Sunday, December 22, 2013

DVR Diary: MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE (1974)

Consider the source: Duke Mitchell was a Sinatra wannabe marketed as a Dean Martin clone and paired with a Jerry Lewis clone, Sammy Petrillo, at the height of the original pair's popularity as a team. Early on, Mitchell staked a claim to cult-movie history by co-starring with Petrillo in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, one of the most sublimely self-explanatory titles ever. After Jerry Lewis litigated Petrillo into oblivion, Mitchell stuck to live performance, declaring himself "King of Palm Beach." By the 1970s, the man born Dominic Micelli was a Johnny Fontane who wanted to be Sonny Corleone. He had caught something of the zeitgeist of the time, both prideful and defensive about his Sicilian heritage. Massacre Mafia Style seems intended as an answer to The Godfather, a film criticized by Mitchell's character, who bears the actor's real family name. Mimi Micelli feels that the character of Don Vito Corleone is based on his own father, "the Padrone," who's been insulted by Brando's clownish portrayal of the don in retirement. Mimi rails against the stereotype of the Sicilian as a gangster, complaining that none of the other ethnic types with whom Sicilians interact in the underworld are so stigmatized. At the same time, he condemns himself and his peers for giving enough reality to the stereotype to disgrace their innocent, long-suffering mothers. This self-criticism comes in the middle of a mad-dog spree during which Mimi tries to muscle his way into control of the numbers and prostitution rackets in Los Angeles, escalating his tactics from kidnapping to indiscriminate slaughter. Part of his campaign is the murder on live television of the spokesman for a Sicilian anti-defamation league modeled on Joe Colombo's quixotic real-life movement in New York and Colombo's near-assassination at a public rally. As a filmmaker, Micelli/Mitchell protests the stereotyping of Sicilians as gangsters by making as nearly stereotypical a Sicilian gangster film as possible. His is a conflicted message, though less generous observers might call it incoherent.

But the funny thing about Massacre Mafia Style is how much the neophyte Mitchell's work resembles that of not just Coppola but Scorsese. The resemblance to the latter, whose most recent film was Mean Streets while Mitchell shot his picture, is stronger yet almost certainly coincidental. Mitchell opens his film in what we'd now recognize as Scorsesean fashion, with a shock sequence that actually takes place in the middle of the story, scored to ironically chosen pop music, from which he flashes back to the beginning of Mimi's American adventure as narrated by the protagonist. The opening is a brazen if not bravura sequence in which Mimi and his partner Jolly (Vic Caesar) walk into a high-rise office to kill a businessman. They set him up to be electrocuted by the flush of a urinal, then decide that they leave no witnesses in the entire office suite. The film earns its true title -- it was also known as Like Father Like Son and, most popularly on videotape, The Executioner -- right here. Whatever budgetary limitations Mitchell labored under, he was never short of squibs and blood packs. This film is almost absurdly bloody, but Mitchell stages other creative kills, from the crucifixion of a pimp (scored to the Hallelujah Chorus and staged near the Hollywood Bowl) to the impalement of an enemy through the back of the head with a meathook that comes out through his eye ("He's hanging around in there," Mimi quips bondishly). Mitchell was clearly trying to have it both ways, as if the exploitation-level violence would cover the tirades against Sicilian stereotypes, or vice versa -- or else he never really figured out what he was trying to do or say. But Mitchell clearly has something to say, and that's something that distinguishes the truly great bad movies. I'm not ready after one viewing to say this is one of that group, but Massacre definitely touches a lot of the bases.

Mitchell's own unintimidating personage -- balding on top but hair all he way down his neck, enhanced later in the story (thus already present in the opening) by a moustache that made him resemble late-stage Rock Hudson slightly -- maintains a constant of absurdity through the whole picture, especially when Mimi scores with babes who go nude for him. Memorable moments abound; another is a rival's attempt to intimidate Mimi and Jolly with a karate-expert bodyguard who chops through a coffee table, only to be riddled immediately with bullets by the unimpressed pair. The script is baldly racist, at least in the words it puts into Mimi's mouth, and in a manner not necessarily alien to the style of Mitchell's Italo-American peers, and Mitchell dependably carries the bigotry to an absurd extreme by having Mimi rant about the proliferation of blaxploitation films with "Super" characters. Some of this is genuinely ugly, like the crucifixion of the black pimp with the commentary, "He said Jesus was black; maybe he can get a resurrection," and Mitchell isn't good enough a writer to make clear whether this represents his own deplorable attitude or an attitude he deplores in Mimi. One way or the other, it's still a kind of truth-telling that makes Massacre a perhaps-unconscious self-revelation and enhances its cult-film credentials.

Films like this are often mocked for their low-budgets, though in this case Mitchell often manages to maximize his production value with decent location work, but the true cult-film fan is more impressed by the ability of marginal figures like Mitchell to get feature films made at all. On that level, Massacre Mafia Style is a kind of epic achievement, and its rise-and-fall narrative (including Mimi's attempt to go straight by becoming a shot-on-yacht porn producer) has an appropriate sub-Scorsesean sweep. For every Scorsese or Coppola there may have been a million Mitchells monkeying around on typewriters trying to do the same thing. You'd have to figure some of them would come close to something, and seeing how close Mitchell came in many ways was a fascinating experience.

2 comments:

knobgobbler said...

I caught this last night on TCM and was kind of amazed by it. It's the sort of intriguing mess of almost good and truly awful that I love.
Hopefully I'll be able to find a copy somewhere for sale.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Samuel, merry Christmas my old mate, have a great time geezer.