Mimi Miceli (Duke Mitchell) is the son of a high-profile mafia don Mimi, a first-generation Italian American who has been exiled back to Sicily for his crimes in America. Years after his wife dies from inoperable cancer, the rambunctious Mimi Jr. is itching to make the family relevant again and contemplates moving business from New York City to the mean streets of Hollywood. Mimi heads to California, where he hooks up with an old Mafioso friend, Jolly (Vic Caesar). The duo paints the town red with bullets and dynamite.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) redefined the American gangster film as an operatic, elegant, deeply dramatic saga. It replaced the James Cagney and Paul Muni template of the psychotic, smirking antihero with Michael Corleone – a complex man made evil by his commitment to his family. But The Godfather was also based on a trashy Mario Puzo novel that included a subplot about Sonny’s mistress getting surgery to shrink the size of her vagina. Among the dozens of films that The Godfather inspired was at least one that managed to surpass the salaciousness of Puzo’s book: Duke Mitchell’s Mafia Massacre Style (1974). Born Dominic Miceli, Duke Mitchell had a long and semi-illustrious career as a popular lounge singer in California. Dubbed “Mr. Palm Springs,” he hung out with crooner royalty (including Frank Sinatra), was the official singing voice of Fred Flintstone, and appeared in a handful of movies. When he saw The Godfather, he was inspired to write, direct, produce, self-finance, and star in his own, supposedly more truthful Italian gangster picture.
The stories have striking similarities and Mafia Massacre Style ends with a climatic speech that directly references The Godfather in everything but name (it’s a very meta-textual moment), but the two films have very little in common, stylistically or tonally speaking. This is a good thing, since Mitchell didn’t have the budget to ape Coppola and apparently disapproved of The Godfather’s sense of grandiosity and dignity. But Mafia Massacre Style does recall the wilder tones of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (a 1973 film that Mitchell likely saw) and, more aptly, Goodfellas (1990). Mitchell’s artistic prowess and production values never match Scorsese’s, but both films are unpredictable, episodic, and, at times, proudly comedic. Each takes place around the same time and are based, however loosely, on actual events. Goodfellas’ Henry Hill (an actual, real-world person) came of age in ‘60s and ‘70s New York. Mitchell was not a gangster and had operated out of California, but his job as a crooner often put him in contact with gangsters like Hill. He claims (perhaps falsely) that many scenes in Massacre Mafia Style are based on true stories he was told over the years. Perhaps it’s possible that Hill and Mitchell even interacted at some point.
Mainstream viewers expecting traditional filmmaking will probably find themselves flummoxed by Mitchell’s lack of discipline, but his confident amateurism is what makes the film special, beyond even the outrageous moments the film is so famous for. Retrospectively, the 1970s American independent film scene is largely divided between arthouse features and pure exploitation features, often of the horror or pornographic varieties. Massacre Mafia Style could possibly be crammed into either category – I imagine Mitchell thought of it as the former, while distributors and fans saw its vulgar ambitions and marked it firmly as exploitation. The camera work is hectic and jittery and Tony Mora’s editing is bold to the point of experimental, specifically the kaleidoscopic montages and abrupt cuts between locations that helps move the ambitious, but often jumbled plot forward.
Massacre Mafia Style is notorious in cult circles for its graphic violence. Aside from the meat-hook-through-the-eye shot that adorned the UK VHS release cover, the onscreen mayhem isn’t necessarily more graphic than other post-Godfather mob movies, especially not the ones that came out of Italy a few years later), but the quantity of people killed and the often comedic tone of the slaughter sequences is definitely crass. It’s the kind of stuff that tends to offend people more than the gross-out gore gags in zombie films. The tongue-in-cheekiness of some of the massacre scenes and the steady stream of vulgar jokes undercuts Mitchell’s repeated messages about the Italian American community’s reputation being ruined by mafia carnage, which was something I assumed he was being genuine about. It is further complicated when the impulsive pro-Italian-American rhetoric overlaps with desensitizing violence and really offensive racism. Could this duplicity be Mitchell’s entire point? Is he accidentally arriving at something meaningful while unloading a smorgasbord of scattershot ideas? It’s probably a little of both, though Mitchell was a legitimate racist.
