Faux-noir: Pulp, 1972
Pulp is a 1972 comedy/drama, written and directed by Michael Hodges, who is mostly famous for directing the British noir Get Carter featuring Michael Caine.
Caine stars in Pulp, too – and is also a co-producer.
Originally titled Memoirs of a Ghostwriter, the movie is a flawed gem, one that probably suffers from striving too hard. It plays with hard boiled, Chandleresque fiction, and at times it’s quite funny, but the end result is ultimately inferior to the sum of its parts. There could be an intelligent satire, hiding inside of the film, but it’s sometimes hard to catch glimpses of it.
What’s this all about?
Mickey King (Caine) is a pulp writer, a guy that writes cheap sexy thrillers and does not particularly enjoy his job. He is hired to ghost-write the memoir of Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney) a former gangster and movie star that lives in exile on a small island in Southern Italy. Bodies start piling up as King finds himself trapped into what feels like one of his plots: Gilbert’s memories are likely to cast a bad light on a number of powerful individuals, and a contract’s out for the former gangster’s life, and for the life of his biographer, too.
Not bad as a plot, all things considered – the idea of a writer of thrillers becoming the main character of a thriller is one of the great classics of thriller fiction (who knows, maybe a kind of wish-fulfilment for thriller writers).
Mickey King is a rather unpleasant fellow, a money-hungry cynic and a womanizer who left wife and family (and a job as a funeral director) behind and now lives in a country that looks like Italy, in which people speaks Italian, but is never identified as Italy. Soon, Mickey finds himself in the role of the fall guy in an intricate caper.
And Hodges piles so much stuff in the 95 minutes of the movie, that the film might burst.
There is a vast gallery of eccentrics, from the nevrotic publisher of King’s books, to a self-styled clairvoyant, to a cross-dressing hit-man and university lecturer, to an FBI agent that looks like Bogart, to a one-armed communist former partisan.
There is the make-believe southern Italy (the movie was actually shot in Malta) of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, that still looks like a wilderness peopled with grotesque characters, and is haunted by the election campaign of a sinister (if right-wing) politician whose name means “Onion” in Italian.
And there is more.
What possibly the English viewers missed is the reference to the Montesi murder, an unsolved case from 1953 that shook Italy for its political ramifications, and in which even Georges Simenon took an interest.
The body of a young woman, found dead on a beach after a party in which powerful people took part is at the origin, we will discover watching Pulp, of Mickey King’s adventure – and is also the core of the Montesi mystery.
But Pulp rolls on, slow at times, hectic at others, throwing away the real-life mystery reference together with dozens of other ideas.
Lizabeth Scott and Lionel Stander provide supporting characters, and I was quite baffled at finding Nadia Cassini, an Italian starlet and teenage heart-throb for many of my schoolmates (and a minor star in the infamous Starcrash), in the role of the leggy companion of the retired gangster.
In the end, the faux-noir plot winds down and the end titles start rolling while the characters are still talking, and there is a sense of unfinished business that leaves the viewer disoriented. But there is something hypnotic in the movie, and if the sense of futility is sometimes overwhelming, and many of the jokes are just too lame, one feels almost compelled to go through the whole 95 minutes.
Weird, weird movie, but not bad.
Not really. I think.