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If he's not careful, Mickey King could soon be Pulp.
After their success with the brutal gangster thriller Get Carter, the 'three Michaels' Caine, Hodges and Klinger came up with this precociously spoofy takeoff on cheap pulp mysteries, appropriately titled Pulp. Filmed in sunny Malta, Pulp sets the unflappable Michael Caine into a standard tale of murder and intrigue that is probably too reserved and 'cute' to really work. As a thriller nothing all that exciting happens, and it's just not funny enough to qualify as an out-and-out comedy. Just the same, the film has an amiable, laid-back tone all its own.
The concept of film noir was known only in cinema circles in 1972, so the closest point of reference for the satirical film Pulp was probably the fan revival interest in Humphrey Bogart tough guy movies. The best thing in Mike Hodges' sly script is Mickey King's hardboiled voiceovers, either quotes from his trashy 'sex & pistol' books, or his subjective running account as he mentally narrates his own story. When King's laconic prose conflicts with what we see on screen, the effect is hilarious. King's narration reports that he soldiers on in defiance of his attackers, despite being wounded. The on-screen King notices blood on his clothing and faints dead away. Thanks to Caine's perfect deadpan delivery, this gag works every time.
The balance of the picture doesn't maintain that level of wit, preferring to present amusing characters and ironic situations that remind us of the old movies King mines for his crummy books. Instead of traveling on the Orient Express, King takes a tourist bus with a pack of old fogies. Fellow traveler Al Lettieri may be a harmless college professor, or a hired killer. Nadia Cassini is an irrelevant girl King contacts along the way; her presence reminds us only that the film has no real romantic interest. Gravel-voiced Lionel Stander is utterly dependable when it comes to hitting precise character notes (Cul-De-Sac, 1941) but turns out to be yet another eccentric voice making much ado about nothing. Noir legend Lizabeth Scott trades some snappy dialogue during lunches under the bright Mediterranean sun. The ironic script stays at arm's length from its characters; Caine's ultra-cool Mickey King doesn't really interact with any of them. When King finally becomes the target of an unseen killer, his panicked reaction simply seems out of character.
Hodges establishes his mystery well enough but the film isn't clever enough to successfully undercut its own premise, as John Huston and Truman Capote had done in their Beat the Devil. As each new character or situation is revealed to be irrelevant, like Dennis Price's mock-sinister English intellectual, there's little payoff beyond Michael Caine's deadpan reactions. Yes, the movie is vaguely hip, but the lack of nourishing content eventually becomes a drag.
The show picks up dramatically with the entrance of Mickey Rooney, who has a field day as the narcissistic ex-movie star Preston Gilbert. Rooney preens before a mirror in his underwear, carefully arranges his wig and tries to pretend that he's taller than he is; everything he does seems to be some kind of ego compensation. Gilbert is roughly modeled on the old star George Raft, which leads to the revelation that Gilbert's old Mafia pals want to rub him out to suppress his autobiography. Like most of the "plot" in Pulp, that part of the story never develops beyond rumor status.
In an effort to give the versatile Rooney something to do, Hodges has him perform unfunny slapstick routines, locking a servant in a steam closet and going through a lame 'bad waiter' routine. The fact that Preston Gilbert isn't supposed to be charming or funny doesn't wash. It's as if the Wit Spigot ran dry. Gilbert's prompt exit from the story after only a handful of scenes is like too many things in Pulp: it just lacks impact. 1
Amusing character bits are scattered around the periphery. Robert Sacchi's American police representative seems to be present just to remind us of Humphrey Bogart; he does next to nothing. The wonderful Italian comic actor Leopoldo Trieste (The White Sheik) has a rather thankless bit as a nervous publisher with a urinary problem. And frequent giallo actor Luciano Pigozzi is a useless clairvoyant. Along with Dennis Price's puzzling contribution, most of these diversions just serve to bog the story down.
Taking advantage of atmospheric Maltese locations, Pulp meanders forward like a big Shaggy Dog story. What we remember best are details like the pulp paperback typing pool, where a score of females become aroused while transcribing soft-core passages from Mickey King's dictation tapes. The final beach showdown is also good, although it can't compensate for the general slackness. Pulp seems to have been a 'vacation' movie, as if its makers wanted to bounce back from the oppressive Get Carter with something light and hip.
MGM/Fox's DVD of Pulp is perfectly preserved, with every sunny exterior glowing in its proper hue. George Martin's music score is pleasant but doesn't add much to the film's shaky mood. No extras are included, but the DVD's classy cover graphic easily bests United Artist's theatrical originals.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pulp rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 25, 2007
1. Pulp opened at the National Westwood when Savant was an usher. I don't remember any large audiences and I don't think it played very long. I do remember running into Mickey Rooney in the lobby. I recognized him and smiled. Before I could speak he grabbed my hand for a hearty handshake, said "Really nice to meet you!" in a loud voice, and moved on. It was sort of a polite bum's rush, a way of being civil but also not having to deal with a skinny, long-haired kid. In other words, Old Hollywood Phony, but the Real Deal. Fair enough, and a lot better than being snubbed, intimidated or insulted by the usual run of celebrities!
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