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Gone with the Pope

Grindhouse Releasing // Unrated // March 24, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 31, 2015 | E-mail the Author
"Then God said 'let there be man', and he fucked the whole thing up."

It's one of the absolute greatest premises of all time: a couple of hoods kidnap the Pope, and the ransom is one dollar for every Catholic in the world. Wait, that's something like $850 million even before adjusting for inflation. Paul (Duke Mitchell) and his gang aren't that greedy; eh, make it fifty cents for every Catholic instead.

The story behind Gone with the Pope, impossibly, may be even better. Duke Mitchell was a successful lounge singer in Palm Springs who, inspired-slash-incensed by The Godfather, decided to make his own Italian crime drama. