It is a film about the abuse of a young girl by people in positions of power and the cover up this corruptible high society instigate to ensure they are never held to account for the crime they have committed. It is a film that concludes with the answers being found on a desolate, deserted beach by the film’s hero and sole investigator, Michael Caine. It is a film written and directed by Mike Hodges, and produced by Michael Klinger.
But this film isn’t Get Carter.
Jarvis Cocker didn’t name his band after Get Carter now did he?
The film is Pulp, the 1972 follow up to the previous year’s Get Carter, made by Hodges as a deliberate response to the degenerate violence included in his successful Newcastle Noir. “I wanted to do something light, as a bookend to Carter,” Hodges said. “To get away from the bloodlust” Nevertheless Pulp is, beneath the surface, a dark and cynical story that is, as I’ve suggested at the start of this review, not a million miles away from the themes and plot points explored in Get Carter. It’s just that this time around Hodges chooses to tell his story with a light, witty and knowing touch that creates humour from the the bleak and violent subject matter.
A resplendently ’70s Michael Caine (if a man’s wardrobe could be described as shabby chic than this fits the bill perfectly) stars as Englishman abroad on a Mediterranean isle, Chester Thomas ‘Mickey’ King, a former funeral director who now makes a living as a pulp fiction writer. With a host of pseudonyms including Guy Strange, Les Behan and S. Odomy, King pens penny dreadfuls with titles like My Gun Is Long and The Organ Grinder – kinky, sadomasochistic tales of hardboiled private dicks in the tradition of Mickey Spillane. “The writer’s life would be ideal,” Caine’s Mickey King relates in the film’s sardonic voice over “But for the writing” which is why his work is being transcribed by a rapt typing pool in the film’s funny opening sequence. A visit to his publisher sees King made an offer he can’t refuse from Lionel Stander’s gravelley voiced factotum: to ghost write the autobiography of Preston Gilbert, a Hollywood legend famous for playing gangsters in scores of pictures and for having close ties with the Mafia, played with monstrous comedic gusto by Mickey Rooney. Following an uncomfortable five-day package coach trip to make contact (this original, offbeat detail stemming from King’s inability to drive himself, something he shared with Caine at the time. So funny did Hodges find this inability on Caine’s part that he included it as a running gag in Pulp, with each and every vehicle King comes into close proximity with either breaking down or crashing!) King learns that the obnoxious and vainglorious Gilbert has become a target for assassination by a mysterious cross-dressing English literature professor (Al Lettieri) , and it isn’t long before the ghost writer not only finds his subject dead, but finds himself on the hit list as he tries to get to the bottom of a mysterious scandal that is likely to implicate the higher echelons of the island’s increasingly fascistic government.
The film continues Hodges’ fascination with film noir, focusing as it does on corruption, gangsters, femme fatales and scandal, and is the direct result of two key events in Italy’s recent history. The first was the death of a young girl whose body was found on a beach amid conflicting reports that she had died of a drug overdose or that she had been murdered. The subsequent scandal of this unsolvable case rocked Italian society and allegations and accusations of a sex game gone wrong with a group of privileged politicians and high society figures being culpable intrigued the world at large. The other was the rise of fascism occurring in Italy once more, with a significant proportion of the vote going to an extreme right wing party in a recent election just a quarter of a century after the ceasefire of WWII. “For me that was totally incomprehensible,” Hodges said. “Having been brought up during the war it was unthinkable for anybody to vote fascist. How naive I was!” The film was originally slated to be filmed on location in Italy but Hodges had second thoughts when life began to imitate art and the local Mafia demanded protection money during the whole shoot, and transferred production to Malta instead.
