When it comes to crime cinema, there is real and then there's Duke Mitchell real and once you have witnessed that, you will never be the same. Imagine if Cassavetes was a famed lounge singer who once worked with a third-rate Jerry Lewis imitator in a schlocky Bela Lugosi film and then would go on to make two of the most volatile, straight from the soul-gut crime films in the history of independent cinema. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Duke Mitchell.
His directorial debut was 1974's Massacre Mafia Style, in which he also starred as Mimi Micelli, the son of Don Mimi (Lorenzo Dodo), a massively powerful mafioso who was deported back to Sicily when his son was only in his teens. Mimi marries a woman of “...simple Italian heritage, a Saint..” who bares him a little baby boy before she dies of cancer two years later. Now, being a widower with a 6 year old son and a graying father, Mimi plans to move back to the States and continue the family business. Namely, moving to Los Angeles and getting a firm hold on the bookies and pimps. Despite his father's warnings, Mimi goes through with the move, hooking up with his old childhood friend, Jolly (Vic Caesar), who is now a bartender. Mimi offers him a better deal than serving up drinks to the Hollywood fringe and Jolly quickly becomes his right hand man.
He manages to muscle his way back in with his father's old crew via kidnapping one of the main guys, Chucky (Louis Zito.) After severing his captive's ring finger, Mimi gets the ransom money, releases Chucky just in time for his son's wedding and attends the family event. His beyond brass balls technique works and Mimi and Jolly are officially in business. Mimi's pathway to mafioso supremacy quickly grows slick with blood, with him even saying to Jolly early on, “Tonight we eat, tomorrow we shoot!”
It's not long before the gang want Mimi off their back and to calm all the murdering down. (Which is a huge testament, by the way, to how violent someone is when they have other mob guys complaining about the amount of murder going on.) Even his own father calls him, begging him to stop all of the killing. But when Mimi becomes the target of a double cross, it is only a matter of time for his life of crime and killing to take a monumental ancient Greek tragedy turn.
Massacre Mafia Style is a gut punch straight from the heart. What Duke Mitchell was able to do with both this film and its masterwork of a follow up, Gone With the Pope, is singularly brilliant. You have this cross-pollination of extreme violence, gritty and highly un-politically correct language, Cassavetes style verite (more on that in a minute), artistry, intelligence and strangest of all, pure love. The latter is a lot like obscenity. It's hard to properly define but you know it when you see it and with Duke's work, it is all over the place. One of the best scenes of this caliber is when Mimi and his compatriots are having this big Italian lunch, prepared by one of the guys' mother. Mimi launches into this terrific monologue about how they are the ones that have disgraced this woman and all Italian mothers, with their violence and crime. It is such an interesting choice on Mitchell's part because with that monologue, he gives his character a depth and underlying moral tear that is not typically expected.
Speaking of dialogue, there are some real doozies here, with my personal favorite being the scene where Mimi and Jolly go to kill the “Greek” and are confronted with his massive bodyguard. After firing several bullets into the hulk of a man, who promptly keels over, Mimi says to Jolly, “You know I'm empty. Got any?” His partner says “I got two.” Mimi replies, “Give them to him.” Jolly does just that, finishing the hit.
More tender audiences will probably have a tougher time swallowing some of the more racial language used throughout, a lot of which revolves around the pimp character, Super Spook (Jimmy Williams). But it is all true to life because you are dealing with characters who are rough, working class criminals circa the 60's and 70's. It would be false to have these guys suddenly be mindful of their language after gunning down x-number of people. On top of that, if you're really sensitive, maybe picking up a film called Massacre Mafia Style is not the best idea in the first place.
Going back to the Cassavetes theory, Mitchell used a cast of mostly non-actors whom physically fit their roles to a T, giving the film a more raw sort of feel. Which for a movie like this, is such a harmonious move. It graces the film with a sense of more realism that some of its more polished counterparts lack. This coupled with some of the highly intense and bizarre bordering on surreal acts of violence, make for a truly unique brew. The latter includes a man in a wheelchair hooked up via electrical cables to a urinal and another one literally crucified near the Hollywood sign. (The crucifixion scene sports some great intercutting with a religious choir, making the proceedings all the more ghoulish.) What's even more crazy is that both of these incidents are based on true events, with the wheelchair incident being something that Duke personally witnessed during his days as a singer, with the only exception being that in real life, the guy didn't die. In fact, much of the film was loosely based on true events, all gathered from friends and associates Duke had made in his music career. Cliches exist for a reason and truth really is stranger than fiction.
After years of minor cult notoriety due to its run under the title of The Executioner back in the 1970's, Grindhouse Releasing is doing Massacre Mafia Style justice, with help from Duke's son, Jeffrey Mitchell and releasing it this month on a 2 disc set. It is a true shame that Duke Mitchell never got the praise and attention he deserved for his directing work while he was still here, since he died at the young age of 55 back in 1981, but there is no time like the present to raise a toast to the man and marvel at this blood soaked cinematic patchwork quilt sewn together with thought, hard work and love.
Copyright 2015 Heather Drain