Skip to main content

He was constipated with pulp, and now it was coming out, all over me.

Pulp
(1972)

(SPOILERS) Pulp has undergone something of a reassessment since its initial release, to a resoundingly underwhelmed response from audiences and critics alike. Some have even suggested it’s on a par with Get Carter, Mike Hodges and Michael Caine’s classic collaboration from the previous year. This is very much wishful thinking. Pulp isn’t a bad movie by any means, but it’s a pastiche doodle of detective fiction, never quite as clever or spry as it thinks it is, so leaving the viewer shrugging at it as much as Caine’s protagonist Mickey King does throughout when confronted by a succession of oddball – but never truly outrageous – incidents.

Caine is undoubtedly the highlight, dressed as almost a caricature or of his typical 70s style – those sunglasses are voluminous, the hair at its most flowing – and responding to events in a mostly very laidback, bemused style, as if Parky has him in the guest chair and he’s being asked to respond in a characteristically witty fashion with an anecdote or observation. No one else is quite up to par, though. Dennis Price is good in about two scenes as a very rude Englishman, fond of insulting Texans while quoting Lewis Carroll, and Lizabeth Scott, returning to the screen after a decade and a half absence, makes a strong impression as Princess Berry Cippola, wife of the gangster-politician at the heart of the plot (and yet, almost entirely oblique to the movie itself).

But Mickey’s attentions are mostly focussed on Mickey Rooney’s retired movie star with mob connections Preston Gilbert, who wants him to ghost-write his autobiography. Mickey, an author of pulp fiction (hence the title) under such pseudonyms as Les Behan and S Odomy – at times, given Mickey’s response to a cross-dressing hitman, it’s difficult to be sure how much of Hodges’ screenplay is sly commentary on the lowest common denominators of the genre, and how much it is symptomatic of the same – and titles (My Gun is Long, The Organ Grinder). When Gilbert is murdered, we learn this was over fears that he was poised to reveal his and Cippola’s dirty secrets (the picture concludes with King recuperating from a gunshot wound “at Cippola’s pleasure”; whether he gets remission is anyone’s guess).

Unfortunately, Hodges plays the material so larkily – King assumes the role of gumshoe, complete with lazily conversational narration, given to the lurid and thus reflecting and or subverting what we see on screen; at least, in theory – the actual mystery never takes on any significance, not in any way that encourages viewer investment. Which means it’s left to the incidentals and characters to sparkle.

Occasionally, they do. The opening, with a typing pool enjoying Mickey’s colourful prose (“Blood spattered everywhere like a burst watermain”) sets a tone the rest of the picture can’t match, and there’s often a very witty turn of phrase on Mickey’s part, ready with the quip off the page as well as on. But the proceedings are equally prone to the tiresome. There’s an overdone routine with Mickey’s weak-bladdered publisher. And while Rooney may be some people’s cup of tea, he’s irritating enough without also playing an irritating character (Gilbert delivers a clumsy waiter routine at a restaurant party, impromptu, at the expense of some unrelated fellow guests). Lionel Stander does Lionel Stander as Gilbert’s right-hand guy (“He shoots very well for a public relations man”), while Nadia Cassini is the girlfriend character. Al Lettieri is the on-again-off-again hit man/ priest/ corpse pursuing Mickey (“Bodies belong in the mortuary, not in my bath”).

I’ve seen Pulp a few times, and I always expect it to grow on me, but it never quite does. Caine keeps the proceedings right side of watchable, as a man under no illusions about his art (and with no regrets that he left his wife, three children and funeral business to pursue it). The Malta locations are also memorable (shot by Ousama Rawi, who would work with Caine again a couple of years later on The Black Windmill; also involved are George Martin providing he score and future Bond director John Glen as editor). It would be nice to suggest Hodges began with a double as impressive as Danny Boyle with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but Pulp strays closer to the trying-too-hard of A Life Less Ordinary, failing to hit its stylistic groove and thus falling victim to the broadness that would characterise the director’s 80s work.

Christopher Bray, in Michael Caine – A Class Act, testified to the picture’s qualities, calling it a deceptively “tightly constructed little comedy thriller”. But it’s too leisurely (as he also described it) to deliver the thrills and too unfocussed to consistently land in the comedy stakes. There’s no zip or energy that isn’t coming from its star. As such, Bray’s right that Caine’s performance is “a masterpiece of gentle fun”, but I disagree that’s enough. The author namechecks other neo-noirs of the period (Chinatown, The Long Goodbye) but maybe he should have focussed on Play it Again, Sam, which manages to have fun with the genre while also investing it with a plot you’re invested in.








Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.