Michael Caine in Pulp | Clothes on Film

Pulp (1972) stars Michael Caine as Mickey King. Strolling around Malta in a white cord suit and kipper tie, he is the epitome of badly folded cool.

Pulp was written and directed by Mike Hodges as only his second feature. It reunited the director with Michael Caine one year after they made grim, seminal revenge thriller Get Carter together. Often described as the ‘anti-Carter’, this film, as its title suggests, is happy to be its low-brow cousin.

Caine as apathetic yet successful novelist Mickey King is drawn into a world of sub-007 spy and murder shenanigans when he accepts the job of ghost writer for a reclusive actor’s autobiography. It’s a likeable jaunt, if a tad disjointed to sustain interest by the final act. As ever Caine is the perfect choice for the man in a suit. Imagine Cary Grant thru a spin dryer and you’re close:

White corduroy single breasted suit, ventless with wide lapels and two button fastening; low-waist trousers with boot kick leg; plain black leather belt with brass buckle; beige side zip ankle boots; high neck, light blue striped overlaid on geometric print pointed collar shirt, single cuff with double buttons; brown woollen ‘kipper’ four in hand necktie; thick black frame eyeglasses with straight bridge and pink lenses.

This same white suit is worn for the entire movie. It is not necessarily a great fit, the jacket is long and trouser waist low resulting in lofty Caine’s legs appearing unusually stubby. However his steep cutaway collar shirt is imminently more flattering.

During a handful of scenes when King is relaxing with his reclusive millionaire subject Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), he sports a muddy brown rollneck instead of shirt and necktie. After Gilbert is assassinated during a farcical restaurant sequence and a subsequent attempt is made on his own life (where hilariously King runs away and cowers behind a table to avoid being hit), he changes back into the more formal shirt and tie.

Not that the tone of this film gets any more serious. Hodges and Caine keep proceedings breezy. Even when King takes a bullet during the finale he appears more puzzled than panicked.

Though relatively light on trouser flare, Caine’s suit is definitely indicative of the 1970s. As a decade that borrowed heavily from movie gangsters of the 1930s-40s, there are many flamboyant touches to suits and shirts that in retrospect may appear vulgar. The rounded patch pockets on King’s jacket chest and hip are innovative, if hardly subtle. Nor too is the thick corduroy fabric; heavy and completely inappropriate for running around the Med.

Michael Caine’s costume is plainly chosen to be jarring; King is a presence in clothes that indicate his life has ‘shifted up a gear’. Essentially King wears success on his sleeve.

A typical seventies vibe is not only evident in King’s flamboyant attire (note too the all brown colour palette), his mind-set, while not obviously misogynistic, is certainly homophobic. King’s (narrated) summation after finding a blonde toupee in a man’s suitcase is an abrupt equation of the terms ‘transvestite’ and ‘fag’. Clearly he views transvestism as a blatant signifier for homosexuality, perhaps in the same way that some may view his pink lens spectacles today? In other words, King was who he was because of where he was – a product of his time.

Plus, he is playing a character. King narrates the story as a pulp novel with obvious deviations from the truth, such as his suit being “light blue with black moccasins” or that he “removed his shirt to use as a tourniquet”, when in actual fact he passed out in a heap at the sight of his own blood.

Michael Caine is not the only notable costume presence in Pulp. The female cast, mostly although not exclusively comprising ladies under thirty gazing dreamily at King, wear immensely covetable trouser suits (with huge bell bottoms), empire line mini-dresses, wide collar shirts and knee-high leather boots, generally accessorised by loose perms and beehives. Costume design is by Gitt Magrini accompanied by a ‘Costumes made by’ credit attributed to Italian tailor, Umberto Tirelli.

Likewise distinctive, Mickey Rooney’s deluded The Godfather type Gilbert is characteristic of the appearance obsessed gangster born out of Depression era America. He has a closet stuffed full of clothes in luxury draped fabrics and obviously revels in the formality of dressing.

At one point Gilbert is head to toe Cagney in dark grey chalkstripe double breasted suit and homburg. He looks ridiculous contrasted alongside the arid Maltese landscape, and yet seems blissfully unaware of how others perceive him. Compare with Caine in an earlier scene as he lounges with his leg up exposing his pant crotch and dandy style zip boots. King is only too aware of what the world sees. He revels in it.

Despite Pulp being the comedy flipside of Get Carter, neither Hodges nor Caine can, or apparently want to, escape its shadow completely. With a hitman taking pot shots at King on the beach and Caine, almost out of character, uttering the phrase “Hold it…hold it” in a menacing tone, there is a wink to the audience that it is okay to be in on the joke. King may not be as cool as Carter, but in his own arty, shabby, flabby way, he is just as stylish.

© 2010 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.