After scoring critically and commercially with the vicious crime thriller Get Carter (1971), star Michael Caine and writer-director Mike Hodges reteamed for a more playful look at the crime genre with Pulp, a darkly comedic romp that pokes fun at hard-boiled detective fiction and old gangster movies. Unfortunately, tonal problems prevent the duo from achieving their goals as effectively as they did in their previous collaboration: Whereas Get Carter starts slowly and builds steam but always relentlessly pursues the goal of generating violent intensity, Pulp never finds its footing in terms of mood or pacing. Yet even though Pulp drags during many flatly informative sequences and suffers from a remoteness that makes it difficult to get emotionally involved with the characters, the picture boasts swaggering style and mordant wit.
Caine stars as Mickey King, a English author of déclassé detective fiction living in Italy. He’s hired by a mysterious benefactor to travel to Malta, where he’s expected to ghostwrite his employer’s autobiography. Intrigue and murders that happen along the way to Malta show King that he’s in over his head, and his suspicions are confirmed when he meets his bizarre boss: faded movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), a onetime leading man in gangster flicks. Turns out Preston plans to use his memoir to reveal a scandalous secret involving several powerful muckety-mucks, which makes him a target and puts his ghostwriter, King, squarely in the crossfire.
Especially when viewers discover Gilbert’s unpleasant secret, it’s difficult to find much humor in Pulp’s storyline, which is nearly as nihilistic as that of Get Carter. So the fact that Hodges and Caine play the piece like a comedy, right down to Caine’s trenchantly funny noir-style voiceover, creates a jarring dissonance. In fact, watching Pulp is rather like listening to a sadist roar with laughter while describing an atrocity: The storytellers clearly find this stuff terribly droll, but their laughter isn’t contagious.
Still, the Malta locations have a vivid, sun-baked authenticity, Caine is his usual watchable self, and some of the dialogue exchanges and voiceover remarks are memorably tart. (“It was a ghost town,” Caine narrates at one point. “Two crossed coffins in the Michelin guide.”) Rooney, however, is insufferable, so amped-up and overbearing that he’s exhausting to watch, and among the supporting players, only gravel-voiced Lionel Stander is quasi-memorable as Preston’s hair-triggered manservant. As a result, Caine’s star power is the most consistently pleasurable element of this strange movie.