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The Forgotten: Bad Words

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"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.

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"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.

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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.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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Pulp is a lot of fun, and it was great seeing Lizabeth Scott in it.
Pulp is a strange movie in that I felt I should be enjoying it more than I actually did. It’s a film that is better in hindsight, for me anyway, than it is experiencing it. The cast, who all seem to be enjoying themselves, feel a little like they’ve been coached to think of their performances as being parts of vastly different films and the structure refused me a strong sense of coherence to the affair. Still, it sticks in my mind well enough that some day I’m sure I’ll have to give it another go, which is more than I can say for most films.
I think Pulp challenges us to enjoy incoherence rather than the conventional pleasures of coherence. And yet it has a unique and consistent tone of its own and projects a serious vision of a world exploited by the rich and powerful, while ordinary people are impotent or bamboozled. Stander and Scott et al are delightful, and I enjoy the sense of disintegration at the end. Mr Hodges expressed regret at starting the end credits while the film is still happening, but I love that!
At a recent live appearance here in L.A. (where she’s lived for eons) Lizabeth Scott said she had the most wonderful time making “Pulp” and adored Mike Hodges.
I imagine hanging out in Malta with a fun bunch like that would’ve been pretty pleasurable. Mike seems to get on well with his actors, his boundless enthusiasm must give them confidence.
“Pulp” needs multiple viewings to really appreciate it—or at least it did for me. I was rather underwhelmed the first time I watched “Pulp.” I remember it playing for maybe a week in theaters when it was first released. I did not get a chance to see it until it was released on DVD a few years ago. After years of reading about about it, maybe I was expecting too much. But on second, third & more viewings it really grows on you—the performances and the subtle off-kilter humor really do stick in one’s mind.
“Pulp” is a real gem that deserves to be better known for a director too often identified with “Get Carter” Good as it is, we must remember that Orson Welles felt he had done better films that CITIZEN KANE.

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