Although Pulp might seem a rather drastic change of pace for the director who had just made Get Carter, one of the pitch-black masterpieces of British cinema, it’s this dramatic contrast which makes it such an enjoyable film. Mike Hodges, the director for whom this was one of the last times he made a film without studio interference, has the lightest of touches and a fine eye for comic absurdity but his experience with the darker side of human nature ensures that Pulp is never allowed to become a complete flight of fancy. It’s also a fine example of how an actor and director who are used to each other’s style can work together to create something genuinely unexpected and, even more remarkably, genuinely touching.
Michael Caine, in one of his very finest performances, plays Mickey King, a writer of paperback pulp thrillers such as “My Gun Is Long” who is cornered by the associates of a faded Hollywood star named Preston Gilbert. His task, which he has little choice but to accept, is to ghost-write Gilbert’s biography but before he can meet the man himself, he must go on a mystery coach tour. Soon, dead bodies are turning up and Mickey realises that he’s rapidly drowning in water which has already gone way over his head.
Pulp is infused with a love of its subject matter – popular, throwaway pieces of thrilling entertainment which often managed to be fascinating in spite of their limited ambitions. This not only goes for novels but also for films and the presence of Mickey Rooney is a clear reference to the great days of classic Hollywood escapism – and probably also to his memorable performance as Baby Face Nelson in Don Siegel’s film. Both Lionel Stander and Lizabeth Scott are reminders of the great days as well and it’s particularly nice to see Stander getting his best part in years as Rooney’s thuggish agent. Along with these references goes a deliberate stylistic recreation of the first-person narrative, allowing Caine to perform one of his most entertaining voiceovers. This serves a double purpose. On the one hand, it’s a witty pastiche of every hardboiled PI you’ve ever heard making his way wearily through the world. On the other, it’s an ironic commentary on the contrast between the way Mickey describes himself and the reality of his behaviour. Nothing new about this of course, but it’s done here with an unusual sharpness. Mickey has seen enough hard-boiled ‘tec movies to know how he’s meant to act but his basic inability to stop caring about the situations in which he finds himself is what stops him from acting out the fantasies embodied by his own pulp heroes.
Like Mickey, the film finds itself constantly brought up short by the mundane reality of the world when placed directly against the excitement of fiction. The character played by the wonderful Al Lettieri is a perfect example; seen by Mickey as a dangerous assailant sent by his enemies, but in reality merely a man looking for love and pointlessly murdered by people who have confused him with someone else. But the film also points out the other side of the coin – that the banality of the world is often lit up by people who are so much larger than life it’s hard to believe that they really exist. Once Mickey gets on the coach, he encounters a splendidly camp English tourist – played by the great Dennis Price – with whom he engages in a competition to see who can come out with the best Lewis Carroll quotations. Lionel Stander’s bodyguard is another character who seems to have stepped right out of a 1930s Warner Brothers crime flick. The best example, however, is Preston Gilbert, played by irresistibly hammy enthusiasm by Mickey Rooney. Rooney, who spent most of his adult life trying to live down his reputation as a juvenile lead, attacks this role with such relish that everything he does is funny. Whether he’s dancing in his underwear or holding court at a dinner party, this man is a firework whose blue touchpaper is constantly lit. You can certainly accuse Rooney of going way over the top but, for once, his hamming – so embarrassing in some of his later films - seems entirely appropriate. Preston Gilbert is a ham, it’s one of his defining characteristics and what is never in doubt is that both Preston and Rooney are natural born movie stars.
Pulp was deliberately developed by Hodges as a contrast to his immensely powerful debut with Get Carter. He has been quoted as saying, “I wanted to make a film about why people go and see violent films, and I wanted to make it funny.” In both respects, this film succeeds. It analyses the allure of fictional violence; the glamour, the machismo, the lack of consequence for the viewer. The film is also very funny indeed, sometimes outrageously so. But it also has a darker side which is largely kept as an undercurrent but is still never far away from the surface. Mickey King thinks he knows what’s involved in being the tough guy, like those other 1970s would-be hard men J.J.Gittes, Philip Marlowe (in the Altman version at least) and Harry Moseby (from Night Moves). Yet the reality is that he really doesn’t. He hasn’t realised that the consequence-free world of fiction has one great attribute missing – a sense of emotional pain. Mickey may be physically prepared for the challenges that await him in the real world of violence but he’s not emotionally prepared and the final impression of him – like his compatriot Harry Moseby – is that he’s hopelessly lost, drifting around in the middle of a sea of human corruption.
MGM’s disc of Pulp is entirely typical of their current approach to one of the best back catalogues of any distributor. It’s technically competent without being impressive and there are no extra features whatsoever, not even the original trailer.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of roughly 1.66:1 and is not anamorphically enhanced. It’s not a bad transfer, just very uninspiring. Some artifacting is present throughout and the overall effect looks a little flat, rather like a TV-movie.
The soundtrack is a straight transition of the original mono presentation. Perfectly acceptable and it keeps the dialogue crisp and clear, which is what really matter with a film like this one.
There are, as I said earlier, no extras and the film is divided into MGM’s customary 16 chapter stops.
Pulp is a fascinating film which works on a number of levels while remaining excellent light entertainment. The disc is adequate but you might want to wait until it’s available more cheaply before making a decision to buy it.