Friday, August 6, 2010


Another one worth catching, today & Saturday at MadCap Theatre in Tempe:

Duke Mitchell is best known as the “Dean” half of a Martin-and-Lewis imitation act from the ‘50s, opposite the “Jerry” of Sammy Petrillo. In 1952 the pair starred, along with the titular horror has-been, in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. After the act broke up, Mitchell appeared in a few more films & worked as a nightclub singer, based in Palm Springs. In the early ‘70s, in the wake of The Godfather’s popularity, he wrote, directed & starred in a very low budget gangster picture called Massacre Mafia Style (among other titles).

In 1975 Mitchell wrote & shot a second zero-budget gangster opus, with the working title Kiss the Ring. He got the footage in the can, & that’s where it stayed, still unedited when he died, in his fifties, in 1981. That would have been the end of the story if not for a grindhouse-movie buff named Bob Murawski, who just happened to be a big-time Hollywood editor (he won the Oscar for The Hurt Locker).

Murawski, looking to get in touch with Mitchell as a fan, met Mitchell’s son, who told him about the unfinished movie & gave him the footage. Over the next decade & a half, between editing gigs, Murawski & a few friends managed to piece together a first-rate cut of this birdbrained epic, now called Gone With the Pope.

If you’re guessing that the story behind the film may be more interesting than the film itself, you aren’t wrong. But it’s only a little less interesting. Bad-movie aficionados owe Murawski a debt of gratitude: Gone With the Pope, though unsavory, is prostratingly funny for long stretches.

The plot? As the title suggests, a quartet of aging ex-con gangsters led by Mitchell (who was born Dominic Miceli), hatch a plan to kidnap the Bishop of Rome himself (played by Lorenzo Dardado, who bears a vague resemblance to Paul VI) & then demand “a dollar from every Catholic in the world.” Mitchell’s character discusses this ambitious scheme with his gang over a nice al fresco lunch at an outdoor café, as if it was a fishing trip.

Be forewarned: In terms of political correctness, this movie isn’t for the faint of heart. Early on, for instance, Mitchell spews racist epithets & insults at a patiently smiling black hooker, after which he contemplates her crotch & remarks “Looks like brillo.” Considering the halo of orangutan-like fuzz around his own noggin, he’s got his nerve:

Scenes like this—& a later one, in which Mitchell & another man humiliate a morbidly obese woman—come across as truly sleazy & make Mitchell, & the movie, harder to like. But in the end, both are sort of redeemed: Mitchell delivers a long, impassioned, perfectly incoherent monologue to the captive Pontiff in which he seems to be standing up for Jews & blacks against the intolerance & neglect of the Catholic Church. His logic is deeply screwy, but these passages still suggest that his racial views weren’t, at heart, as odious as they sound. I think the ugly racial riffs early on are Mitchell’s imbecilic idea of jocular banter, like when Frankie & The Rat Pack would self-consciously yuk it up about each other’s races & ethnicities. It doesn’t work that way at all here, but I doubt any actual malice was consciously meant.

In any case, Gone With the Pope serves as a wonderful mid-‘70s time capsule, with location work in Palm Springs, Vegas & L.A., as well as Lake Arrowhead. There’s also the kind of unhinged dialogue that can’t be faked, as when Mitchell, departing this country, delivers his benediction: “People of the United States! Judges! Cops! All the law! I got something for you! Take this, and stick it up in your mother’s tw*t!

Ah, such delicate poetry. Brings a tear to the eye…

Here's the trailer (discretion STRONGLY advised).

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