Gone With The Pope

Director: Duke Mitchell
Duke Mitchell, Lorenzo Dardado, Jim LoBianco

Although I write plenty about schlocky movies, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate art in many different forms. I do enjoy dipping my toe occasionally into this field. One thing about looking at works from great artists that really interests me is when it's an unfinished work. How the unfinished work is handled by others is fascinating at times. Music composer Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony was released in the incomplete state that Schubert left it as. But when novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon was unfinished after he died, a friend of the author completed the novel as best he could with Fitzgerald's notes and had it published. But there is a greater Fitzgerald writer out there with a novel he didn't finish that I want to talk about, a Fitzgerald I am a big fan of. The Fitzgerald I am talking about is John Dennis Fitzgerald, the writer of the classic children's book series The Great Brain. When I was young, I was a huge fan of these books, and when I got to the end of the series I was sorely p*ssed off that I had reached the end and that Fitzgerald was apparently not in the mood to write more entries. Flash forward a few decades when I was an adult and Fitzgerald had been dead for several years. One day as an adult, I learned that Fitzgerald's estate had found a loose manuscript by the author for a proposed new book in the series. Apparently, the estate found a ghostwriter to put everything together and publish it as a new novel in the series (The Great Brain Is Back). After having found that out, I went to one of my local libraries to find and read this book. My verdict? Well, it was the weakest entry of the series, but it was all the same fun to come back to the characters and their capers, so I got a lot of enjoyment from the book. I did wonder, however, what Fitzgerald would have thought of other people taking his ideas and finishing them their way.

Of course, this being a movie review web site, what I really want to talk about when it comes to artworks unfinished by their creators are unfinished movies. Having been around the block a good amount of times, I have found in most cases when a movie is unfinished, what footage there is is never released in any form to the general public. For example, there was an attempt to film Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil before the film version that we got in 1998, but the production ran out of money and the movie never got finished. (King reportedly saw the footage that had been shot, and thought it had been shaping up to be a great movie.) One of the most notorious cases of a movie not being finished by its creator was with the Richard Williams animated movie The Thief And The Cobbler. Williams worked on and off the movie from the 1960s to 1992, and probably expectedly, the production was constantly in turmoil, which almost certainly explains why the completion bond backers of the movie eventually fired Williams and hired other people to (badly) finish the movie. This version of the movie was eventually further butchered when the Miramax studio got the rights to the movie and further hacked it up. I had to track down a copy of the workprint of the movie that Williams had assembled just before his firing to get the closest look at the vision Williams had for the movie. My verdict? Well, it's definitely much better that the two hacked up versions, with some nice charm and some stunning animation. But there's almost no story, with an incredible amount of padding that eventually has you telling the movie to get on with it. It's definitely worth a look if you are interested in animation, but I don't think it would have been a real critical or financial success had it been completed and released in its originally visioned form.

Of course, by now you have concluded that the movie I am reviewing here - Gone With The Pope - is a movie that was unfinished by its creator. And you would be right. First, a little background on the movie. It was a movie made by Duke Mitchell, who had started his career acting in Gone With The Popethe movie Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla, a rip off of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movies. Mitchell eventually moved to becoming a lounge singer, but still had the urge to be in movies, finding the occasional movie acting gig. Eventually in the early 1970s, Mitchell managed to make his own movie vehicle, Massacre Mafia Style (a.k.a. The Executioner), a movie that is well loved by bad movie fans like myself that have seen it. All the same encouraged by the end results, Mitchell soon after started to film another gangster movie, the movie that's being reviewed here. Footage was shot on and off from 1975 to 1976, but ultimately the movie never got completed. When Mitchell died in 1981, his son Jeffrey sometime afterwards found all the footage that had been shot, and eventually the existing footage was edited (on and off for over a fifteen-year period!) into a feature length movie. With so many woes connected to the movie, one may understandably think the end results would be a disaster, but I sat down to watch it with an open mind. Writer-director Mitchell plays Paul, a criminal who has just got out of prison after a long sentence. Shortly after being released, Paul is approached by his former associate John (John Murgia), who is now working for the Chicago mob. John hires Paul to kill the owners of certain casinos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas that refuse to sell their casinos to the Chicago mob. John plans to kill off Paul after he does the deed, but Paul pulls off a clever plan that allows him to get away with the money promised to him, and soon after takes his three former cellmates on a yacht trip around the world. Once they reach Rome, however, Paul surprises his cellmates by telling them it's a working holiday, and he has a big caper planned - to kidnap the Pope and collect a huge ransom from the world's Catholics! As it turns out, the actual kidnapping proves to be fairly easy, but the subsequent waiting for the ransom money starts to have complications that suggest Paul may never get the millions he is hoping for...

