Duke Mitchell isn't the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of 1970s independent cinema. He completed just one low-budget film before his death in 1981, "The Godfather"-inspired "The Executioner," alternatively known as "Massacre Mafia Style." An exemplary piece of exploitation entertainment about a pair of unrepentant hit men released in 1978, the movie, which Mitchell wrote, produced, directed and starred in, proved an interesting complement to his previous big-screen experience: a turn with former comedy partner Sammy Petrillo in 1952's "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla."
But thanks to the efforts of an Academy Award-winning film editor, there's a new completed entry in the former nightclub entertainer's filmography. Bob Murawski, who earlier this year took home the Oscar with his wife, Chris Innis, for "The Hurt Locker," spent the last 15 years piecing together Mitchell's last unfinished project, another exploitation exercise titled "Gone With the Pope" that will screen Tuesday at the New Beverly Cinema.
"Duke Mitchell was a performer," Murawski said." His goal was to entertain the audience. If that meant finding bizarre characters like you'd see in a John Waters movie, he'd do it."
Murawksi's relationship with cult cinema stretches back to the earliest days of his career, when he worked with director Sam Raimi on films including 1992's "Army of Darkness." He became a fan of Mitchell's after watching a VHS copy of "The Executioner" with a friend in the mid-'90s, and he decided to seek out the filmmaker. He instead wound up meeting his son Jeff, who had been keeping the raw footage from Mitchell's long-lost project in a storage closet.
" 'I've got this other movie that my dad made after "The Executioner" that he never finished…' " Murawski recalled Jeff Mitchell saying. " 'If you guys want to take it and do something with it, go ahead.' "
Originally titled "Kiss the Ring," the film stars Mitchell as the leader of a mob crew that hatches a plan to kidnap the pope and extort a ransom of $1 from every Catholic in the world. It's rife with exploitation movie hallmarks: nudity, sex and plenty of violence.
"We pulled out about 10 boxes of old film," Murawski said. "Work print, negative, stuff that had been there [for 20 years]. We got all the stuff out and started piecing it together. It took several months just to get the material into a state where it was ready to start editing."
Murawski set about the laborious task of assembling a presentable movie. Of the 17 reels that made up the film, five were missing. Fortunately, there was a negative, a treatment and jumbled pages of Mitchell's handwritten dialogue on notebook paper and napkins.
For the next decade and a half, he continued to work on a number of high-profile features, including Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies, assembling "Gone With the Pope" in his free time. Now, Grindhouse Releasing, the company Murawski founded with actor Sage Stallone in 1996, is distributing the finished film, which premiered in March at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
"You can get close to a project and think it's great, and sometimes audiences don't respond," Murawski said. "With this movie, people seem to be laughing in the right spots and though there are some 'bad movie' elements to it, ultimately, I think Duke Mitchell made a good movie."