Following the phenomenal success of Get Carter (1971), producer Michael Klinger, director Mike Hodges and star Caine were all keen to work together again. Their next film Pulp followed a year later, partly inspired by the infamous Mortesi scandal that shook Italy during the 1950s, prompting a media furore that accused several high profile people of using their power to allegedly cover up a heinous crime. Anyone expecting another gritty masterpiece in the same vein as Get Carter would be in for a surprise though, as Pulp is essentially an off the wall pastiche of those hardboiled PI flicks - with Caine’s character the antithesis of his previous tough guy role.
Caine plays Mickey King, who we are told has abandoned his family and lucrative job as a funeral director to carve out a living somewhere in the Mediterranean. He’s now writing trashy pulp fiction with iffy titles like My Gun is Long under a range of equally dubious pseudonyms – including Guy Strange and Gary Rough. In the world of crime fiction King might not exactly be Raymond Chandler, but he’s enjoyed a modicum of success and attracted the attention of an over the hill actor named Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney).
Pompous Gilbert has made a career out of playing mobsters and may also have real life connections to organised crime. After more than a decade of inactivity, Hollywood has long forgotten Gilbert though, so now the faded star wants King to be the ghost writer of his memoirs. Without initially revealing his identity, Gilbert sends his minder Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander) to meet King and entice him with a large sum of money for the task in hand. King agrees to the offer, but before he can meet Gilbert his anonymous client packs him off on a five-day mystery sightseeing couch tour to soak up various local attractions, such as the strange Temple of Zonk. It’s all for no apparent reason – and doesn’t further the narrative either - but does give Hodges an opportunity to throw in some comedic flourishes.
For example, we get to hear the humorous inner thoughts of other passengers on the coach and once King reaches his hotel, he crosses paths with other quirky guests. This includes a brief but hilarious cameo from Dennis Price as an eccentric Englishman, with a fondness for quoting Lewis Carroll - and who clearly has a low tolerance level of other guests. Then there’s a case of mistaken identity as King confuses one of the guests named Miller (Al Lettieri) as his contact, hoping that he will reveal the whereabouts of the elusive Gilbert. We will later learn that Miller has quite a different agenda.
During early scenes we are continually reminded that the Country’s elections are imminent, with placards and posters everywhere bearing the name of ambitious politician Frank Cippola (Victor Mercieca). He’s determined to be elected, and his diligent wife Betty (Lizabeth Scott) is on the campaign trail with him, the relevance of this plot thread becoming much clearer later in the story. There’s an amusing sight gag where, as a publicity stunt, a group of smartly dressed women each hold up a letter intended to spell out the politician’s name. Alas, somebody trips and they end up partially spelling out another word entirely.
After King eventually discovers the identity of his client through acquaintance Liz (Nadia Cassini) he's none too impressed, initially enquiring “Is he still alive?”, before dismissing him as a “two-bit blown-out film star”. Gilbert is undoubtedly overbearing, when we first see him at his mansion he’s barking commands at a long-suffering assistant and later posing in his underpants in front of a mirrored wardrobe – not a pretty sight. When King catches up with Gilbert and his social circle at a restaurant, he witnesses the ageing actor’s penchant for practical jokes, like pretending to be a bumbling waiter and tormenting other diners, much to the embarrassment of his guests. This includes Gilbert’s ex-wife – who just happens to be Betty Cippola. It all serves as an excuse for Rooney to ham it up, which he does with gleeful abandon.
For some reason I kept recalling gravelly voiced Stander’s famous line from his long running TV show Hart to Hart: “When they met, it was moider”. It seems quite fitting here too, as no sooner as his character introduced writer King with Gilbert, the bodies start to pile up. Somebody clearly doesn’t want Gilbert to spill the beans about his private life, as there are evidently some secrets from the past that need to stay hidden. At this point King turns into an amateur sleuth determined to uncover the truth, seemingly like one of the unflappable ‘tecs in his cheap novels, accompanied by a droll voice over - though this doesn’t always closely reflect the calamities shown on screen.
