lot more Jim Rockford than Sam Spade. It's a hip, very funny picture with memorable characters that don't do much of anything, nor does Mickey interact with them in any meaningful way and only toward the end are the stakes raised to the point that the audience really cares what happens to him and them. It's a funny, entertaining picture, but doesn't quite engage its audience in a sustaining way.

Video & Audio

Arrow Video's Blu-ray & DVD combo impresses. The Blu-ray is a marked improvement over MGM's earlier DVD, with the 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen image, supervised by cinematographer Ousama Rawi and scanned in 2K from an original interpositive, boasting better resolution and truer color, bringing out the Malta locations better. The LPCM 2.0 mono is also fine, with George Martin's score benefitting here. The Blu-ray is region "A" encoded with optional English subtitles.

Extra Features

The disc also offers many welcome supplements, including new interviews with director Hodges, editor-assistant director Glen, DP Rawi, and Tony Klinger, the son of producer Michael Klinger (who died in 1989). Also included is an original (and, apparently, rarely-screened) trailer featuring Stander and made specifically for the film by Hodges, and a very good full-color booklet, with essays by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Hodges, including a letter J.G. Ballard wrote praising the film.

Parting Thoughts

Nearly one of a kind, Pulp isn't perfect but so packed to the gills with great stuff it's nonetheless a must-see for many reasons. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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