Saturday, November 25, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #20: Pulp (1972)

Cast: Michael Caine (Mickey King), Mickey Rooney (Preston Gilbert), Lionel Stander (Ben Dinuccio), Lizabeth Scott (Betty Cippola), Nadia Cassini (Liz), Dennis Price (The Englishman), Al Lettieri (Miller), Leopoldo Trieste (Marcovic), Amerigo Tot (Partisan), Roberto Sacchi (The Bogeyman), Giulio Donnini (Typing Pool Manager), Joe Zammit Cordina (The Beautiful Thing), Luciano Pigozzi (Clairvoyant).

Crew: Mike Hodges (director), Michael Klinger (producer), Mike Hodges (writer), George Martin (music), Ousama Rawi (cinematography), John Glen (editor), Patrick Downing (production designer).

Synopsis: Mickey King is a pulp fiction author living in the Mediterranean. He is asked to ghost-write a famous person’s autobiography by a man called Dinuccio, but not given the name of his subject. Instead King is sent on a five day coach tour and told he will be contacted. The writer thinks an American called Miller is the contact. Instead King is met by a beautiful woman who takes him to meet the subject of the book. Preston Gilbert was a Hollywood star who appeared in dozens of films as a gangster before being deported to Europe. He dictates his memoirs to King in a week. Afterwards Gilbert organises a lunch for his friends and King at a restaurant. Gilbert is murdered by a man disguised as a priest, but King survives. A clairvoyant gives the writer clues about why somebody wanted to kill the former film star. Gilbert was involved with a scandal years earlier about a teenage girl who died at a hunting lodge while being raped by hunters. The others believed Gilbert was going to mention the incident in his autobiography. King goes to a beach where the girl’s body is buried. The hitman reappears, gunning for the author. King runs him over with a truck, discovering the assassin was Miller. The writer realises he has been shot in the leg. King is taken in and cared for by a powerful political family that was involved with the scandal. He is warned to stay silent or else he’ll be charged with killing Miller…


A trio of Michaels – Caine, Hodges and Klinger – had startled cinema patrons with the brutal realities of Get Carter (1971). A year after that film, the three men reunited for Pulp (1972). This was made from an original screenplay by Hodges, with the working title Memoirs of a Ghostwriter. ‘I wanted to do something light, as a bookend to Carter, to get away from the violence,’ Hodges told interviewer Steven Paul Davies for the book Get Carter and Beyond: The Cinema of Mike Hodges. ‘Mind you, my humour might be described as very surreal and rather bleak.’

The plot about a young girl found dead on a beach was based on a scandal that rocked Italian society in the 1950s. Hodges’ script was also prompted by the rise of neo-fascism in Italy in the early 1970s. The director said Pulp’s off-beat style was inspired by John Huston’s film Beat the Devil (1954). American studio United Artists agreed to help finance Pulp. Hodges went to Italy on a research trip. But when the location manager try to secure the locations chosen by Hodges, they found themselves dealing with the Mafia. The director had a house on Malta and suggested the Mediterranean island as a new home for the production. The film was shot entirely on location during the winter of 1971-1972.

At the time Caine told journalists he did not enjoy working on Malta, complaining about the barren landscape and lack of trees. When asked what no visitor to the island should miss, the actor’s reply was short and pithy: ‘The plane home.’ Twenty years later, Caine had a different recollection of the movie in his autobiography. ‘Pulp never made any real money, but I … had a wonderful experience making it so I remember it with affection.’

Pulp was released in 1972, rated AA in Britain. Critics were bemused by the movie and it failed at the box office. Reviews were stronger in America but the film never got a chance to capitalise on them, quickly disappearing from cinemas. Sixteen years later it was released on video in the US, but has since been deleted. The picture has never been released on VHS or DVD in Britain. [Update: Pulp was finally released on Region 2 DVD in 2004.]

Mike Hodges declined to be interviewed at length for this book, but did talk about Pulp’s unhappy fate: ‘It puzzles and saddens me why it’s not on video of DVD. Some films seem to just get lost in the shuffle. Pulp is one. On the other hand Black Rainbow [a much praised but rarely seen Hodges film from 1990] is about to come out on DVD – so you never know! In a recent exchange of letters with J G Ballard, he voiced his love of Pulp. I’ve noticed that writers, in particular, like it.’

Reviews: ‘Hodges has not only got his distance in Pulp, he has also found a style and voice of his own. Always an adept actor, Caine is splendid here.’ – Time
‘A reasonably entertaining piece of rococo recall … at its best as visual camp. Caine … delivers his usual attractive turn.’ – Variety

Verdict: The word quirky could have been invented to describe Pulp. It shares plot similarities with Get Carter (1971), but it’s hard to imagine two more different movies. The first twenty minutes is a flurry of running gags and visual humour, with Caine’s world-weary voiceover a witty counterpoint to the on-screen action. After that, the movie settles into a slightly more conventional tale. The tone is uneven, but Hodges keeps driving the story forward fast enough to overcome this. There’s a succession of sub-textural references to the conventions of pulp fiction and cinema that are worthy of a thesis, but it’s the performances of Caine and Rooney that bring the film alive. Pulp is a cult movie in waiting.


Chris Weston said...

"Pulp" is great; very funny indeed. Love the bit where Mickey Rooney is waffling away, while Caine is fumbling with the cigarette dispenser!

Shelby G. Spires said...

I found Pulp! delightful and offbeat. Every actor gave a talented performance and the gag about the Maltese Falcon was laugh-out-loud funny. Great slice of life of a time gone by, now, with plenty of knee boots and hot pants wearing girls. Films like this rarely get made now.