Horror film buff that I was growing up when it came to the classic monster movies and the actors that populated them, I knew of the film called Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and would eventually secure a copy. Co-starring alongside Bela were the Martin and Lewis wannabes, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo.
So yes, I’ve always known who Duke Mitchell was and like many others “in the know” was astounded that a film had been “found” made in the seventies that was written, directed and starred Duke. I remember heading right to the computer and finding out it wasn’t even listed on the IMDB! After seeing the trailer, it was instantly on my “I’ve gotta see this” list and finally I’ve gotten around to doing just that and though it’s a time capsule and not necessarily politically correct by todays standards, I found myself immersed in this odd tale of mobsters and religion coming away liking it enough to recommend it to those who love cinema of the gritty seventies and movies that are often referred to as cult films.
“You’re either in or you’re in the way.”
The film opens with a narration from Duke in which he’s creatively reading some excerpts of the bible and I quote….. ” on the sixth day God said let there be cattle, reptiles and wild life of all kinds…. and then He said let there be man ….. and he f—-d the whole thing up.”
Duke’s just getting out of prison from a long stretch and as a fringe member of the mob, he’s to take on a hit in Vegas that involves taking out 7 men. The pay? 50K. Enough to tide him and his four cellmates over for a while. Turns out Duke may be a cold killer but he’s as loyal as the day is long and is almost a father figure to the trio of non-actors serving as his pals. Showing us his softer side, Duke also rekindles his love affair with a well off widow and stiff actress to boot, Jeanne Hibbard. In all fairness to Miss Hibbard, this proved to be her one and only acting gig.
After arranging and getting paid off for the Vegas hit, Duke sets sail for a trip to Italy with his cronies and unveils just one more final heist that will allow them all to live in a life of luxury. They’re going to kidnap the Pope. The ransom? “I want a dollar from every Catholic in the world.” I have to admit that it’s this line which is in the film’s trailer that struck me as hilarious and is one of the many reasons I had this title on my dance card.
In a scene very much akin of the times, Duke partakes in a late night session with an African American plying her trade as a prostitute. It’s easily the one scene that some may find offensive and though I understand why, I would also suggest those same individuals stay away from a long list of 70’s fare, most any Blaxploitation film or Tarantino films as well. I won’t get into this topic any further other than to say I’m not giving this one up or any of my Charlie Chan films either. On the plus side, it’s during this scene that Duke draws attention to Paul Henreid and Bette Davis and re-enacts the cigarette scene that supposedly had lovers hooked back in the forties.
And so the plot goes on when Duke and the boys snag the Pope. The Pope is played by another non actor, Lorenzo Dardado and I thought this guy was superbly cast. Mixed in to the script is what I’d call a lot of heart and true feelings on the state of the Catholic church from Mitchell the man under the guise of Mitchell the actor, almost turning into a statement film! If I’m wrong then it just goes to prove how good Duke could be on camera. As a matter of fact, he’s damn good on screen and when watching this tale of lower tier mobsters, one can easily see Duke being part of the Martin Scorsese stock company trading insults and blurbs with Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro. Think of him as another Frank Vincent, a common supporting player in Scorsese’s films.
Due to the fact that the film is really an unfinished project, I’m of the opinion that the intended ending of the film may not have made it before the camera so the editing of the final reel comes off as a bit of a surprise and rather hokey but it’s hard to fault the film for that considering the story behind it’s revival is just as interesting as the footage on screen. The fact that this is really a low budget effort may surprise you when you see the scope of just what is caught on film. Italy, Vegas, Hollywood. That’s plenty of location filming for what is a drive in feature made on the cheap.
From Grindhouse Releasing, the blu ray is a superb edition chock full of interviews and bonus features on the film and Duke Mitchell. A time capsule of the seventies and a must see.