The day started quietly enough, then Appellate Judge James A. Stewart got out of bed—his first mistake.
"The day started quietly enough, then I got out of bed—my first mistake."
It wasn't Quentin Tarantino who brought pulp fiction into the mainstream; it was Mickey Spillane, whose sales of Mike Hammer novels topped $100 million. By 1970, there had been four Hammer movies—starting with I, The Jury—and a TV series with Darren McGavin. Even before Spillane came along, though, noirish movies like Double Indemnity were bringing life on the edge to audiences that would never browse the paperback racks.
So it should be no surprise that 1972's Pulp has traces of a nostalgic attitude toward the hastily written paperbacks about tough loners and dangerous dames. Sit back as Michael Caine takes you on a first-person tour of the noirish underbelly of…sunny Malta?
Facts of the Case
"She was wearing nothing underneath. I moved my eyes slowly, deliberately up her long black legs, across her taut, glittering torso."
That's not the sort of thing the typists at the transcription service Mickey King (Michael Caine, Sleuth) is using want to hear. They're used to dry annual reports and, ahem, less exciting fare. At least that's what the man in charge of the transcription service tells the pulp thriller writer. He says it with sly admiration, asking, "Are your books in any way autobiographical?" King, it seems, is the real Guy Strange. His publisher insists this pen name and others King writes under sound a lot better than Mickey King. Besides, pen names come in handy when you're hiding out in Malta and you think your abandoned wife is having you tailed.
King is being tailed, it turns out, but his watchers weren't sent by his wife. Actor Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney, Love Laughs at Andy Hardy), who's not a mobster but played a number of them in the movies, has been checking out the author while looking for a ghostwriter for his autobiography. King's reluctant, but it's a chance to stay at a luxurious villa and collect a flat fee. There's also a bit of mystery about it, with King waiting for a mysterious contact as he travels and the possibility that Gilbert isn't the only one checking King out.
The beautiful, leggy Liz (Nadia Cassini, Starcrash) is a contact worth waiting for. Even though she calls Gilbert her "sugar daddy," Liz greets King with a passionate kiss before she and gofer Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander, Hart to Hart) whisk King away to Gilbert's island. Heck, even Gilbert's third wife Betty (Lizabeth Scott, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) makes a proposition when she meets King.
When the writing's wrapped up, Gilbert throws a party, highlighted by his typical flurry of practical jokes. When Gilbert is gunned down, everyone else is expecting him to get up and start laughing. King, however, sees that the shootings are no laughing matter.
Michael Caine's narration, in character as Mickey King, has a lot of Mickey Spillane in it, with lines like "Blood spattered everywhere like a burst water main." The opening scene, in which the transcribers make faces as they type up King's trashy tome, is a comic delight. There's also a great scene with King on a packed bus that plays on his narrative style; drifting into the soundtracks of other passengers' thoughts. The wry take on Spillane talk will bring a smile to your face, although the ever-present narration feels a bit overdone. The titles of King's novels, like My Gun is Long and The Organ Grinder, are takeoffs on Spillane as well. The transcription service scene references another big-time author who grew too big to be called pulpy: Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame.
Caine's performance as the cynical hack isn't exactly Mike Hammer, since he's more of a straight man for Preston Gilbert and his entourage. Mickey Rooney gets some good mileage out of the role of Gilbert, who we first see tormenting a staffer who failed to let him out of the steamer. Lionel Stander brings his tough guy accent—enough to make King wonder if he's an actual mobster—to the role of gofer Ben Dinuccio. Lizabeth Scott's husky, Bacall-like voice adds to her brief turn as Betty. Nadia Cassini is mostly kisses and quips as Liz, but she and Stander have a good scene as they discuss the possibility that someone wants King dead as well—in front of him, nonchalantly, as he steams. She's also got legs that won't quit.
While Pulp has its Mike Hammer touches, it's definitely a product of its time. Like many a 1960s movie, it has a bright travelogue look, taking advantage of the Malta scenery. Cassini's outfits and Caine's hairstyle also have an end of the 1960s look about them. Thus, Pulp encapsulates the last fleeting glimpses of the '60s, as much as it evokes the late 1940s and '50s pulp.
If you've read a few Spillane tomes, you'll find that Pulp works well as a comedy, but doesn't pack the same mystery punch as a classic Spillane thriller, despite a good effort by writer/director Mike Hodges. Plot twists seem too much out of nowhere and the murder that finally makes King play detective comes too late. When King does spring into action, the more serious tone is a letdown in what was a delightful sendup.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This DVD release is wearing nothing underneath. In less pulpy terms, you won't find any extras here; no commentary by Michael Caine or Mike Hodges; no historical notes on the pulp era; nothing. It's just the movie.
Pulp seems to have fallen short of the ideal homage Mike Hodges intended, but the stylish comic riffs on the pulp theme might disarm you, even if they aren't quite enough to blow you away.
As a thriller, Pulp is D.O.A. If you're looking for laughs at a genre's fondly remembered excesses, the movie acquits itself well enough.
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