Mike Hodges put himself on the map with Get Carter, a brutally effective Brit-noir rumination on revenge. He immediately followed it up with Pulp, a shambolic, self-reflexive shaggy-dog tale about ghostwriters and gangsters chasing each other around the Mediterranean. The two films provide an ideal study in contrasts for star Michael Caine: With his immaculate black suit and slicked-back hair, Get Carter‘s Jack Carter is a relentless, streamlined killing machine, a shark with charisma, and in Pulp, Caine’s Mickey King is tousled and thick around the middle, perennially decked out in a rumpled white suit, a former funeral director with dreams of becoming Mike Hammer.
Hodges first signaled his interest in pulp fiction early in Get Carter with a scene where Jack passes the long train ride back home reading a copy of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. But the film isn’t really revisionist; it’s just really explicit. Pulp, on the other hand, both embraces and undermines its noir aspects at every turn. This is evident from the very first shot, in which Mickey’s narration, down to the proper punctuation, issues from a Dictaphone. Only then do we see a pool of typists at work transcribing his latest potboiler. Already the fine line between fiction and reality has been blurred. Mickey’s later voiceover (sans full stops), ostensibly describing events happening to him, won’t be any more reliable—at one point directly contradicted by what the audience sees on screen.
Hodges’s parody of Mickey Spillane-style hardboiled fiction seems at first a bit juvenile, albeit amusing: Mickey produces patently lousy books with titles like My Gun Is Long, using a variety of pen names along the lines of Guy Strange and S. Odomy. But beneath the obvious ribbing, Hodges has his sights set on the cult of machismo that undergirds Spillane’s worldview, so that the immaturity is precisely the point. When it comes to sizing up a situation, Mickey’s assumptions often prove woefully inaccurate, especially with regard to the pernicious strain of homophobia surrounding the character of Jack Miller (Al Lettieri), whom Mickey initially pegs as a transvestite.
Mickey’s hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a onetime Hollywood star, Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), who was booted out of America because of his alleged ties to the mafia—a scenario loosely patterned after the life of George Raft. As it turns out, Gilbert has as much difficulty as Mickey discriminating truth from fiction, claiming at one point that he paid his debt to America, since he was killed at the end of over 80 movies. Although he’s only on screen for about 20 minutes, the diminutive Rooney (who frequently played gangsters like Baby Face Nelson) dials his performance to 11, really sinking his teeth into lines like “You hungry, bitch?”
The film’s humor runs the gamut from slapstick car crashes to clever cinematic in-jokes (especially droll is a gag involving a falcon of Maltese extraction). Further boosting the aura of noir parody, there are appearances from character actors Roberto Sacchi (a Humphrey Bogart lookalike) and Luciano Pigozzi, often referred to as the “Italian Peter Lorre.” Lizabeth Scott, who played many a moll in her heyday, turns up as one of Gilbert’s exes who has ties to the slowly evolving mystery in the middle of Pulp.
This suspicious death of a minor refers to an Italian sex scandal from the ‘50s, repurposed to serve as an outraged indictment of the powers that be who embraced the return of fascism as a political force in Italy. Although Mickey succeeds in “getting the goods” on those responsible, he ultimately finds himself in a prototypical noir scenario: Out of action with a wounded leg (an archetypal signifier of impotence), Mickey is reduced to boasting that he’ll “get the bastards” by recycling his findings in his latest pulp concoction. The tone may be lighter, but, in its way, it’s as despairing a finale as John Travolta’s shattered delivery of “It’s a good scream” at the end of Blow Out.
Arrow’s 2K restoration of Pulp looks great in 1080p, registering significant improvements to image clarity and color depth over MGM’s 2007 DVD release of the film. Grain is mostly resolved well, with only the occasional outburst of noise. The linear PCM mono mix is sturdy enough, but lacks immersive depth: Dialogue is mostly clear, but ambient effects come across pretty flat. The mono track does fine by George Martin’s delightfully protean score, which continually changes tone and instrumentation to fit the circumstances.
Arrow appends a quartet of interviews (around 45 minutes altogether) that provide a wealth of information concerning Pulp. Mike Hodges discusses in some detail his sources of inspiration and has some interesting comments about the main cast (Mickey Rooney, for one, was "exhausting") and the film’s popularity with fiction writers, among whom J.G. Ballard was a particular fan. Hodges also shares a great anecdote about the film’s idiosyncratic trailer (which he wrote and directed) being rediscovered in recent years in a Russian film library. DP Ousama Rawi discusses breaking into feature films with Pulp, Hodges’s visual acumen, the film’s earth tone-dominated color scheme, and lighting some of his favorite scenes, in particular the police lineup, where the lighting sources were incorporated into the shot itself.
Editor John Glen talks about being called in to reedit the film while on holiday, working against industrial strife that resulted in frequent power outages, George Martin’s editorial input, and a prank he played on Hodges involving a taped message from Rooney. London liaison Tony Klinger, son of producer Michael Klinger, opines that Pulp is his father’s most underrated film, but didn’t find an audience (despite solid reviews) because it was "too sophisticated" for its time. Klinger also supposes that releasing it on a double bill in America with the Frank Sinatra western Dirty Dingus Magee probably didn’t help. The aforementioned trailer is here, and it’s well worth a look. Finally, there are four fairly extensive image galleries and an illustrated booklet (available for the first pressing only) that reprints an essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Pulp and pulp fiction, a letter of appreciation from J.G. Ballard, a piece by Hodges on the film’s inception, and the usual lowdown on the restoration’s technical specs.
Mike Hodges's oddball noir Pulp gets a terrific Blu-ray upgrade and a handful of essential new supplements from Arrow Video.