Pulp April 9, 2021
ulp (1972), Mike Hodges and Michael Caine’s follow-up to the crime movie Get Carter (1971), continues in the hard-boiled tradition of its predecessor but is looser — a mostly engaging homage to detective fiction presented with a wink. In Pulp, Caine plays a writer named Mickey King. This now-Rome-based Englishman, who used to work as a funeral director back in the U.K., doesn’t have grand writerly
ambitions. More dedicated to maintaining the leisurely lifestyle of a writer than he is to achieving acclaim, Mickey specializes in easy-to-churn-out pulp fiction novels — books that don’t “exactly make book of the month club,” as he puts it. He publishes his yellow-paged thrills under garish pseudonyms — Guy Strange, Gary Rough, and S. Odomy among them — and have titles like “My Gun is Long.” Mickey is able to get them out so quickly because he’s mastered the art of concocting stories on the fly, saying them into a voice recorder for posterity, and then having a dependable crew of female typists do the transcribing.
Mickey likes his languid life abroad. But when he’s asked seemingly at random at the beginning of Pulp if he would be interested in ghostwriting a memoir for the Malta-based, has-been movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), his day-to-day listlessness dissolves into urgency. Gilbert, who was typecast throughout his career as James Cagney-like gangsters, is still apparently a danger zone embodied. (In all his decades in Hollywood, this actor killed in more than 80 movies brought real-life mobsters on to sets unceremoniously.) Mickey has barely accepted the job before every new person he meets in connection with it is killed. Ghostwriting by design involves the uncovering and then synthesizing of truths. In Pulp, those truths have landmines attached, and it's awfully hard to synthesize when you’re dead.
Pulp contains most of the elements one associates with classic detective fiction: a factory line of odd-bird characters our hero will meet as he solves this puzzle;
an evocative setting that seems to be its own character; cynical narration by our hero. But everything is presented with a pungent funniness — not quite poking fun at worn-down characteristics, more making them a little sillier. Mickey at one point notes that he feels like Gilbert has cast him in his latest movie — and that it’s a comedy pisses him off.
To bake in Gilbert’s middle-aged tendency to over-celebrate himself (his self-perception is at odds with how the world sees him), one of his introductory scenes sees him twirling in front of his bedroom's wall of mirrors in tighty-whities and boots. He admires his body as if it weren’t presently sagging but instead still in its tauter 1940s glory. Gilbert’s third wife, played by film noir legend Lizabeth Scott as a past-her-prime femme fatale type, is now a literal princess. We’re made to know Gilbert’s right-hand man (Lionel Stander) is extra tough because his voice suggests a sentient tar pit. Caine’s own performance has an appealing ticklishness. It recalls Elliott Gould’s work in The Long Goodbye (1973), a movie that saw the actor embodying the beloved fictional detective Philip Marlowe with a pitch-perfect tinge of jokiness. (Mickey’s playful temperment is sartorially complemented by his purple-lensed glasses.) The Malta setting looks glittery and open — its sunniness is inviting — but is comically secretive. These townsfolk are addled with lockjaw, Mickey observes.
Pulp never bubbles over into outright comedy. It instead has the tone of something that knows what it is and finds all the characteristics associated with the genre under which it’s working amusing. It’s neither committed to fully functioning as a thriller nor a fount of laughs. Pulp works in an odd middle layer that seems to find it equally embarrassing to be straightforwardly thrilling or aiming for a joke meant to make you laugh harder than you would at a dryly delivered witticism. This noncomittalism makes the movie feel more lackadaisical than it might intend. Its 90 minutes don’t feel tight. But like the frowzy-but-fun pulp fiction King produces, we like spending time with it even though we know it isn’t going to stay with us. B