Meta Man

Mike Hodges, Pulp, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. The Bogeymen (Robert Sacchi) and Betty Cippola (Lizabeth Scott).

QUENTIN TARANTINO WAS JUST A TYKE PLAYING DIRTY DOZEN with G.I. Joes in his backyard and “meta” was a mere prefix when English director-writer Mike Hodges’s Pulp (1972) poked its proto-postmodernist nose out a wormhole. This elusive contender for the title of “Curiouser and Curiouser Movie of 1972” then vanished into the footnotes of star and coproducer Michael Caine’s career. Riffing, for starters, on Mickey “I, the Jury” Spillane and Lewis Carroll, Pulp has an inexplicably serene sense of its B-movie preposterousness, and is awash in droll echoes and allusions. A quarter century of hardboiled tropes calmly pass before your blinking eyes, gently scrambled together with more reputable or zany movie borrowings. Coming on the heels of Get Carter, Hodges and Caine’s brutalist 1971 gangster landmark, Pulp is the equivalent of Tarantino following Reservoir Dogs (1992) with the pulp-fictive What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

What’s delightful about Pulp is that while it belongs in a line of irreverent, offhand noir deviations, from The Big Sleep (1946) and Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) to Beat the Devil (1953) and even Jean-Luc Godard’s Samuel Fuller brush-off Made in USA (1966), it doesn’t mimic them. There are choreographed mishaps and baroque grotesqueries that wouldn’t be out of place in films by Tati or Fellini. Preceding Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) by a year, it’s easy to imagine Caine’s nonchalantly seedy paperback hack Mickey King as a dour verbal sparring partner for Elliott Gould’s benighted-knight version of Philip Marlowe—they inhabit the same decrepit world of buckling, termite-eaten myths, though they are separated by continents.

Mike Hodges, Pulp, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. The Partisan (Amerigo Tot) and Mickey King (Michael Caine).

As the ghostwriter roped in to do the memoirs of the mob-connected, faded movie star Preston Gilbert (inhabited with blustery, tragicomic desperation by Mickey Rooney—it takes a washed-up legend to really play one), Caine is all poker-faced facade: a Bogart mask pasted over a Vacancy sign. His voice-overs are slyly at odds with his character’s spinelessness: Having left his London job as a funeral director, as well as his wife and three children, he is struck by the realization that “the writer’s life would be ideal except for the writing.” He gets around that impediment by dictating his books. Caine milks this unreliable narrator conceit for all it’s worth, and his confidence-trickster knack for leveraging ersatz honesty into a simulation of authenticity becomes a cynical parody of the author-as-hero that almost transcends itself.

Pulp has a classic opening: Ten women with headphones sit transcribing his tapes, which are heard on the soundtrack as it jumps from one woman/chapter to another. “A typing pool somewhere in the Mediterranean,” reads the screen caption as he spins his lurid sadomasochistic reveries, and the assorted typists’ expressions are a facial ballet of shock, amusement, arousal, and stoic indifference. His flaky publisher prefers King be a man of many pseudonyms: Guy Strange, Les Behan, O. R. Gann, and S. Odomy. (A not so fanciful touch—I had a friend who wrote quickie porn paperbacks in the seventies under names like Bjorn Toulouse.) “That’s how it all began,” he says of the ordinary trip to deliver his manuscript to his publisher’s office. “That bizarre adventure that put five people in the cemetery and ruled me out as a customer for laxatives.”

The first twenty minutes alternate small platters of exposition with a big salad of slapstick bits about the crash-happy proclivities of taxi drivers and protracted bathroom jokes, which dovetail into the cheerful disjunction of fascist marchers being heckled and gawked at while parading down narrow streets. The closest thing to action is a truck hand-painted with the lettering “Al Capone” plowing through a couple of open car doors on the fender-bending taxis. Seemingly random bits like the stiff-necked fascists slowly begin to insinuate patterns, an anxious shift in the weather that takes half the movie to start registering. From the start, images of the New Front candidate are plastered everywhere. By the end of the film, this petty aristocrat—some small-fry prince—named Frank Cippola will pose on a shooting platform, a mini-Mussolini gunning down wild boar and drinking champagne. (The film’s last shot is of him in sinister freeze-frame, undercutting the bogus prattle of King’s latest manuscript.)

Mike Hodges, Pulp, 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 95 minutes. Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney).

In between, there’s a plethora of unexpected developments and clever set pieces, inspired casting (Lionel Stander, a blacklisted ham, chortling like a cement mixer with a head cold), a constant stream of oddball bit players and gargoyle faces (an ancient villager drinking Coca-Cola through a straw belongs in an unnatural history museum), and scenery that is somehow both magnificently ornate and utterly desolated and decrepit. Malta was drafted as a substitute for Rome when Hodges and his company were beset with extortionate mafia demands, but it proved to be a great replacement. Ousama Rawi’s cinematography finds formal arrangements hiding in every architectural nook and awkward civilian posture, but production designer Patrick Downing and production supervisor Robert Sterne outdid themselves with the locations and interiors they discovered and dressed. The publisher’s office is one masterpiece among many—sleazy book posters hang on the regal walls that look about a half-century past their demolish-by date. Most of the rooms in the movie seem palatial but are as cluttered as a hoarder’s den, as if built for aristocrats who went bankrupt chasing the splendors of The Leopard and wound up building Grey Gardens instead. Even the hotel hosting a cheesy package tour is a mix of grandiosity and spartan accommodation: split-level rooms where you have to climb an eight-foot staircase to get to the bathroom. (A literal water closest.)

Included in the Blu-ray booklet of Pulp is the text of a letter from J. G. Ballard, who offered Hodges a heartfelt endorsement: “I must have watched the tape a dozen times . . . Best of all was the great Mickey Rooney . . . You drew a fantastic performance out of him, which can’t have been easy—I love the scene of his dressing, moving layers of flattering mirrors past himself.” He was right about Rooney, seesawing between broad comedy and authentic malevolence—“Hey, Bennie, has mama eaten this week?”—and embodying a sour shared pathology of criminals and showbiz rats. Caine and the forever insouciant Lizabeth Scott, one of those 1940s femme fatales blessed/cursed to usually be the best thing in whatever she appeared in, were fully on that wavelength. Cutting a slim dagger-like figure as Betty Cippola (doubtless meant to suggest Lauren Bacall, who was known as “Betty” to her friends), Scott played Rooney’s former wife and the current one of the fascist politician—a princess who tease-taunts Caine, “Come up to my castle sometime.” She also pinches the nose of a huge stone bust of the prince: “Just win, Dago.”

Also unforgettable: Dennis Price of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) trading Alice in Wonderland quotes with Caine, as well as delivering plaintive lines like, “Don’t blame me. You shot the projectionist.” Rough customer Al Lettieri’s tourist—a Berkeley literature professor who is a secret hitman and, beneath all of that, a closeted cross-dresser—comes back from the dead after seemingly being rubbed out. Among Mike Hodges’s other indelible images: the impish hippie girl with the little movie camera, the tourist bus with a Tarzan movie screeching on a monitor over the driver and stewardess, and the grand, traditional funeral Rooney’s character receives. There he is, interned in a mausoleum surrounded by stained glass renderings of posters for his old movies.

Pulp is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.