Our lookback at the 1970s work of Michael Caine arrives at his second collaboration with Get Carter director Mike Hodges: it’s Pulp.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie and The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for Pulp lie ahead…
Directed by: Mike Hodges (Get Carter, Flash Gordon, Morons from Outer Space, Croupier)
Tagline: Write it. Live it. But Try Not To Be It.
Other Featured Geezers: Mickey Rooney as Preston Gilbert, Lionel Stander as Ben Dinuccio, Lizabeth Scott as Betty Cippola, Nadia Cassini as Liz, Dennis Price as The Englishman.
What’s it all about, Alfie?: Caine plays Mickey King, a louche writer of lurid pulp novels (under such colourful pseudonyms as S. Odomy, Les Bian and Paul S. Cumming) who becomes embroiled in a real life pulpy plot, involving murder and sordid secrets, after he agrees to ghost-write the life story of retired movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a larger than life prankster known for playing gangsters and with alleged connections to the actual mob.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Hot on the heels of his miserable and shouty turn as a despicable blighter in Zee and Co it’s a massive relief to find Caine at perhaps his most relaxed and amusingly deadpan here.
The opening credits list this as a Klinger/Caine/Hodges production, so I’m guessing that Caine may have had some creative input. Perhaps this explains why it was shot on location in sunny Malta (a nice change from Get Carter’s rainy Newcastle).
Caine’s Mickey King is comically unflappable throughout, whether he’s finding dead bodies in his bath or witnessing car accidents (apart from when he loses it a bit and tells a goat to “sod off”…but that goat did have it coming).
Despite him looking a bit shabbier than normal, with his long hair and slightly rounder middle, he’s still very much the ladies’ man which is pushed to such extremes that it’s played for laughs. He starts getting off with a woman in the middle of a tour group despite only having met her a few moments ago. He also passes the time that he has to wait to see his publisher by snogging the secretary (who carries on doing her transcribing mid-snog).
Jarvis Cocker was apparently inspired by this film to name his band Pulp, and you can see elements of Cocker’s stage persona and dress sense in Mickey King. The funny little awkward dance that Caine does after putting on a record is very much in the Jarvis Cocker style.
In spite of Mickey King being our lead, he’s very much not the typical hero and is actually a bit of a dopey loser. One of the first things that we see is him trying to hail a cab and spectacularly failing. When a taxi does eventually stop for him, another immediately crashes right into the back of it causing the two drivers to get out and scrap. A van then speeds by and knocks both cab doors off. So…King gives up and decides to walk. Tom Cruise wouldn’t stand for that!
His backstory is also suitably banal and unheroic. We find out that he left a lucrative job as a funeral director (and his wife) to become an author. When Preston questions whether the wound on Mickey’s leg is a war one, he responds “no, a coffin fell on me”. Also, the last words that he gets in the film are the fittingly pathetic: “ooh, I wish my leg didn’t itch”. And on top of all this he doesn’t even like being a writer, saying “the writer’s life would be ideal, but for the writing. That was the problem I had to overcome”.
One last note: this is an excellent advert for Caine’s audiobook reading skills. He has a lovely soothing voice which we are treated to during the opening when he’s dictating his latest novel. Considering that he’s describing graphic violence and kinky sex it’s very relaxing. The women that we see listening in the typing pool are certainly into it.
The deadpan and jokey pulp style voiceover that Caine delivers throughout is consistently enjoyable too. Some choice lines:
“The day started quietly enough. Then I got out of bed. That was my first mistake.”
“All that reading had gone to his stomach. He was constipated with pulp and now it was coming out all over me”
“This story was like some pornographic photograph. Difficult to work out who was doing what and to whom”
This is Caine’s second film directed by Mike Hodges after the previous year’s Get Carter.
Also, just like in Get Carter, there’s a scene near the climax where Caine gets shot at whilst he’s on a beach.
The most important connection is that this is the second film in a row where there is a medium close up shot of Caine’s mush covered in shaving foam (I think that I may have stumbled upon an important, hitherto undiscovered, running theme that could be the key to unlocking the secrets of Caine’s long career).
Best Non-Caine Actor:
Pulp is stuffed full of memorably quirky supporting characters such as Dennis Price as an eccentric English vegetarian who likes quoting Lewis Carroll, Lionel Stander as Gilbert’s avuncular right-hand man, Al Lettieri as a cross dressing hitman and Leopoldo Trieste as a publisher with a Boycie moustache and a weak bladder.
Mickey Rooney is on top form playing against type as a mob-affiliated actor and he’s not afraid to look silly. You get a fairly long sequence of an ageing pot-bellied Rooney posing in front of a mirror in his pants (in cast that’s your thing, no judgement here) and you also see him awkwardly fixing a wig to his head. The first that we see of him is when he’s stuck in a steam bath with a towel wrapped around his neck. He’s been left in too long as his employee fell asleep and so he’s got gotten burnt and is not best pleased.
