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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Massacre Mafia Style (1978)

Written and directed by Duke Mitchell

Duke Mitchell:  Mimi Micelli
Vic Caesar:  Jolly Rizzo
Lorenzo Dodo:  Don Mimi

Everyone in the scene has one cult movie they dig above all the others. It might be the one that got them into the scene, or the one that resonates with them the most. It could even be that it's the stupidest thing they've ever watched and they want to share that flabbergasted joy with the rest of the world. Or at least their long-suffering friends. That's the reason I picked Colossus:  The Forbin Project as my first review, as you might well imagine. Well, today's film is one that I'd never heard of before "Professor Mortis" of the B Movie Message Board raved about it at one B Fest, and I finally have access to this one so I can see what the fuss is all about. First of all, I should mention that this is a labor of love from start to finish for Duke Mitchell; he wrote the film, directed it, produced it, stars and wrote songs for the soundtrack. Even Tommy Wiseau didn't write the songs in The Room. What you're getting when you watch this movie is exactly what Duke Mitchell wanted you to have. Or at least the closest he could get to that on the budget that was available. The opening scene features the two protagonists killing everyone they see in an office building while an Italian wedding dance song plays on the soundtrack; then it's time for a series of voiceovers and flashbacks to tell the main story.

Mitchell plays the son of a deported gang lord named Mimi Micelli, who left for Sicily as a teenager with his father and spends a decade and a half in voluntary exile, returning to America with the intention of taking over the prostitution and bookie rackets in Los Angeles. He tracks down his old childhood friend Jolly working at a bar and offers him a job as the right-hand man in Micelli's newly minted crime family. They make their first movie by kidnapping a local don and sending his finger to the guy's son (who tips the delivery man for the package, having no idea what is in the box). A group of high-ranking mobsters meet to discuss what to do, and we get this immortal exchange:

"Besides, now, we don't even know if that's Chuckie's finger."
"That's his finger, all right. I've seen it on him a million times."

The ransom is paid and the mobster's son gets married; although the Scorsese movie was made 12 years after this one, I had some pretty intense Goodfellas flashbacks at the smiling Italian dudes raising a glass to the happy couple. We also get an interesting custom involving a loaf of bread with a gift inside and a traditional first slice off the loaf given to the adoring father. Then a musical number, of all things, with the wedding singer performing a tribute to Italian cooking and dancing with multiple generations of the gathered families. Mimi and Jolly crash the wedding reception to give the ransom money to the crime families as a way to buy in to their organization ("Look at it this way:  you lose a finger but you gain a right arm.") Impressed by his brass balls and cowed by Micelli's family reputation, the outfit allows Mimi to join. Even Chuckie takes it really well, especially considering that he's the one who got a finger chopped off as part of Mimi's audition.

Mimi and Jolly work to consolidate their position, so we get a montage of them kicking in the doors of bars and restaurants and murdering the shit out of the people in there (plus a newspaper headline letting the audience know that they're killing criminals, not just going around shooting everyone for the hell of it). He graduates from small-time crime to big-time crime, eventually getting used to kill another family leader (and take the blame for it as a new guy and a hothead); even his father, exiled in Sicily, is appalled by how much carnage ensues in Mimi's wake. There's more than one way to interpret the recurring line "You're in, or you're in the way", after all.

Mimi gets literally slapped around at a one-on-one meeting by another boss, who tells him in no uncertain terms:  Go legit, or get buried. It's telling that the "legit" business that Mimi goes into is pornography, producing smut movies (and giving the film a chance to show some nudity). A complicated plan ensues, where Micelli plans to murder a pimp, take over his stable, and use them as actresses in porno flicks. Jolly's resentful that they have to split the money with the studio for their first film, but Mimi tells him that everyone has to start out making compromises and work their way up to the point where they set the terms of any deal. Even with the distracting pops and snarls on the audio track (it can't have been easy to film this scene out deck on a moving boat), it's a neat moment and one that makes me wonder how much of a parallel story was intended between Duke Mitchell the actor/director and Mimi Micelli the Mafioso, and how much wish fulfillment there was for Duke Mitchell to play a loose cannon that refuses to work with anyone he doesn't want to work with (and who has no patience with anyone that won't do exactly as he says).

Things escalate quickly; a hit is put out on Mimi and Jolly and they decide to just pre-emptively kill anyone that might be against them before the hammer falls. Their reaction to the threat appalls and infuriates everyone in the organization left alive, and retaliation is promised. Jolly and Mimi's girlfriend are the first to die in the pushback, which gives Mimi nothing left to lose. His plan leads to a scene that made me think that Terry Jones was going to show up just a few seconds too late. Vengeance begets more vengeance, and in the end an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. Everything comes around on the circle again--fathers and sons, revenge and murder, crime and family; the son cutting a slice of bread from the end of the loaf for his father presages the end of the story.

