Pulp has all the ingredients that should make a good movie: Michael Caine, neo-noir plot, Maltese Falcon references, murder most foul…so why does it kind of suck? Well, luckily for you I’ll tell you why.
Plot first: Michael Caine is Mickey King. A pulp novelist who is hired to write the biography of actor/mob guy Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney in a great turn). Bodies start to pile up, King is fired on repeatedly and the plot twists and turns.
Here’s the first problem with Pulp – the voiceover. Michael Caine is not suited for the Sam Spade wisecracking, tough guy delivery. Caine’s is dry, droll and even bored. Caine is a great actor and I’m sure he’s capable of the performance, but director Mike Hodges probably deserves some of the blame for really playing it down. The one-liners have no zing. All falls flat.
Why else is the voiceover problematic? Well, it takes the place of so much visual information. We are constantly told, via Mickey King’s VO, what is happening rather than seeing it for ourselves. Weak plotting and poor visuals.
Voiceover should, in my opinion, function usually in two ways: as reference to classic film usage, or as reinforcement or contradiction to the visuals. In Pulp the VO is an attempt at the former, which falls short due to performance, and it mostly ignores the latter, except for a few moments that I’ll describe here:
There’s a point in Pulp when you realize that Mickey King may be unreliable as a narrator. He finds a beautiful woman in his bed. His voiceover tells us, “I flipped off the light and showed her the door. I have my pride.” But in the film he tells her to “move over” and gets into bed with her. This is one of a few times where the VO contradicts the action and actually becomes interesting. Is the VO the novel that King is writing in his head? Is the VO King’s obsession with the masculine characters that populate his pulp novels? Is the VO simply a reason for us to distrust King? I wish Hodges had explored these more. Instead they feel like comedic throwaway moments and carry no weight. Caine’s Mickey King remains a one-dimensional character who has intermittent fantasies of stereotypical machismo rather than a fully-formed character who rides the line between said machismo and the real life he wishes were fictional.
Pulp is perhaps the most monochrome film I have ever seen. Everything is tan, beige, white or brown. The film looks like mud. It’s such a boring look and it’s difficult to fathom the reasoning behind it. It feels like an attempt to make the aesthetics match the slow-plotting thriller, but it really just comes off as a dull-looking and ill-thought visual strategy.
Pulp aspires to be a Sam Fuller film – Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss come to mind – in it’s intentionally hackneyed plot, heavy-handed progression and cool but weak protagonist, but Hodges cannot match Fuller’s visual panache. I really just wanted to say panache. Hodges’ characters are also much simpler than one in a Fuller film.
Hodges would later make better films – Croupier and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead come to mind – but this one doesn’t cut it.