My first trip to the beautiful state of California practically overflowed with film watching. Which is highly fitting for about eighty different reasons. Even better was that I got to watch some spectacular films but out of the veritable Whitman's Sampler of good cinema, there was one film among all the others that has continued to stay with me. In fact, it is one of those that worms its way ever so neatly under your skin. I couldn't stop thinking about it and in fact, still can't, which means there was only one thing left to do. Write about it.
At the very core of this Mesmer-worthy pull is the filmmaker/star/writer. A man of somewhat slight physical build but yet contained a pure power that only the most alpha and charismatic of males can have. On top of that layer cake of qualities is the undiluted creative passion and fire that only the truly brilliant, mad or a little bit of both possess. The man in question is the inimitable Duke Mitchell and the film? His last and unfinished until recently masterwork, GONE WITH THE POPE.
Going into the film, the main thing I knew about Duke Mitchell was that he was an entertainer that had popped up as the pseudo-Dean Martin to Sammy Petrillo's Jerry Lewis-esque schtick in the C-Film, BELA LUGOSI MEETS THE BROOKLYN GORILLA. The only thing I knew about GWTP was that it was going to be a strange mafioso type film. Both of these are the golden winners of the understatements of the year award because boy howdy, I got sucker punched and in the absolute best of ways.
In GWTP, Duke plays Paul, a career criminal getting released from prison after being locked up for several years. Most would want to lay low after being trapped in the ultimate cement jungle, especially with a loyal, sweet natured wealthy blonde waiting for them. But Paul's not really given that choice when he is immediately pulled back into the underworld and is coerced into pulling off seven hits in two different cities. In a brilliant move that I will not spoil because I love you, let's just say that Paul is not a dude you want to ever underestimate, especially in a double-cross situation.
Brilliant is a word that one can attribute a lot to GWTP and the core of that is the character of Paul. This man is one heartburst of a character and with an absolute moral need to do right by his friends, who have also just gotten released from the clink. We even see him give a pep talk to a young, strung out long hair (played by Duke's son, Jeffrey Mitchell) about staying off the junk. With the aid of his lady fair, he even gets to take his boys out on a world wide boating trip, all to give them experiences that they never had and would never get to have without his help.
The big sweeping shades of moral gray never quite leave and in fact, only grow exponentially after the film's first act. One night of fun with the boys leads them, all woman-starved from being in prison, to spending the evening with a model-gorgeous black escort. It's bizarre because some of the non-politically correct shit said her way would be greeted with, at best, “what the fuck” and at worst, sheer repulsion. The lady handles it with way more grace and smiles than it deserves but yet, Paul ends up joking with her and being affectionate. It's a brainmelt move because any other film would have these characters as outright, cardboard cutout racist villains. But Paul is clearly our hero of sorts and his attitude isn't totally dyed-in-the-wool racist. It's a bit like having an older relative who will say some heinously politically incorrect shit, but yet his best friend is an African-American and more importantly, he is at least NOT the kind of asshole to swing the “but one of my friends...” old chestnut.
Paul is not that type and from all accounts, neither was Duke Mitchell.
It's a move that neither endorses nor condemns but better yet, is a slice of life. Good people say messed up things and do messed up things. Anyone that is willing to share this truth with you and not treat you like a child weaned on John Wayne morality is a person that respects you. Thank you, Duke Mitchell.
The moral complexity further continues with Paul's ultimate grand scheme: kidnapping the Pope and holding him for ransom until every single Catholic pays fifty cents. Out of love for their friend and leader, they go along with it but once the egg is hatched, nobody banks on the crew discovering spiritual enlightenment. All of this leads to the film's absolute pivotal moment, one that is not riddled with bullets or machismo laden violence or bravura, but instead one emotional scene that rings more true than a gaggle of any “Oscar” worthy melodramas. The criticism of the Catholic Church is one that is still being echoed over thirty years later and yet, the Pope in this film is also a good man. Not a corrupt figure doing the ole soft shoe on molestation charges and wearing Gucci slippers, but a quiet older man with a sense of serenity and light around him. Yet everything that Paul rips his heart open about the church, right down to the lack of black faces in the pews, rings true.
The rest of the film spirals into a strange climax that has to be seen to be believed. Which is all part of the shocking beauty of GONE WITH THE POPE. It is alternately well made and yet raw at its core, with a fluidity and rhythm like no other. The closest filmmaker that had that same fire spirit that Mitchell displays both acting and directing wise with GWTP is John Cassavetes. Which may sound like an odd comparison at first, especially since Cassavetes' films tended to lack dialogue like “Why Me?” “Why not?” in the midst of a mob hit, but these two men are cut from that same, we're gonna do it anyhow cloth. The blending of the true-to-life lack of filter, zero compromise and pure volatile heart are the hallmarks of artists like this. That's why guys like Duke and Cassavetes will forever stand out because their breed is as striking as they are endangered and realistically, they have always been endangered.
Duke Mitchell, whose career as an entertainer remained solid enough to be deemed “the King of Palm Springs” and have his own star in that famed desert resort, that he didn't need to go into filmmaking. Looking at his short but striking filmography, including the strong gut-punch of a debut with MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE and GONE WITH THE POPE as the crown jewel, a cat like Mitchell did this out of pure need and love. There was no way, even in the more liberal climate of the 1970's, that his films ever had a chance to be blockbusters. There is no justice but it also means he did something right by making a film so wild, wooly and with his thumbprint all over it.
Bless both the folks at Grindhouse Releasing and Jeffrey Mitchell, for making sure that Duke's final film not only was finished, but that it is seeing a more than proper Blu Ray/DVD release. (Complete with a bounty of extras, including interviews, deleted scenes and liner notes from uber-writer, filmmaker and Bizarro literature high guru, John Skipp.) Passing way too soon from this plane at the age of 55, Duke Mitchell's cinematic legacy will continue to live on and grow bigger than it was when he was still alive. If you want to see a film layered with crime, love and religious conflict, then look no further than Duke Mitchell's incendiary GONE WITH THE POPE.
Copyright 2015 Heather Drain