Few films have dashed expectations quite so severely as Pulp, which re-teamed Mike Hodges and Michael Caine, director and star, respectively, of 1971's iconic Get Carter. The steely, affectless cool of Caine's tragic Get Carter hero put its stamp on the era, but anyone turning up for Pulp in search of a second serving found Caine playing a man more schemed-against than scheming, and a film more interested in misdirection and black comedy than sweet revenge. A flop in its day, Pulp has slowly gathered a small cult following over the years, and it's now possible to see it as a companion piece to Carter. It substitutes seaside sun for Newcastle gloom, and goofy sight gags for vicious beatings, but both find Caine exploring a world of moral rot where nothing is quite what it seems.
This time out, Caine plays a pulp writer who's fled a wife and kids for an easier life in an unnamed Mediterranean country (actually Malta), where he dictates sex-and-violence-filled page-turners that get the typing pool at his transcription service all hot and bothered. Nothing much stirs him, however, except maybe the promise of money and sex. He ends up not getting much of either in Pulp, and Hodges seems to take perverse glee in thwarting his desires—and, maybe not coincidentally, the audience's desires as well. After getting roped into a ghostwriting gig, Caine winds up writing the memoirs of a Hollywood tough guy (Mickey Rooney) whose mob ties have driven him into exile. But unseen forces are conspiring to silence both the writer and his subject.
While the bouncy George Martin score seems not to notice any shifts, Pulp keeps changing shape from sunny romp to drawing-room mystery and never quite making it back again. Pulp plays a bit slack, which sometimes feels like laziness on Hodges' part, particularly after the Carter tour de force. But the shapelessness feeds into a deep-felt cynicism about politics, Hollywood, and storytelling, even the story the film's trying to tell. It's an eye-catching, vividly acted, deeply unsatisfying film, and all those elements appear to be part of the design.
Key features: None.