"The day started quietly enough. Then I got out of bed. That was my first mistake."
Mike Hodges' 1972 caper Pulp, his follow-up to the iconic Get Carter, also starring Michael Caine, screened at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival as part of the After the Wave season of "lost and forgotten" British films. It's a natural for that strand and for this column.
Slightly startled by the way audiences embraced the violent anti-hero Caine played in Carter, Hodges wrote an eccentric comedy inspired by John Huston's Beat the Devil (and even managed to cast a small-part actor from the Bogart romp). Comedy would provide an ironic distance between story and viewers. And a patina of Godardian tics and interruptions would alienate further, with Beatles producer George Martin's playful, laconic score faded in and out or rudely interrupted by crashing blasts of typewriter pounding.
Caine plays Mickey King, a former funeral director who's made a new life for himself dictating kinky, hardboiled thrillers in the Spillane mold. But King himself is no Mike Hammer: Caine discards his Carter persona completely, donning gigantic tinted specs, rumpled white suit, kipper tie, bouffant hair. King starts ineffectual, failing to hail a cab even as his smart voice-over describes his speedy progress, and winds up utterly impotent. And impotent in the face of some serious bad guys.
"Hello, hello, hello, hello, you big long-legged whore you."
Concerned by the resurgence of support for fascism in Italy, Hodges penned a story set "somewhere in the Mediterranean" (obviously based on Italy, but filmed in Malta) taking in the new "law and order" politics, the Mafia, and B-movie and pulp fiction clichés. Hired to ghost-write the autobiography of a dying Hollywood tough-guy actor (an ebullient, explosive Mickey Rooney), King becomes a target when the deported ex-star 's old cronies suspect he's spilled the beans on a long-ago scandal. Hodges took his inspiration from the Montesi scandal, where a girl's corpse was found on a beach, apparently the casualty of an out-of-control orgy involving highly placed political personages. When this tragic backstory collides with the antic, flippant yarn Hodges has been spinning, a sudden weft of darkness emerges, and the movie heads, in bizarre and lolloping fashion, towards a typically bleak and despairing ending: Hodges' levity always expresses a rather dour, scabrous world-view, and the more apparently flippant his tone, the more savage his intent.
Asides from Caine and Rooney, Pulp boasts a majestically crazed cast, including Lizabeth Scott, Al Lettieri (whose presence is not the only Godfather allusion) and wonderful, raddled old Dennis Price, a red herring who quotes Lewis Carroll, perhaps to help orient us in the film's surreal wonderland terrain. And the sound of tectonic plates grinding together is produced by the rasping vokes of Lionel Stander, mighty character player belching around a cigar. Starlet Nadia Cassini is "introduced" and adds unfeasible pulchritude, falling into bed with the hero in the best pulp manner.
"Pulp you are and to pulp you shall return."
Part of the film's delight is the way it ignores structure and seemingly just rambles: the hero takes forever to arrive at Rooney's place to start his job, and then the entire book is written in between two scenes (which proves a niftier approach than Polanski's in the excellent The Ghost Writer). Oddball characters turn up out of the blue and derail the narrative, and yet seemingly gratuitous gags and grotesques do turn out to have deeper plot or thematic resonance. An armless man drinking Coke through a straw seems to embody the whole relationship of Europe to America. And his helpless suckling on the capitalist teat seems to foreshadow King's eventual fate, laid up and discredited, frantically trying to write himself a happy ending.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.