Hodges’ tale concerns a past scandal and the murky cover up attempts made by those responsible, principally Prince Frank Cippola (Victor Mercieca) of the fascist New Front party, who has been hypocritically swept to power on a hard-line law and order ticket. He blends into the storyline some enjoyably subtextual nods to noir cinema such as Rooney’s Preston Gilbert, a man whose public image as a screen gangster and personal life got blurred in the same way that George Raft’s had, and with the casting coup of Lizabeth Scott, returning to cinema one last time and some fifteen years after her last picture to portray the purring femme fatale ex-wife of Gilbert and the current wife of Cippola. There’s even a role for acclaimed Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi as an FBI agent visiting Malta, credited only as ‘The Bogeyman’ . “What kind of bird is that?” he asks at one point towards the close of the film. “It’s a Maltese Falcon” is the reply. The quirky nature doesn’t end there either and there’s a delightful cameo from Dennis Price as a fellow Englishman on King’s coach tour who is utterly obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, having read it 117 times and quotes liberally from it. Pulp proved to be one of the visibly ailing Price’s last film roles and it is infinitely superior to the exploitative horror fare he was making elsewhere at the time. His pithy reaction to two dimwitted Texan tourists over dinner is a joy to watch. There’s also a similarly delightful score from none other than George Martin.
But best of all is Michael Caine, holding the whole thing together as King, a wisecracking knight in a not-so-shining white suit. Like Jack Carter – the anti-hero of his previous collaboration with Hodges and Klinger – Caine’s character may be seeking the truth, but he does so under Mediterranean skies rather than the drizzle of Newcastle, and he’s as far removed from the tough guy as possible. One of the best jokes in Pulp is how Hodges uses the noirish, weary voice over; when King is shot in the leg in the climax, we hear him narrate the event as he would in one of his novels “blood spattered everywhere like a burst water main” before coolly describing how he fixed an impromptu tourniquet. However, what we see is that the wound is little more than a scratch that sees King faint clean away! It was this humour, the ability to not take his screen persona seriously and his overall range that Hodges loved about Caine “I think Michael is as excellent in Pulp as he is Get Carter. He played the character seedy and overweight, and his voice over is brilliant” For a time it looked as if Hodges had found the John Wayne to his John Ford, the De Niro to his Scorsese, but it was not to be and the pair never made another film together. Perhaps the reception Pulp received was the reason – it never found the audience it deserved and left critics bemused. Caine, ever the pragmatist, had this to say several years later in his autobiography: “It was really an oddball movie that never quite worked. Its heart was in the right place, but in a business where wallets are kept over the heart it did not count for much” But it is a film with firm fans in Jarvis Cocker, who took the name of his band from the film, and JG Ballard who wrote Hodges a glowing fan letter:
“Pulp is a special favourite of mine – I must have watched my tape a dozen times, or more – a wonderfully witty script, and the brilliant attention to detail, as in Get Carter – so many superb performances, like the typing pool manager, or Caine himself, Lionel Stander and Al Lettieri. Lizabeth Scott was never better, and of course best of all was the great Mickey Rooney, totally unappreciated by film critics – you drew a fantastic performance out of him, which can’t have been easy – I love the scene of his dressing, moving layers of flattering mirrors past himself – I take my hat off – “A tip – don’t stand too close to him” – a great film.”
In the decades that followed Pulp appeared sporadically on television (often cropping up in the late night BBC1 schedules over Christmas, strangely) and was released by MGM to DVD in 2004. It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to label it a cult film that is still awaiting its target audience, so hopefully this new release from Arrow will finally make that happen. It is a film that deserves and demands a major reevaluation on a par with the one afforded to John Houston’s similarly offbeat 1953 noir Beat The Devil, which Hodges admits was an influence. The DVD/Blu-ray package consists of a new 2k restoration supervised by the film’s original cinematographer Ousama Rawi, some interviews with Mike Hodges, Rawi, Tony Klinger (Michael Klinger’s son), and the film’s editor and assistant director John Glen, as well as an original (very original in fact!) theatrical trailer that Hodges shot specifically for the film that was unearthed, to his surprise, in a film library in Russia! There’s also a collector’s booklet featuring new writing from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.