Do you believe in miracles? I don’t. But the fact that this film even exists, much less finds itself making the rounds of the surprisingly resurgent (with new cult favorites like The Room, Birdemic, The Human Centipede, and Troll 2) midnight movie circuit these days (it recently played the Uptwon theater here in Minneapolis and did pretty brisk business — hopefully enough to bring it back from a return engagement sometime in the not-too-distant future, since I’m betting that a DVD release is pretty far down the road at this point) is about as close to one as you’re ever likely to find.
Perhaps a brief (not that brevity has ever been my strong suit) explanation is in order for the doubters among you . Bob Murawski, editor of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and recent Academy Award winner for The Hurt Locker, and Sage Stallone (Sly’s kid) operate a specialty DVD and theatrical distribution “boutique” outfit known as Grindhouse Releasing. Their specialty? Well, given the company’s title, you don’t even need to ask. In recent years, they’ve been responsible for the DVD releases and midnight screenings of films such as Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces, and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox.
In 1999, Stallone and Murawski got turned onto a movie we’ve reviewed previously on this blog, Palm Spring lounge singer -turned-writer-director Duke Mitchell’s little-seen Massacre Mafia Style. Making contact with Duke’s son Jeffrey, they arranged for a DVD release of this ultraviolent, ultrasleazy, ultrafun exploitation curiosity. And as is the custom with Grindhouse Releasing, we’re still waiting for it (thankfully, the younger Mitchell has recently seen fit to issue the film on DVD in a private limited edition, ordering details for which can be found in the film’s review here on TFG) — but at last they have agood excuse.
You see, Jeffrey turned over to Murawski all he had of his father’s second film project, Gone With the Pope, another singular exploitation oddity that Michell the elder shot primarily in 1975 but that remained a work in progress right up to his death in 1981. A rough — -very rough —work print of sorts existed, and of the 17 reels Mitchell shot, 12 were in his son’s possession, with the other 5 missing and never found.
Enterprising sort of guy that he is, Murawski set to work in what little spare time he had assembling a cut of the film that would make some kind of coherent sense, and added in the occasional bit of modern rock-and-roll soundtrack music along the way, coming up with the closest thing possible to a definitive version of this mid-70s ultra-low-budget Mafioso crime thriller/comedy/philosophical treatise/Mitchell ego-fest. In a very real sense, it’s a brand-new ’75 exploitation flick — not a new movie aiming to capture the “spirit” or “style” of the grindhouse, as has been attempted so often to varying degrees of success, but the genuine article —a mid-70s grindhouse classic that had never been seen before.
Clocking in at 83 minutes, Gone With the Pope delivers the exploitation goods to the umpteenth degree — mindless violence, uneven (to put it kindly) acting, cheap production values, haphazard plotting, cornball dialogue, gratuituous nudity —all wrapped up in a surprisingly visually accomplished package that includes tremendously well-composed location footage of “golden age” Las Vegas and Rome, among other astounding locales. It’s no exaggeration to say this flick is a visual treat, and when one considers that the entire movie was shot guerrilla-style without permits, and on short ends at that — well, again, the “nearest thing to a miracle” comparison seems pretty apt.
Okay, so the idea here is primarily to give Mitchell a chance to showcase his talents. He gets all the best lines (in fact, the only good ones), and the rest of the cast, non-professionals to a person, are completely overshadowed by his performance. But here’s the rub — as with Massacre Mafia Style, Mitchell is so confident, assured, and literally at home in the command he has of his character that he would hog the limelight even if surrounded by high-priced Hollywood “talent.” The guy is just that good. He knows it, too.
The story is designed to put him not only front and center, but to literally place him in the driver’s seat in front of the camera as well as behind it. It’s all pretty seamless, really — watching Mitchell on screen, there is simply no doubt that he wrote and directed this thing as well, and the man himself becomes literally inseparable from his work — Duke Mitchell is Gone With the Pope and Gone With the Pope is Duke Mitchell.
His character, Paul, a mid-level mafia hood just getting out of prison, might as well just be called Duke. Everybody in the joint loves the guy and they’re downright tearful to see him go. Some of his best buddies, though (generally even older than he is, probably no accident as far as casting goes) are soon to be granted their freedom, as well, and Duke — err, Paul — has a plan : he’s got a rich lady on the outside, a woman he’s loved since they were teenagers but who chose to marry a wealthy philanthropist while the man of her dreams was in stir. Now widowed, he rekindles his romance with the lady in question, Jean (played by Jeanne Hibbard, who is obviously reading directly from cue cards the entire time), and finagles her into loaning him her late husband’s yacht so he can take his aforementioned, and now released, prison buddies on a cruise around the world so they can work away their bitterness and anger at the world (his “sales pitch” to her humanitarian side on this matter being one of several philosophical soliloquies Mitchell writes for himself to establish the fact that he’s more than just a dumb ex-con himself).
With his cast of often biblically-named (Luke and Peter being among them) old-time prison buddies in tow, Paul sets off on an ocean voyage that will take them to Mexico, Panama, Sardinia — and finally, to Rome.