Knowing that filming for Gone With The Pope was unfinished, and that writer-director-actor Mitchell was reportedly working without a completed script and basically coming up with the dialogue and various other details of the story while he was in the middle of the actual filming of his passion project, the inevitable first question that comes up is, "Does the finished product make any sense at all?" I personally didn't think that it would, but surprisingly, the end results do come across as coherent... for the most part. There is definitely a plot here. In fact, you may be surprised that in some aspects, there is more plot than you might expect. The first thirty or so minutes of the movie deal with Paul's release from prison and executing the contract killings, then the movie abruptly changes gears and moves to the kidnapping of the Pope. Despite this sudden change, the movie does transition to this second plot with enough linking footage so it doesn't feel too out of the blue. And when the movie is finished with the whole Pope business, the story moves to a third plot, that being when Paul (apparently) gets some revenge for a newly discovered strike against him. The word "apparently" will probably clue you in that this part of the movie is a little murky, which includes the note that the movie finally ends on, a note that feels somewhat unfinished. This section of the movie isn't the only part where there are some minor head-scratching moments. For example, there is a character named Giorgio (played by Giorgio Tavolieri) whose exact relationship with Paul is a complete mystery until near the end of the movie. There are other somewhat confusing moments such as the unexplained fate of one of Paul's prison friends (listed simply as "The Old Man" in the credits.) But murky moments like those are minor and rare, and the movie as a whole does make a reasonable amount of sense.

While the plot of Gone With The Pope does mange to be coherent most of the time, that of course does not necessarily mean that the end results as a whole are good... or even competent. The inevitable second question that comes up regarding this movie is, "Is the movie as hilariously misguided as Massacre Mafia Style was?" Well, writer/director/star Duke Mitchell does definitely stumble a lot of time. Getting back to his story, there are a number of places where the movie feels padded out or simply spinning its wheels, a probably inevitable consequence of working without a clear script. Some of this padding is unintentionally entertaining, such as a real long and embarrassing sequence where Paul gets a very fat woman to come to the room of one of his friends, who they strip and roll around in bed with. With the footage that does seem to serve a purpose, there is some comic gold. There is occasionally some priceless dialogue like, "You slippery Italian sausage!" or (my favorite) "Take off your clothes, your Holiness." It probably comes as no surprise that the frequently amateurish dialogue is made funnier by some real amateurish performances. Mitchell himself is probably the "best" actor of all, at least putting in some effort at times. He's not great, but he has more spark than his no-name castmates. For example, Lorenzo Dardado (who plays a duo role, one being the Pope) is incredibly monotone as a major religious figure who should have great people skills. In fairness to the cast, their lack of enthusiasm probably comes from the fact that Mitchell gave them very little material they could use to make their characters have real dimension. We learn next to nothing about these characters, and they quickly grow somewhat tiresome. As a result, it's hard to care one way or another about them, even when Mitchell gets them to do something silly.

Though Gone With The Pope may grow tiresome in a few aspects like its characters, all the same there is usually enough going in the movie that does make it an interesting movie to watch, at least for viewers who know the background of the movie and know what level of filmmaking to expect. Certainly, the movie has more ineptness than what I have previously mentioned. Mitchell's direction, for one thing, while slicker and more accomplished than Massacre Mafia Style (he even sent out a unit to film some footage in Rome... though it all the same looks like old stock footage), is all the same quite amateurish at times, whether it comes from photography that is way out of focus to clearly seeing the reflection of the camera crew on the door of an automobile. All the same, this often-laughable movie has something that you often don't see in many movies that would be considered better - passion. As misguided as Mitchell was with his direction, writing, and acting, you all the same get a sense that Mitchell was loving everything about making this movie. You can tell that the man born as Dominic Miceli was proud of his Italian-American heritage, and felt very serious about this theme, even if sometimes it provokes laughs, such as the fact his character enthusiastically kisses a lot of men. And one long monologue when Mitchell's character explains to the Pope why he is no longer Catholic and thinks that the Church is run by a bunch of hypocrites also shows that the movie's religious angle really hit home for Mitchell. Don't get me wrong - Gone With The Pope is kind of a mess, and is a number of times laughable and misguided. But this spark of passion in the movie helps to make the entire package in some ways more watchable than many movies that have been labelled as masterpieces. It's never boring or heavily pretentious, and it gets you interested in the man who made the movie. Pity that he never got to make more movies.

(Posted April 4, 2022)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack)

See also: The Kidnapping Of The President, The Nickel Ride, The Third Society