Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Massacre Mafia Style (1974), by Duke Mitchell

Careers in art can be tricky things. Sometimes you get your one-hit wonders; sometimes you get people who started out great before they crashed and burned; and sometimes--and I don't think we let this happen enough, because frankly we humans can be cruel people--there are people who start out horrible and rise to greatness. We mythologize our creators, sometimes perhaps a bit needlessly. We forget that they're people. I certainly don't mean to dismiss the trend of mythologizing artists, because in a lot of ways I think our culture needs it. By looking up to our painters, writers, filmmakers, etc. we are looking up to what they create. We're enjoying them and the things they make for us. But, for many of us involved in these fields, our work is also, in a lot of ways, just our job. For most of history, those of us who have faced the possibility of starvation have done what we've had to do to hang on--even if it's always love of what we do that brings us back. Thus, it is not always glamorous, but there's nothing in this world that is. And that means that a lot of us have done crap jobs before. Mistakes have been made, as in any job. Take the career of Duke Mitchell, for instance.

Duke Mitchell was once one half of the "comedy" act Mitchell and Petrillo with Jerry Lewis impersonator/plagiarist Sammy Petrillo, with Mitchell being Martin to Petrillo's Lewis. Together they made the movie Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, which I would seriously consider a contender for the worst movie ever. Seriously, it's nearly as torturous as Disaster Movie. If I compare a movie to Disaster Movie, I am not fucking around. In any case, Mitchell's first "big" movie was an atrocity. But I'm glad he didn't give up a career in film. Without perseverance and a vision which I wish had been possible in the unworkable mess of Brooklyn Gorilla, we would not have Massacre Mafia Style, a decidedly fascinating attempt at aping (heh) The Godfather. There may be no human-ape transformations in this movie, but there's a lot to look at, both good and bad.

Mimi Miceli is the son of a famous old-time gangster; he has followed his father into Sicilian exile, as Miceli Sr. was deported as a result of his criminal activities. We are introduced to Mimi early on as he and his partner Rizzo shoot their way through a corporate office, slaughtering all the employees with a variety of armaments. Slowly, we learn that Mimi has returned to the U.S. to avenge his father's exile, by taking over the pimps and bookmakers of Hollywood. In doing so, he and Rizzo kidnap a Mafia head and cut his finger off, and then visit him at his son's wedding after getting their ransom dough and releasing him. He apparently appreciates their balls so much that he's willing to let the two take on what they want. We then loosely follow Miceli's adventures, which are meshed with subplots like the attempted formation of the Sicilian Defense League, a group apparently dedicated to squashing anti-Mafia voices in the media. In the end, a man loses everything, and there's a twist ending.

So this is actually, structurally and stylistically speaking, a really well put together movie. It's strange; the general critical opinion seems to be that the movie is clumsy and amateurish, and it's the gore that counts. I found the gore disappointing--red paint, as was the style of the time, but nothing featuring organs and whatnot, even when people are getting their guts shot out. Maybe I really am becoming desensitized (I doubt it). The gore actually is the fakest thing in the movie, at least as far as I know.

"As far as I know." Now, there's a trouble with my reviewing this movie: I'm not Italian. I don't know how strong Duke Mitchell's Italian heritage was but I assume he's on the level. This movie is apparently supposed to be some sort of alternate reality postulations, without facts. Maybe Duke Mitchell/Mimi Miceli really was a gangster. Maybe his father really was in the Mafia. But there are some things here which seem out of place. For example, I haven't been able to find any independence evidence of an Italian wedding ritual wherein money is put in a piece of bread, which is cut and tossed to the father of the groom. There's a strong sense of authentic sentimentality for Italian culture in Mitchell, but I would feel awkward if he was pulling a lot of this out of his ass.

The reason why I'm so suspicious is that this movie has strange attitudes towards race. It is, um. Horribly racist? At least, the characters are, and that's an important distinction. Part of the Italian characters' racial pride involves racism against black people and Jews. There's a long and uncomfortable sequence where Miceli intimidates a black pimp named--sigh--Super Spook, throwing around the n-word a bunch, and squishing his face around. I don't know what Mitchell was going for here. I mean, we are talking about fucking Mafia hitmen. These guys are monsters--they kill a lot of people, in some pretty bad ways, despite some of their likable traits, like their sentimentality and Miceli's love for his son. I think that means their racism is just meant to make them more monstrous. But again, this is a movie that blurs fantasy and reality (ironically invoking a lot of Italian art films coming out at this time in Mitchell's apparent homeland). Miceli and Mitchell are, in a sense, alter egos of each other. So maybe Mitchell really did hate Jews and black people. If so, I don't know how much I can like this movie.

Thematically, the movie is really hard to figure out, and I watched it four times for this review. At the ending, Miceli explains to his father that traditional crime--I assume the Mafia crime of the '30s and '40s--no longer conventionally exists, because racial politics have shifted, and the hippie movement's predilection for free love and drug use have severely damaged the old-school prostitution and drug-pushing markets. And gangster movies have reduced men like Don Miceli to cartoon supervillains, neutered and deprived of their power. This is subverted in a telling way in the movie's final moments. All throughout the film, people keep telling Mimi he can't bring back the old ways. But the old ways never go away; they just change. Crime changes. Immorality changes. There's always some fresh blood ready to step into the dens of thieves and murderers.

In any case, there's enough history to this film, enough quality, and enough graphic violence to make it worth checking out. Someone smarter than me probably has a better solution to the tangled themes. I hope there's even more words said about this film than what I'm saying here. Mitchell made another gangster picture a year later, called Gone with the Pope. Be back with that sometime soon.

If you want to see more reviews like this one, please sponsor the site on Patreon. And you can like the A-List on Facebook to get updates!

No comments:

Post a Comment