Arrow Video: Pulp (1972) - Reviewed

Years before British writer-director Mike Hodges became synonymous with rock band Queen for Flash Gordon in addition to directing music videos for them, he and producer Michael Klinger and actor Michael Caine unveiled what is now regarded as one of the greatest British crime films of all time: Get Carter.  

A straightforward crime thriller with labyrinthine plotting germane to a typically convoluted film noir, the film played heavily on the debonair and suave cool of Michael Caine’s stardom and helped to elevate the actor’s stature as a leading man and heartthrob for the ladies.  Naturally, director Hodges and Caine had to reunite again for another crime film, one that all but turned Get Carter fans’ expectations on their heads with the genre-shifting dark comedy as social critique: Pulp

Originally titled Memoirs of a Ghostwriter, Pulp finds Caine in the role of a sleazy pulp fiction author named Mickey King who wanders from job to job when he isn’t fending off sex starved female fans of his work.  Having retreated to Malta, India, Mickey accepts the task of ghost-writing the autobiography of a mercurial actor.  The actor turns out to be Preston Gilbert (a boundlessly energized Mickey Rooney) who is best known for his roles in crime movies and connections to real mobsters.  Soon, however, Mickey finds himself in over his head and caught in the crossfire amid very real gangster warfare with far more at stake than he previously imagined.

Both an actor’s picture and a curiously even more discombobulating narrative than Get Carter with a difficult-to-pin tightrope walk between gangster violence, assailment of then recent Italian fascism and surreal screwball comedy, Pulp is the kind of genre hybrid that could only exist in the era of late 60s British free cinema coined by director Lindsay Anderson’s if… and O Lucky Man!  The film gleefully unrolls a freeform bevy of sight gags, double-crossings and thinly veiled attacks on the resurgence of totalitarianism, all delivered through the prism and decorum of late swinging 60s England. 

Caine’s voiceover narration coupled with The Beatles producer George Martin’s oddball jazzy score provide the typical machinations of film noir while all but defying the tropes akin to the genre.  If the slick opening title sequence doesn’t signify Pulp is going to be an offbeat venture, nothing else will.  While mostly Caine’s show, Mickey Rooney as the manic and hyperactive movie star arguably comes across as even more abrasive and intimidating Napoleonic figure than in John Frankenheimer’s television drama The Comedian.  Watching Rooney’s scenes in Pulp, one wonders just how much of it was scripted and how much improvisation just rolled off the top of the actor’s head.

Understandably, fans of Get Carter were mystified by the actor-director reunion, unable to fully gauge which genre it committed to.  As a result, the film was often overlooked for years as a bit of a perplexing misfire.  Seen today, while still a bit all over the place, you sense the cast and crew are having a lot of fun with the seemingly off-the-cuff plotline and the rich location photography by Ousama Rawi remains scenic and gorgeous.  Moreover, Michael Caine completests and newfound fans of the still-active writer-director will find immense entertainment value here with what is as much of a pungent sociopolitical critique as it is a plain old lark.

- Andrew Kotwicki