Today is the birthday of the one and only Duke Mitchell (Dominic Micelli, 1926-1981). Like most classic comedy and B movie horror fans, I’d long known Mitchell solely as the co-star, with his partner Sammy Petrillo, of the schlock film Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (read more about Petrillo, the team, and that movie here).
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I learned that a little over 20 years later, Mitchell wrote, directed, produced and starred in two films of his own. And yet, when one looks at the films, it all makes sense. Mitchell is often thought of as a lesser Dean Martin (although I tend to think of him as a lesser Steve Rossi). An Italian American crooner, he made his living in big city night clubs and in the resort communities of Las Vegas and Palm Springs. There was more than a little “bada bing” in his act.
In 1974, inspired by films like The Godfather and Mean Streets, Mitchell decided to make his own statement, which he felt would enhance the genre by virtue of his intimate knowledge of gangster types (their experiences and their language), and authentic locations (much of his films were shot at the venues where he performed).
The resulting sui generis genre he invented might be called “goombasploitation”: low-budget, gritty, semi-documentary, completely amoral, and containing enough violence and blood splatter for a horror film. There is something trailblazing about the degree to which Mitchell pushes the profanity and violence. I’d be very shocked if I didn’t learn if Mitchell’s films didn’t turn around and influence Scorsese right back. At the same time, great pains are taken to explain Italian and Italian-American culture to us: monologues about duty and tradition, scenes at Catholic churches and weddings.
His first film Massacre Mafia Style a.k.a Like Father, Like Son (1974) opens in medias res with a pair of hoodlums randomly murdering every single person in an office building. The rest of the film is ostensibly the set-up, justifying the event, but it’s really no justification. The guy just wants to do some crimes. And come to think of it, isn’t that the plot of every goddamn irredeemable Ocean’s 11 movie?
The following year, Mitchell made Gone With the Pope, which went unreleased until 2011. Though finished in 1975, it lay on a shelf for years. Mitchell died of lung cancer in 1981 and it was decades before the virginal work print was discovered.
Like any good follow up picture, this one ups the ante substantially. Whereas the hero (antihero) of Massacre Mafia Style merely wanted to conquer Hollywood, Mitchell’s character in Gone with the Pope schemes to “snatch” His Holiness….and then charge every Catholic in the world one dollar for his release. Any moral intent the film may possess may be undercut by the scenes of gangsters roughing up a 350 lb naked hooker:
I think it’s fair to say that Duke Mitchell remained ahead of his time for the entirety of his career.