Rooney’s Preston Gilbert is an interesting character. A vain and deluded former star who every year repeats the same prank where he pretends to be a waiter and does a slapstick routine with a random couple, dropping spaghetti on their laps and spilling wine on them. He’s such a notorious prankster that when he gets shot dead by a sunglasses wearing priest, the party goers initially think it’s just another of his jokes.
Rooney doesn’t get a ton of screen time in this, but he’s good value whenever you see him. His was my favourite performance of the film (although mostly this could have just been relief that he’s not playing a Japanese man again).
Most Terrifying Mickey Rooney/Elmer Fudd Portrait:
Sexiest Soft Drink Product Placement:
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
First things first, this is no Get Carter, but thankfully it never tries to be and Mike Hodges actually seems to be going out of his way to create something totally different. This is a much sillier and more playful film. It’s never trying to be a serious thriller and deliberately undercuts what could otherwise be tense moments such as when we see the man tailing King, very unsuccessfully, hiding behind a slim tree. The driver of the taxi that King has just gotten into then shouts at the, very noticeable, man to come give the stalled taxi a push, which he has to then reluctantly do.
There are silly moments throughout, such as quite amusing recurring jokes about bad drivers, but sometimes it can feel that the filmmakers are self-indulgently including gags just to make themselves laugh rather than them being entirely necessary (or particularly funny). One example is when a man who looks like Humphrey Bogart asks “what kind of bird is that?” to a Peter Lorre-looking guy standing next to a bird on a perch and he responds “it’s a Maltese Falcon”.
Another is where some women are doing a photoshoot dressed as Edwardians for a politician’s voting campaign, and holding letter signs, and they turn around after a camera is knocked over and how some of them are holding the individual letters now says “F” “*” “*” “K”.
Both of these visual gags would have taken a while to orchestrate, and are both equally unconnected to the film as a whole (I have no idea who those Edwardians are), and subsequently definitely not worth the time and money. This is a good snapshot of the film as a whole, which often feels like Mike Hodges just messing around and trying different things to amuse himself.
Which does lead nicely on to how creative the film often is. There’s a really cool tracking shot across a hotel, starting at the bar where the hostess is having fun with some patrons and then panning across to see King enter and walk across to the restaurant. Admittedly there’s no real point to this but it’s nice to watch all the same.
There’s a lot of fun had with the dichotomy between King’s smooth, often dramatically heightened, voiceover and the actual mundane realities that we see play out on screen. After King is shot his voiceover describes how he used his shirt as a tourniquet and walked off, whereas we actually just see him put his finger on the bloody stain, look at it and faint.
In one of the film’s highlights, we see the inner thoughts of various coach passengers including a tour guide who wants an attractive man to notice her, a nerdy young guy who thinks the tour guide is actually flirting with him, and an older lady reading a crime magazine.
The main plot ultimately becomes a bit confused. As I previously mentioned, I don’t think Hodges intended to tell a serious thriller story and so the plotting was probably willfully lax, but this is a shame as compelling ideas are introduced and then swiftly disregarded. When King is on the mystery coach tour, he believes that a killer is onboard and may make another attempt on his life, and so he must work out which of the other passengers it is. However, this plotline quickly ends and it would have been quite an intriguing setup for a whole film!
Considering the pedigree of the talent involved – George Martin did the score, frequent James Bond editor and director John Glen was the editor and of course Mike Hodges was the director – this film is surprisingly unfocused and somewhat slight. I was actually surprised to learn that George Martin did the music as it’s pretty unmemorable. This is no-one’s worst work, but it’s also certainly far from their best, and proves that no matter how great the individual components this doesn’t always guarantee greatness as a whole.
Here’s a few gems taken verbatim from IMDB;
My favourite, obnoxiously pedantic, one: “If taken at face value, according to the opening credits, the title would be Pulp Pulp Pulp Pulp Pulp Pulp since the title is typed (with a typewriter sound), stacked six times, unlike all the other titles, actors and crew, only typed once”.
This one may be overly generous with crediting Caine with inventing a whole new hairstyle, but I’ll give it to him: “Michael Caine played Mike Myers’ character’s dad in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002), and in this movie, Caine seems to have invented what would later become the Austin Powers hairstyle.”
Lastly, I have absolutely no idea what to make of this one (3 out of 7 people found it interesting though): “Lionel Stander curses “Jesus Wept!” when in fact that’s a Bible verse, the shortest in the Bible, John 11:35”
This film is all over the place but for the most part I had a good time. It’s a decent length, 90 mins, and so doesn’t overstay its welcome and has fun relaxed performances from a quality cast. It’s worth a watch but I could understand if some don’t have the patience for its occasionally self-indulgent quirks. Most importantly you should not be expecting Get Carter Part 2 or you will end up very disappointed and very confused.
Rating: 3 and a half Suspicious Sunglasses Wearing Priests out of 5
Where You Can Watch This: This isn’t currently streaming anywhere but is available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.
Up Next: Caine goes toe to toe with acting heavyweight Laurence Olivier in the excellently twisty two-hander Sleuth.
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