I’m not sure that I understand Michael Caine as a sexy man. Certainly not with his 1970’s stalker hairdo and fat sunglasses. I suppose there’s something of a devil may care rock star quality about him. In the aptly named Pulp (1972), Caine stars as Mickey King a novelist of gangster thrillers of the lowish quality. He just finished his latest piece, The Organ Grinder, which his hired squad of transcribers set to print with extreme pleasure—he never types his own work, he tapes it and has others type it up. He’s gone a bit nutty, though, because he’s starting to act a bit like his own characters. A secretive personality asks King to ghostwrite his “autobiography” but won’t give him the details until King begins the trip.
Along the way, King enters a bathroom where an acquaintance has been stabbed to death. Instead of quietly removing himself from the crime scene, King nonchalantly investigates the area and finds out the dead man (Al Lettieri) was a cross-dresser. Turns out that his client is the has-been gangster actor Preston Gilbert (played super smarmy by Mickey Rooney), who keeps a kooky household with his right-hand man Dinuccio (Lionel Stander). The semi-unreality persists as King narrates the entire film with his loaded language and slightly modified narrative. King has to figure out who’s after whom as people start dropping dead and plot lines start turning with blinding speed.
Mike Hodges writes and directs this…what shall we call it? Satire? Mature spoof? Semi-farce? It’s tough to pin down. What’s certain is the target: pulp fiction. The language of the narration makes that pretty clear, but most of it comes very near the cusp of a knowing joke, as if it’s King making fun of his own genre. Then a very Bogart-looking FBI agent shows up. I half smile at my astute observation. Then he puts on a fedora. It’s a quarter smile now because everyone’s got to see that. Then he asks, “What kind of bird is that?” and the guy says, “A maltese falcon.” I shake my head. Too easy. It’s both pastiche and parody.
It’s a tough balance that the film holds to and, ultimately, harms the film. If it played it straight, then we can enjoy it for what it is. If it played it as straight farce with a lot winks and nods or corny jokes (a la The Cheap Detective (1978)), it would be hilarious. But it is both parody and genre film. It pokes fun at itself, but instead of being the cool, harmless pulp (like the Bogart movies) it’s closer to the source material, which is sleazy and darkly amoral, because it isn’t the 40’s anymore and you can do it the gritty way. The back of the DVD says “he finds himself suddenly channeling his fictional sleuths when Gilbert is murdered” but really he’s never played it any other way.
Available on Netflix and Amazon.