Massacre Mafia Style
The nouveau gangster wave inaugurated by The Godfather (1972) spawned no progeny stranger than this 1975 independent exploitation film, the sole directorial project for colorful performer Duke Mitchell during his lifetime. Born Dominic Micelli, Mitchell passed away in 1981 after a diverse career performing musical and comedic variety routines as one half of a comedy team with Jerry Lewis imitator Sammy Petrillo, with the pair even bringing their quasi-Martin and Lewis act to the silver screen in 1952 with Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). A regular nightclub performer, Mitchell ran in the same social circles as Frank Sinatra, whose assistant and valet, George Jacobs, was one of Mitchell's closest confidants. A performer till the end, Mitchell also mounted his own solo stage acts including an entire evening devoted to Jimmy Durante, which is available for posterity on home video.

That brings us to Massacre Mafia Style, which interpolated many of the real-life mob stories Mitchell encountered over the years into one mind-bending, self-financed production. Mitchell offered the lead role of Mimi Miceli to Sinatra, who understandably turned it down; thus Mitchell stepped in as leading man in addition to serving as director, writer, producer, and composer.

A far cry from the operatic tone of its inspiration, the film opens with an outlandish sequence depicting the slaughter of an office building's worth of inhabitants, executed so gleefully it was used in its entirety for the film's theatrical trailer. Accompanied by mock-Sicilian music on the soundtrack, it sets up the saga of Mimi, an expatriate Italian mobster trying to make it on the West Coast with his sidekick, Jolly (Vic Caesar).

It's tempting to draw parallels between the saga of Mimi and the real-life experiences of Mitchell, who himself headed to California in 1950 with his wife, Jo. There he even landed a small part opposite Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis himself in Sailor Beware (1952), a sign of things to come. The Mitchell/Petrillo act waned quickly after Lewis and Martin split up, with Mitchell cutting a few singles and doing acts in Palm Springs and Las Vegas (not to mention providing the pop singer voice for Barney Rubble on a handful of episodes of The Flintstones). The production of Massacre Mafia Style became something of a family affair, with Mitchell slipping in parts for his wife and other relatives.

After selling international distribution rights to the film, Mitchell handed the film off for domestic distribution to the short-lived Moonstone Entertainment, whose other films included The Candy Tangerine Man (1975) and The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976). The film didn't play widely until 1978 under the title The Executioner, a name it retained when it was shuffled off to home video from Video Gems on VHS. Afterwards it remained extremely difficult to see due to rights issues, including a decades-long stint on the schedule of Grindhouse Releasing.

While this film remained the only official directorial credit for Mitchell for decades, he actually did shoot another feature in 1976. Written and filmed under the title Kiss the Ring, it was the story of a quartet of ambitious hoods who decide to kidnap the Pope, leading to a personal epiphany for the leader, played by Mitchell again. However, editing was never completed on the film, whose raw elements and sole work print remained on Mitchell's property after his death. These assets were used to assemble a completed version under the title Gone with the Pope, which theatrically debuted from Grindhouse in 2010. With his cult following steadily building on what seems to be a daily basis, one can only wonder how far and wide the legacy of this entertainment jack of all trades will go.

By Nathaniel Thompson