Every frame of this movie is saturated with Duke Mitchell's desire to do the best he can to tell this story. It's a damn shame the DVD was ripped from a VHS tape and presented in full frame rather than widescreen--the movie might have been cheap but it certainly doesn't suffer for its low budget. The cast of regular-looking people might not be movie star handsome, but the entire film makes you feel like you're a fly on the wall with these characters are a result. Mitchell gives himself all the best dialogue and the story's all about him, but honestly? He carries every frame of the movie. In the hands of a less talented filmmaker this material would have been agonizing. There's certainly a lot to unpack in the soliloquy that Mimi gives talking about Italian culture and food, and how the country views them as thieves and thugs instead of appreciating the country that gave us pizza.

Hearing that dialogue in a grindhouse gangster movie makes you realize the love-hate relationship Mitchell must have had with the pop culture industries. He worked as a nightclub singer (billing himself as "The King of Palm Springs"), songwriter, actor (now that I've seen this one, I'll have to check him out in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), screenwriter, director and producer. I'm sure this film was meant at least partially as an answer to The Godfather, as a look at how movies look at Italians and at organized crime. But one can never forget that movies are commercial art first and foremost; Mitchell and his backers certainly wanted to get some of that Mafia movie cash and if making a weirdly confessional movie about the mob and America was a way to do it, that's what they were going to do.

And while he's certainly willing to talk about how Italians are presented in pop culture in his pop culture artifact, it's worth mentioning that there's a jaw-dropping amount of racism directed at blacks in the film. Again, it helps sell the eavesdropping quality of the dialogue--whenever one of the mobsters delivers another racist crack it enhances the film's eavesdropping quality. It certainly sounds like every character is expressing their innermost thoughts with no filter or conscious effort to make themselves sound more presentable in polite society. Even the screenplay gets into the act; one of the pimps that Mimi and Jolly try to recruit for their porno-movie scheme is named "Super Spook" and he gets literally crucified when he won't go along with their plans. I'm not saying that every movie is required to refrain from offending every possible audience member, but when there's more than one speech about how unfair it is that people think "Mafia" every time they see someone from Sicily, I bet Mitchell could have come up with a less awful name for a character that's only in one scene before he gets murdered.

After watching Massacre Mafia Style, I found myself wondering what could have been if it was a bigger hit. Duke Mitchell certainly could have been a grindhouse star on the order of Larry Cohen off of this one; the performances range from adequate to disturbingly raw and confessional. There's only one more film that Mitchell directed, in which the Pope is kidnapped and held for a ransom of one dollar from every Catholic in the world. Based on the unhinged script and fearless performance in this film, I'm putting Gone with the Pope on the short list. If it's anything like this one, it will be goofy and offensive, violent and disturbing, but never, ever, ever boring.


  1. It's strange to be name checked in connection with this film, because it's so insanely racist. Just about the only thing that allows me to continue watching it is that Duke Mitchell manages to make himself appear to be so ridiculous in this film that I can't take it that seriously. I grew up with a lot of people…mostly the older ones but I can't say I didn't know younger ones, too…who would have embraced this like they embraced the Godfather and Goodfellas (never mind that both films are hardly meant to be inspirational tales of mob life). So it warms my heart to see a guy espousing the kind of Italian chauvinist bs I grew up around whiff at coming off as "cool" so badly. Where I still in college I would definitely want to write a paper about how the entire film is a deranged response to Black Power/Civil Rights and part of the general movement in the 70s for ethnic whites to embrace their roots, as so much time is devoted to Mitchell's race issues and Italian American chest thumping. Gone with the Pope isn't really quite the same movie (since it was edited by an acclaimed editor years after Mitchell died, but also because it never was finished and that also show), but if you got anything out of this you'll enjoy it. They dial the racism back, in some ways, but they seem to concentrate it all in one horrific scene in which Mitchell sleeps with a black woman. Meanwhile, the film features a lot of good ole Italian American anti-clerical feeling while simultaneously featuring one hell of a Catholic guilt ending that NO ONE should spoil for you-it left us rolling in the aisles when we saw it at a midnight show. For the life of me I thought I'd read somewhere that "Super Spook" was the street name of an actual pimp in maybe 1960s California but I haven't found anything about that in my searches. What I did uncover was there was apparently a parody of Shaft and Superfly et al filmed in 1972 and released in 1975 called Super Spook-I never heard of it before today:

  2. We spent some time talking about this movie and Duke Mitchell in the latest episode of our podcast. If you're interested you can check it out at