The opening credits of Mike Hodges’ under appreciated 1972 film, Pulp, are a delight for any fan of cheap pulp paperback fiction. As text roles across the screen (in type writer font, of course), the camera pans between the faces of the three female stenographers transcribing the words of sleazy English expat pulp writer, Mickey King (Michael Caine). As Caine’s nasal voice-over recites his latest novel, The Organ Grinder, we see the different reactions of the women, disgust, shock, and excitement. It’s a reminder that once, before it was reduced to an object of outre fascination for its cover art, pulp fiction elicited strong emotions.
The movie shifts to King, in his cheap white suit and big hair, Jack Carter – the character he played in Hodges’ Get Carter only a year earlier – gone to seed, stepping out of the Italian hotel he lives in to hail a cab. As he sits in the reception area waiting for his completed manuscript, King’s voice-over goes: “The writer’s life would be ideal but for the writing. This was a problem I had to overcome. Then I read the Guinness Book of Records about Earl Stanley Gardner, the world’s fastest novelist who would dictate up to the rate of ten thousand words every day. That was for me. None of that romantic stuff with a typewriter.”
“Your manuscript rather took my staff by surprise…” says the sleazy owner of the transcription firm. “What I read, I personally found very stimulating.” He adds, “Are your books in any way autobiographical?”
Like a lot of good pulp writers, King is proficient of projecting an aura of mystery when in fact he’s just is a struggling hack desperate to make money. Thus, when a mysterious gravel voiced American called Dinuccio (character actor Lionel Stander), asks whether he would be interested in ghost writing the story of his boss in return for a great deal of money, King jumps at it. Dinuccio refuses to divulge the subject’s identity. All he’ll says is the individual is old, famous and wants to leave a legacy in the form of his story to the world. “A death rattle in paperback, eh?” says King.
King finds himself on a tour bus heading to the south of Italy, with instructions to stick with the group until he is contacted him with details of the next phase of his journey. King thinks his contact might be American university academic, Jake Miller (Al Lettieri, fresh from his role as Sollozzo in The Godfather), who befriends him on the bus ride. That is until King finds Miller murdered in his room. But the death elicits no police or media interest, a situation made even more bizarre the next morning when the hotel’s receptionist professes to know nothing of the killing and informs King that Miller had to suddenly return to the US on business.
While sight seeing in an ancient temple, King is contacted by a super 8 camera-wielding woman, Liz (Nadia Cassini), who takes him to the villa of his intended assignment, Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). Gilbert is a vain, bombastic former actor who became famous portraying on-screen gangsters before his real life connections to the Mob saw him deported from America to Italy.
That King doesn’t believe a word that comes out of Gilbert’s mouth doesn’t stop him from writing every word of it down. He is more than a little concerned, however, when his subject lets slip that someone may be trying to kill him because they are worried Gilbert is telling King too much. In particular, there is the matter of a misdeed Gilbert was involved in several years ago, a terrible crime committed by a bunch of rich Italian men of which he was a part. Does that mean King’s life could be in danger as well?
In a 2014 article he wrote for the British Film Institute site, Hodges revealed Pulp has its origins in a real crime, the 1953 murder of a young woman, Wilma Montesi, found drowned on a beach 15 miles south of Rome. ‘On the basis of very shaky evidence the communist press talked of murder and a political cover-up in an attempt to undermine the Christian Democrat government. Rumours were rife when the doctors who examined Wilma’s body contradicted each other. She was a virgin; she wasn’t a virgin; she was pregnant; her stomach was empty, was full of ice cream, was full of drugs. Suspects were arrested then set free. Soon film stars, priests, prostitutes, members of a hunting syndicate, aristocrats all became embroiled. Even the ‘Wizard of Milan’ helped the police with their investigations. The scandal continued for years and the case remains unresolved to this day.’
This source story aside, the closest screen analogy to Pulp I can think of is Robert Altman’s 1973 film, The Long Goodbye. Pulp has a similar world weary, cynical protagonist, the same sense of fatalism and tempo, and a floating, discursive mood. Like the The Long Goodbye, Pulp plays off classic film noir and the doubled edged attraction of Hollywood, a place both exploitative and alluring. This is emphasised by Pulp’s cast, which includes Lisbeth Scott, who appeared in film noirs such as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Too Late For Tears (1949), as the wife of an Italian politician. Gilbert is an obvious stand in for George Raft, the real life American actor who came to big screen prominence playing gangsters in the thirties and forties, before his career went into decline and he was deported for his alleged real links to Mafia. He ended his days in working as a people greeter in a London casino.
What’s most enjoyable about Pulp is its extended riff on the world of cheap mass produced literature. King’s frequent voice-overs drip with cheap pulp fiction cadence and pulp literature is everywhere in the film. A woman sitting behind King on the tour bus can be prominently seen reading a copy of True Detective magazine. “What do you write?” asks Miller when he first meets King. “Gangster fiction, pulp would be less pompous and more accurate.” A fan of cheap crime fiction, Miller has a copy of King’s latest book, My Gun Is Long, written under the pseudonym, Guy Strange. Kings picks it up and reads the front cover blurb aloud: “Sensual, brutal, Strange provides us with a Devil’s dictionary of our secret visions and desires.”
Pulp fiction was on its last legs by time this movie appeared, a victim of changing tastes and the rise of television and film as the main vehicles of mass adult escapism. But despite how ubiquitous it was, few films have made pulp fiction a part of their story.
There is the character of Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) in the 1949 film, The Third Man, an American pulp western writer who arrives in allied occupied Vienna after the war seeking his childhood friend Harry Lime. Another example is Massino Pupillo’s bizarre 1965 film, The Bloody Pit of Horror, about a photographer and his models who go to an abandoned castle to shoot sexy covers for giallo novels, only to discover it is inhabited by a lunatic who believes he is the reincarnation of a 17th Century executioner. The only modern example of pulp in cinema I can think of is the 2005 murder mystery, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. One of the characters, an out of work actor (Michelle Monaghan) is obsessed by the books of a pulp writer based on Brett Halliday, the pen name of Davis Dresser, an American mystery writer, best known for the long-lived series of Mike Shayne novels.
Its celebration of the era of cheaply produced, quickly written mass paperback fiction, alone, makes Pulp a must see film.