Gone with the Pope

Duke Mitchell (left) wrote, directed and starred in "Gone with the Pope" a lost 1975 film that played at the Wisconsin Film Festival. 

An auteur’s unfinished final film is thought to be lost forever, only to be rescued by an Oscar-winning editor, who lovingly reconstructs it based on the late filmmaker’s wishes and releases it into the world.

That’s what Bob Murawski did with Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind,” piecing together the rough cut into a finished product that was released on Netflix to worldwide acclaim.

But that’s also what Murawski did for another film. And it was not, to put it mildly, universally acclaimed.

Duke Mitchell’s 1975 film “Gone With the Pope” is a bizarre and often off-putting mishmash of gangster movie, caper comedy and spiritual saga. Lurching between the garish and the amateurish, it’s a film that reflects a singular cinematic vision — in this case, the cinematic vision of a 1970s lounge singer with a penchant for off-color jokes, unfiltered cigarettes and lamb’s wool jackets adorned with drawings of naked women and dogs. You can almost smell the Aqua Velva coming off the screen.

But Murawski, who presented “Gone with the Pope” at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, took Mitchell’s vision just as seriously as he did Welles’. He said the project was a “labor of love” for him, simply because nobody else cared whether “Gone with the Pope” saw the light of day or not.

“If I didn’t finish it, nobody would,” he said. “It would have just been lost. The movie has its flaws, but I love it.”

Mitchell was a crooner known as “Mr. Palm Springs,” famous enough to pack nightclubs from Las Vegas to Lake Arrowhead, well-connected enough to be invited to Frank Sinatra’s wedding to Mia Farrow, where he reportedly threw Farrow into the pool.

But he also fancied himself a filmmaker, and when he saw Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” he thought, as an Italian-American who openly palled around with made guys, he could do better. The result, “Massacre Mafia Style” was a low-budget exploitation hit in 1974.

In addition to being an editor on films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Spider-Man 2,” Murawski runs his own distribution company, Grindhouse Releasing, dedicated to discovering and celebrating extreme genre films like “Massacre.” In preparing to release the film on DVD, Murawski contacted Mitchell’s son and asked if he had materials that could be turned into bonus features.

No, the son responded. But he had 28 reels of another unfinished Duke Mitchell movie sitting in cardboard boxes in his garage. Would Murawski be interested in that?

Thus began Murawski’s 13-year journey to bring “Gone with the Pope” to the world. Mitchell stars in the film as Paul, a recently paroled gangster hired by mob bosses to bump off seven men in one night. Paul accomplishes the job remarkably easily, and, knowing that the mob plans to double-cross him, grabs a couple of his former prison buddies and heads out on a luxury boat for Italy.

While in Rome (Mitchell did some filming in Italy, although wasn’t above filming himself in front of a photo of the Parthenon or other landmark if necessary), Paul gets a brainstorm out of nowhere. Kidnap the Pope and hold him for ransom, charging one dollar from every Catholic in the world. (Once Paul learns how many Catholics are in the world, he drops the fee to 50 cents.)

As with the mob hit, kidnapping the Pope from the middle of Vatican City turns out to be a lot easier than one might expect. They squirrel His Holiness away on Paul’s boat, but the tables turn; the Pope ends up convincing Paul’s buddies and, eventually, the lapsed Catholic Paul, to let him go.

For what is ostensibly a crime film, “Gone with the Pope” seems to have only passing interest in the crimes themselves. A lot of screen time is eaten with Paul and his buddies (his friends in real life, and definitely not professional actors) hanging out in nightclubs and casinos. Mitchell’s connections as a nightclub singer clearly served him well here, and watching the film is like time traveling to a dingier, lost Vegas, a land of wood-paneled showrooms, bad stand-up comedians in powder blue tuxes, and $2.35 all-you-can-eat buffets.

Any goodwill Mitchell builds with the viewer is pretty much demolished by some truly problematic scenes, such as the one where Paul barrages an African-American prostitute with a string of racist jokes, or the unbelievably awful scene where he kidnaps an obese woman off the street and, in an apparent prank, tries to force her to have sex with his friend. Murawski said that while the scenes are hard for him to watch as well, he didn’t feel it was his place to censor Mitchell’s vision, just preserve it.

Mitchell apparently ran out of money trying to make “Gone with the Pope,” and the death blow for the production came when a pivotal scene in a prison was shot out of focus. Mitchell shelved the raw footage and never returned to it, dying of lung cancer in 1981.

Murawski said the project was something he’d work on between regular jobs, spending weekends in his home editing suite in his garage on the film. Grindhouse Releasing put out the restored “Gone with the Pope” on Blu-ray in 2009 as a forgotten cult classic. “Gone with the Pope” is hard to justify, even harder to forget.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.