Pulp Fiction (1994) wasn’t the first movie to be named after pulp fiction. That distinction belongs to writer-director Mike Hodges’ Pulp (1972), a movie he made right after the British gangster picture Get Carter (1971) with that film’s main collaborators: star Michael Caine and producer Michael Klinger. They were “the three Michaels”, as somebody calls them in an extra, having founded a company together for this purpose.
The two films show a remarkable contrast.
Get Carter is a lean, mean story whose anti-hero plunges through it as brutal and concentrated as a crossbow. The hero of Pulp, however, drifts and darts through a sun-dazed labyrinth in a state of confusion that hasn’t quite lifted by the end.
Caine narrates the film as Mickey King, the busy paperback writer who toils under various pseudonyms and cranks out sexy, hardboiled, sub-Spillane fiction with titles such as My Gun Is Long. His narration is appropriately overheated — now clipped, now purple — and as we discover, his description of events doesn’t always exactly match what we see.
Lionel Stander, looking every inch the sinister hitman in his latter-day gravel-voiced grotesquery, enters the scene as Ben Dinuccio, a go-between for an undisclosed celebrity who commissions King to ghostwrite his memoirs. King must join a tour group on Malta and await further complicated instructions, as if he’s a character in one of his own bad fictions, which he might be.
The man he takes for his contact (Al Lettieri) may be a case of mistaken identity, and when they accidentally switch hotel rooms, the latter winds up with his throat cut in the bathtub. Does this mean King was the intended target? This event is the first real development in an increasingly complex plot in which little is as it appears.
King’s client turns out to be a diminutive Hollywood star, now retired and in exile, who had been associated with the mafia before becoming an actor. Such is Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), an aggressive and eye-popping little toad given to vulgarities, to preening before mirrors in his underwear, and to making a public spectacle of himself. His retinue includes the beautiful Liz (Nadia Cassini), who looks like a Eurotrash flower child, and shellacked ex-wife Betty (noir icon Lizabeth Scott in her final role), now married to a conservative political candidate.
Among the red herrings is a local official played by Robert Sacchi at the beginning of a career spent mimicking Humphrey Bogart, e.g.
The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980). His character is listed as The Bogeyman. At one point, someone asks about a certain bird and is told it’s a Maltese Falcon. Because we’re in Malta, get it?
Malta is the movie’s secret power, lending an off-kilter air of beauty and mystery to every sequence. It’s such an attractive and distinctive place, loaded with natural production value, that the film is a continual pleasure to regard. The irony is that, as Hodges observes in a bonus interview, Malta was their second choice of capitulation after finding it impossible to shoot in Italy for reasons of elaborate criminal politics not unlike those implied in the film. It was a wonderful accident, for the movie seems made for Malta, or vice versa.
Michael Caine and Janet Agren in Pulp (1972) (© United Artists / IMDB)
This is a woozy, disorienting movie whose rapidly edited cross-cuts, jump-cuts, and seemingly improvised narrative digressions are reminiscent of the cheeky films of Richard Lester and, just faintly, of Robert Altman’s
The Long Goodbye (1973). It functions less as a pulpy mystery or gangster tale than as a spoof of same, albeit a spoof that retains a noirish sense of fate and power.
The ’70s was marked by projects that yearned to recreate the glory days of classic noir while also handling it as a put-on, thanks to a sense that the era had diminished such tarnished knighthoods and overwhelmed even their hardbitten cynicism. In other words, we could no longer take such things seriously, even though we wanted to.
Such projects are having their cake and shoving it in our faces too. Similar films include the aforementioned
The Long Goodbye, John Frankenheimer’s 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), David Giler’s The Black Bird (1975), Peter Hyams’ Peeper (1975, also starring Caine), and even Neil Simon and Robert Moore’s The Cheap Detective (1978). Even TV’s The Rockford Files can be seen as a kind of dour deflation of the classic gumshoe while insisting on flying the flag high out of sheer cussedness. Note that Pulp pre-dates all of these.
Largely well-reviewed and fondly recalled by those who swam in its unpredictable waters,
Pulp has been restored and scanned in 2K under the supervision of its cinematographer, Ousama Rawi, who’s also interviewed. So is assistant director John Glen, and so is Klinger’s son Tony Klinger, who shrewdly states that the film’s closest comparison is John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953), another larkish send-up that managed to avoid commercial popularity by the grit of its teeth. Also included is the trailer that Hodges states was never used but that he found on Youtube.