But fist he’s gotta fulfill a contract he’s been hired out for to whack seven guys in Vegas and Hollywood. He takes care of the three in Sin City and subcontracts his buddy Girogio to do the four in Hollywood. Then it’s off with the cash, the boat, and his buddies for the trip of a lifetime.
Paul’s been dreaming of getting out on the open water for a long time. Just before being let out of prison, he tells one of his inmate friends about how you can be “totally free” on the ocean because there are “no cops, no judges — all you gotta worry about is some fucking maritime asshole.” And, as can be seen in the photo above, he delivers a philosophical diatribe to our society upon raising anchor and heading out to sea : “People of the United States — judges, cops, all the law — I got a message for ya —I want you to take this —” (grabbing his crotch) “and stick it up in your mother’s twat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Where else but Gone With the Pope, my friends, are you ever likely to hear a line of dialogue like that?
It isn’t until we get to Rome, however, at about the 2/3 mark of the film, that the scheme referenced in the film’s title is revealed by Paul to his erstwhile co-conspirators — in short, they’ve come there to kidnap the Holy Father himself and hold him for ransom. And what, pray tell, do they want in exchange for the Pontiff’s safe return? A dollar from every Catholic in the world!
Well, okay, in fairness, Paul lowers the ransom to 50 cents per Catholic when he finds out just how many of them there are — call it another chance to show his human side.
Okay, so the actual method by which they kidnap the Pope is so lame that it’ll test even the most seasoned exploitation veteran’s credulity, and the fact that it actually works is even more outrageous (as is the fact that the Pope seems to be a native English-speaker) — and the garbled philosophy really does take over in the film’s final 20 minutes or so, with Paul’s friends turning their backs on him in some sort of ultra-predictable religious conversion brought on apparently just by being in the vicinity of anybody so — -well, holy — and Paul himself offering as his justification for the audacious scheme some sort of revenge for what the church did to the Jews in World War II (not that he’s Jewish himself, mind you, or that he even mentions a word about them prior to his “here’s why I did it” moment), but along the way there are so many quintessential and downright perfectly-executed exploitation movie moments that you can’t help but be downright awed by the spectacle on display here.
And it’s those “along the way”-type moments that you see a movie like this for, anyway. Maybe it’s the stunning nighttime visuals of Duke Mithcell walking down the now-bulldozed-and-replaced-by-corporate-megacasinos Vegas stripe, cigarette dangling from his mouth; or Duke and his buddies hurling (good-naturedly, at that) racial epithets at a black prostitute for a good five minutes before she offers to sleep with him anyway; or the searing proto-Tarantino balls-to-the-walls slaughter of the guys on Duke’s hit list; or the musical numbers sung by Mitchell himself; or the ultracool sight or Duke in a black stetson taking out a crime lord at a racetrack; an extended and downright surreal sequence featuring Duke and one of his pals pretending to — or maybe genuinely planning on — banging a morbidly obese woman before getting cold feet, resulting in her literally breaking down a door and coming after them; a slow-motion fight scene not actually shot in slow motion but rather featuring the actors slowing their movements down; or the footage of super-lame fifth-rate Vegas “entertainment” acts like this one —
— whatever you’re into this kind of movie for, you’re going to find it, and then some. It’s not about where you’re going so much as how you get there, and Gone With the Pope gets you there in searingly authentic grindhouse style.
But in the end, this movie isn’t about either the voyage or the sights along the way, in spit of what I just said — it’s about the captain of this zero-budget ship. Mithcell crafted the script as a starring vehicle for himself, and if he couldn’t carry the load, this whole enterprise would have gone nowhere fast. As he proved beyond a doubt, though, with Massacre Mafia Style, he’s more than capable of the task. Mitchell in a singular screen presence quite unlike any other — by turns heartless and heartfelt, despicably cruel and charismatically engaging, he’s never less than electrifying and commands your attention like a black hole sucking in the rest of the goddamn galaxy around it. And if no major Hollywood studio could see that and Mithcell had to craft his own projects from scratch to show off just how fucking good he was, so much the better. Unencumbered by the burdens of compromise or even, for that matter, consideration of anything apart from getting his film in the can, he’s as free to do his own thing as the character he portrays.
You just can’t conceive of Duke Mitchell doing things any other way that his way, and while he may not be responsible for the final edit of this film, you can’t help but think that the superb job Murawski has done assembling this from essentially a haphazard collection of random short-end reels has resulted in exactly the kind of movie he’d have made himself — or rather, was in the process of making when he died.
Gone With the Pope works on a variety of levels, then, simultaneously — as a quintessential-yet-curious relic of a bygone era; as a distillation yet also, strangely, almost spoof-like exaggeration of all of said era’s indulgences and foibles; as a tour-de-force showcase vehicle for the creative force at the center of the project both behind and in front of the camera; and as a labor-of-love tribute to that man and his raw dynamic power and sheer screen presence.
If you’re lucky enough to have this film come through your area, don’t miss it under any circumstances.
And hey, how about that poster? Dear God, that is cool!