When you think of the mafia or mobster subgenre, few names come immediately to mind. First, there is Howard Hawkes with his (for the time) violent Scarface (1932). More important to the genre, however, are Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. Both Coppola and Scorsese elevated the genre to artform, made it profitable, and jumpstarted a series of imitations that continues to this day. A name that doesn’t necessarily come to mind — even though it very much should — is the nightclub singer turned actor-director, all around auteur, the one and only Duke Mitchell. In fact, most people have no idea who Mitchell is, let alone have seen either of his two films (leaving room for the possibility of a few knowing him from his lounge act). Though Mitchell only made two films before he passed away (the second released nearly 35 years after it was shot, and almost 30 years following his death), both are among the most mind-blowing experiences you can have. The intent may be to rest heavily on the post-Godfather mafia film coattails, but the perfect amount of hubris, incompetence, and pure passion resulted in two films that are nothing short of masterpieces in their own right. And now, thanks to Grindhouse Releasing’s blu-ray releases, there is absolutely no reason everyone shouldn’t be familiar with Mitchell’s work on Massacre Mafia Style and Gone With The Pope.
Within the first ten minutes of Massacre Mafia Style there is such a ludicrous amount of blood spilled that it is hard to know exactly how the film will possibly keep the energy going throughout. Mimi Miceli (Duke Mitchell) and Jolly (played by fellow musician Vic Caesar) enter an office building and proceed to violently murder nearly every person in sight. Keeping up the energy, however, is no problem for Mitchell. Massacre Mafia Style is an exploitation flick in the purest sense, taking the familiar trappings of mafia films and ramping up the blood and carnage to its full extent. The plot is fairly rudimentary, but it is not really the plot that will be keeping you entertained. Mimi is the son of a respected and powerful mobster living in exile in Italy. Bored with the secluded life, Mimi leaves his father and his son in Italy to score big in America. Once in Hollywood, Mimi meets up with his old friend Jolly and the two begin a long journey to the top of organized crime…making a few friends and a few more enemies along the way.
As stated, the story itself is nothing new but this is something to expect in an exploitation film. To reduce the film, however, is to do is a disservice. With Massacre Mafia Style it cannot be denied that Mitchell is desperately trying to craft something more than mere sex and violence. This is where the movie achieves greatness. There is the old adage ‘there is a fine line between genius and insanity,’ well, for Mitchell perhaps it is best to say there is a fine line between genius and utter incompetence. Technically, the film is a bit of a wreck. Shots are out of focus. Editing is a bit disarrayed. Yet, at other times it is shockingly beautiful, with shots that would feel almost at home in a Scorsese film. This balance is in constant flux; scene-to-scene and even shot-to-shot it can and does change. The acting…well lets just say that it comes as no shock to learn that a great deal of the cast were not actors and/or did not act much after Mitchell’s career ended. In most scenes, the dialogue is delivered as if the lines were being fed to them — because they most likely were. Mitchell is probably the best of the bunch but this is not saying much.
If you think for a second that Mitchell’s limitations as an actor, however, would stop him from delivering long, gut-wrenching, and passionate monologues…well, think again. I think it is a safe bet to assume that Mitchell’s diatribes are what draw most people to both Massacre Mafia Style and Gone With The Pope, because there is something enchanting about them. Its not just that they are easy to laugh at (they are) but at times they do almost resemble something like meaningful performances. What is best about it is that there is not an ounce of insincerity to Mitchell. Both films are utter passion projects, and ever fiber of Mitchell is witnessed on screen. You cannot help but be won over by the unadulterated desire that oozes forth.
Mitchell is an auteur in the purest, least pretentious view of the term. He starred, wrote, produced, and directed the films. Further, he hired up-and-coming editors and had them editing the film out of his living room — paying them peanuts and spaghetti dinners. He was a hustler. He did everything to see the film through, and the results — while maybe not as artistically cohesive, competent as the output of those we commonly associate as auteurs — are without any attached irony rather impressive.
Since Massacre Mafia Style had experienced a small amount of success on the grindhouse circuit, by the time of Grindhouse’s Blu-Ray release this year it was already a cult favorite. Mitchell’s follow up remained unfinished until 2010, when Grindhouse located the raw materials and finished it according to Mitchell’s plans. With a 30 plus year wait and only a brief theatrical run in 2010, Gone With the Pope built itself a strong momentum leading up to this release. A vast majority of people simply had no way to see it prior, and did not know what to expect. Tonally, Gone With the Pope shows a drastic difference in both tone and intent. Where Massacre was violent, fast moving, and relentless, Gone With the Pope is Mitchell’s attempt to create something more dramatic — and that means there is an increased amount of monologues. Many may find Gone With the Pope a bit dry, and it is when seen as a companion to Massacre. The plot, however, is far more expansive and daring than what Mitchell was attempting for his first film.
In Gone With the Pope, Mitchell plays the always stylish and well-groomed ex-con Paul, who hatches a plan to kidnap the Pope and hold him hostage to the tune of a dollar for every Catholic in the world. With the exception of the Mitchell and his trademark monologues — that grow longer and more ludicrous with this second film —Lorenzo Dardado, pulling double duty as both one of Paul’s partner’s in crime as well as the Pope, is the shining star of the film. To put it simply, Dardado cannot act. He stumbles through his lines, jerky and alternating between almost no emotion and excessive overacting. But, I cannot take my eyes off him. It’s a beautifully bad performance. Beyond the acting itself, there is a humorous through-line that exists in Gone With the Pope dealing with Mitchell’s obsession with the atrocities committed against Jewish people that have been ignored by the Catholic Church. It becomes Paul’s driving force. More so than even the money he stands to earn, Paul seems obsessed with rectifying his distaste for the Catholic Church concerning his feelings about the historical treatment of Jewish people. As it does with Mitchell, by the end of the film his exact politics become nearly impossible to decipher, where his seemingly anti-Catholic sentiments are lightened greatly. This incoherence is what makes a Mitchell film, and I would have it no other way.
Combined, both Blu-Rays feature more extra features that can be feasibly discussed in a manageable time. Interviews, outtakes, trailers, Q+A’s, home movies; you name it and Grindhouse has most likely provided it. Separately the discs contains hours of features….together, well you’ll have to set aside nearly a week to blow through it. In the end, it can be said that Massacre is by far the more entertaining film but it would seem as if Gone is much closer to Mitchell’s pure vision. Together the films form a complete vision of one of film history’s strangest, most ambitious, and flawed filmmakers. Put simply, these films cannot be missed.