Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), the old-time Hollywood actor whose gangster roles may have carried over into real life, arrives 40 minutes in to Mike Hodges’ 1972 neo-noir, Pulp, and he is only in three scenes. But his presence dominates. Gilbert is the reason that our protagonist, pulp fiction writer Mickey King (Michael Caine), lands in this particular shadowy maze of circumstances, and, through Rooney’s apparent total disregard for likability, the character becomes a standout in a film well-stocked with eccentric characters, plot twists, political machinations, and dark humor.
King lets us know in a perfectly noir voiceover that he is an advocate of quantity over quality in his writing. His goal is to generate 10,000 words a day, no matter what. He writes under a variety of pseudonyms for a publisher who matches him in shadiness. Summoned to the office one day, he is asked to ghost-write an autobiography for an actor. The actor’s emissary, Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander), is a gangster right out of Central Casting. He tells King that the subject’s identity and location must remain a secret. If the author agrees to work on the project, he will be sent on a 5-day sight-seeing tour, and another go-between will make contact at some point on the road, ultimately leading him to his still-unknown subject.
Suffice to say, King is intrigued, and then progressively less so, as he endures quite an entertaining (for us) rigamarole, including an attempt on his life. Just before he finally arrives at the isolated island home of his mysterious quarry, he learns the latter’s identity: Preston Gilbert, who was, according to King, “one of screen’s immortal mobsters, hero-worshipped and imitated around the world,” but is now “a two-bit blown-out film star.” Director Hodges also wrote the script and based the character on George Raft, who had a faded career and inconvenient Mafia ties.
Rooney had already shown in films like Baby Face Nelson and Quicksand that he was interested in going beyond the apple-pie persona that had made him famous, and in Pulp, he was not afraid to appear narcissistic, pathetic, or repellent. We first meet him cooking in a sauna, savagely berating the attendant, who has fallen asleep.
He then orders the attendant to get into the sauna himself, in a shot emphasizing his shorter stature.
Gilbert is no one to mess with…he seems as nasty as anyone Raft, Edward D. Robinson or Jimmy Cagney ever portrayed…the attendant does as he’s told. Next we see the actor getting ready for dinner. In showing us Gilbert’s vanity, Rooney completely abandons his own. Parading around in his skivvies, posing in front of his gigantic mirrored closet, bellowing along to a phonograph record, putting on a toupée…
(Bonus points when he opens the closet doors, and there’s, yep, another mirror.)
At dinner, Gilbert reveals more of his loudmouthed unlikability. He is demanding with his staff, coarse and insulting to his wife, and doesn’t even respect his elderly mother. When Gilbert hears there’s someone trying to kill King, he is elated. Despite King’s misgivings, they begin to work on the book, which is completed in a week. Then a couple of scenes later, at a book wrap dinner, Gilbert is murdered. He had been such a practical joker that at first no one believes he’s actually dead, even though they saw it happen. The rest of the film is King’s attempt to find out whodunit, not because he feels any particular affection for Gilbert, but because the same person(s) are after him.
There is much to recommend Pulp: a solid, irony-laden neo-noir plot, witty lines, sight gags, and great performances from everyone from the bit players to Caine to Lizabeth Scott, one of noir‘s best actresses. One of the most interesting of these aspects to me, though, is Rooney’s brief turn as swaggering has-been Preston Gilbert, a role which showcased the actor’s dedication to his craft and willingness to be seen in an unflattering light. Pulp wouldn’t be the same undiscovered classic it is without him.
This post is part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken & Freckled, taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and check out the megapost for a complete list of entries. You can access the entire getTV schedule here and check to see if getTV is available in your area here.