Massacre Mafia Style had a brief theatrical run and became a cult film on home video. The initial VHS versions included an US tape from Video Gems and a heavily-censored UK ‘big box’ tape from Video Tapes International under the alternate title The Executioner (it ended up on the BBFC’s unprosecuted Section 3 Video Nasties list, mostly because of the graphic box art). Though Grindhouse has had official access to the film for years, there was a limited edition DVD issued via Mitchell’s son, Jeffrey Mitchell (the production company was listed as JM Music). It was loaded with extras, but the transfer was taken from a 1.33:1, VHS-quality source. During the period when Grindhouse’s output was temporarily on hold, a 1080i HD transfer was shown on television (I believe it was part of the TCM Underground series). It may have been a compressed version of the transfer utilized for this new Blu-ray release.
Grindhouse was working with some rough material and what they’ve done with this remastered 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is both commendable and comparable to bigger studio restorations of higher budget movies. With a handful of exceptions – a wave of water damage here, a couple of scratched frames, a hair in the gate, et cetera – the image consistency is strong, including steady grain levels and details that are limited only by the depth of field. Contrast levels seem to have been pressed beyond the brink, causing some blow-out (specifically in bright white backgrounds) and crush, but this fits the material and counteracts the muddy fuzz seen on older VHS releases. Strong contrast helps punch up the details a bit too. Colors have been punched-up as well, especially reds, greens, and softer blues. The poppier, warmer hues bloom a bit and skin tones can appear pretty orange, but, given the fashion sense of the period, this isn’t out of the ordinary. I didn’t catch any notable compression issues aside from what might be banding in some of the darkest color transitions. The slightly bulgy qualities of some of the edges might be signs of CRT machine noise, but that’s really just a nit pick and a guess.
The original mono soundtrack sounds pretty good here in this digitally remastered, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Again, like the image quality, the sound quality is limited by the condition of the material, which wasn’t outrageously crisp to begin with. The relative clarity is marred on occasion by slight audio drop-out (more often it’s a problem with missing frames), a couple of fuzzy bits of reverb, and the usual hiss on aspirated consonants. I’ve honestly heard more obviously damaged mono tracks from major studio re-releases. The most persistent issues pertain to the overstuffed qualities of the track – a problem shared by any number of single-channel mixes. Mitchell’s love of music plays a vital role throughout in the form of old Italian classics and lounge act standards, some of which the director himself sings. These tend to be the only sound during montages and other scenes that don’t require dialogue. The songs are uniformly well-mixed (the few times that onscreen characters are singing, it’s obvious that they are lip-syncing along to prerecorded music), while the score, which is credited to Mitchell (even though some of it sounds like catalogue tracks), is a little more uneven, occasionally buzzing a bit during bassy or loud moments.
Like Father, Like Son (43:20, HD) – This intimate documentary on the life and work of Duke Mitchell was put together by his son Jeffrey and had been included (in SD) with the older limited edition DVD. It includes interviews with the younger Mitchell and family friends. The pace is a bit stifling, but their stories are interesting, especially the ones that cover the making of the film. The director’s upsetting racial politics are further muddied by tales of the racist things he did in his personal life, yet Jeffrey also discovers that the original script called for a black supporting character, which would’ve entirely changed the message.
Matt Cimber and Jim Lobianco interviews (10:10, HD) – Mitchell’s friends, filmmaker/distributor Matt Cimber and Gone with the Pope co-star Jim Lobianco, discuss their outsider impressions of the making of and selling of Massacre Mafia Style.
Duke Mitchell’s home movies (52:00, HD) – These raw, 8mm home videos are divided into 12 categories that include standard issue family moments and impressionistic video collages. There is no sound, so Grindhouse has included songs from Mitchell’s long musical career.
Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1:14:20, 1.33:1/SD) – Mitchell’s feature debut as a lead was this 1952 comedy featuring Sammy Petrillo and an aging Bela Lugosi. Also known as The Boys from Brooklyn and directed by William Beaudine, it was built around Mitchell and Petrillo’s stage act, which rather blatantly ripped off Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ more famous routine (the duo was actually sued by their counterparts at one point). It also emulates the Abbott and Costello horror/comedy formula. It’s almost unwatchable, but it’s nice to have it here for completion’s sake. The movie’s menu page also includes a trailer and still gallery
An Impressionistic Tribute to Jimmy Durante (37:10, 1.33:1 SD) – Apparently made for television, this is a videotaped version of Mitchell’s Jimmy Durante impression act, including staged interviews. It is incredibly surreal and features a raw gallery of 16mm dailies, which are accessible via the title screen (6:30, HD).
Theatrical trailer and radio spots
Still galleries – Production stills and materials, color stills, theatrical production art, home video art, and Duke Mitchell promotional photos
Duke Mitchell and Cara Salerno filmographies
Grindhouse Releasing trailers
Easter Egg – More Matt Climber interview footage (1:50, HD)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.