Caine is excellent in the lead and even if all his lines aren’t particularly funny, it’s just his wonderful delivery. There are some interesting other casting choices too: Stander, Rooney and Scott were all established screen veterans at this stage and add great value here. Scott, with her unmistakable voice, had been one of the queens of film-noir during the 1940 and 50s, with Pulp being her final screen role. Rooney’s long career, stretching back to the silent era, included him famously playing a gangster before in Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson (1957), so this gives him the opportunity to have fun with that whole persona. At least his madcap performance this time around did not manage to offend, unlike that earlier ill-advised comic turn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese landlord.
On a technical level, it’s also worth mentioning some fine work on the film by DoP Ousama Rawi, including one particularly impressive tracking shot that follows the activity through various rooms in a hotel. I also enjoyed the score, composed by The Beatles’ producer George Martin, that expertly fits the tone of the film. Incidentally, if you think that the detective who appears towards the end of Pulp bears a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart, that’s no coincidence – actor Robert Sacchi (billed here as The Bogeyman) built a career out of his uncanny likeness. Just to hammer home this little in-joke, in a later scene he points to a bird and is informed that it’s a “Maltese Falcon”. Clearly the script wins no prizes for subtlety at times. Pulp is certainly uneven, with a leaning towards the absurd that doesn’t always quite hit the mark, yet it has grown on me over time with repeated viewings and still offers plenty to savour.
The Arrow Video release of Pulp boasts a brand new 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by director of photography Ousama Rawi. The film is being released separately on Blu-ray and DVD, with both formats preserving the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and coming with an identical set of extras.
For those feeling nostalgic, Pulp opens with a vintage pre-1982 British Board of Film Censors title card showing a “AA” certificate (over 14 years of age) and bearing the name of the then president, Lord Harlech. The current BBFC certificate for the film is actually “12”.
The BD supplied for review gives an agreeably bright presentation of the film in 1080p, exhibiting only a fine layer of filmic grain and showing off the location work in Malta to good effect. There’s only one moment – ironically during a key scene in the film – when the image briefly looks quite ropey with some conspicuous black specks. Otherwise this is a significant step up compared to the original DVD released by MGM back in 2009. The only audio option is LPCM 2.0 and there are no detectable issues to report, with the dialogue consistently clear throughout. There is also an option for English subtitles.
The bulk of the additional material comprises a selection of brand new interviews totalling just over half an hour:
Director Mike Hodges (17:36) - Hodges explains some of the influences behind his film and how he wanted to make a film featuring a voiceover. The original intention was to shoot Pulp on location in Italy, but this was later changed to Malta, thus avoiding any potential mafia interference - ironic for a film with a gangster theme. Hodges also talks about the casting, such as how Mickey Rooney was exhausting and dealing with the insecurities of leading lady Scott. Hodges is convinced that Caine’s appearance in the film inspired the look of Jarvis Cocker during his days as frontman of his band of the same name, though the singer has denied this is the case.
Cinematographer Ousama Rawi (9:15) - The Iraqi-born DoP discusses his impressive work on Pulp, which was his first feature film. He mentions the brown palette insisted upon by the film makers. There is indeed a considerable amount of brown on show in this film – from garments worn by the characters, background furnishing and the vehicles. Apparently if an item wasn’t already some shade of brown, sometimes it had to be specially sprayed to achieve the desired effect.
Editor John Glen (4:59) - A very brief chat with Glen, who would go on to direct several Bond films during the 1980s starring both Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. Glen reveals that he got involved with Pulp at the eleventh hour having been asked to recut the film, but this proved challenging as there were frequent power cuts at that time.
Tony Klinger (6:07) - The late producer Michael Klinger’s son Tony, also a filmmaker, provides his thoughts on the film.
The fact that there is no interview with Caine as well is a disappointment, considering he served as one of the producers on the film.
Gallery - An extensive collection of stills taken from the film.
Trailer (2:04) - Lionel Stander addresses the audience, urging them to see Pulp, in an original trailer directed by Hodges.
Collector’s Booklet (first pressing only) - Features new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (not available at time of review).
Reversible Sleeve - Original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh.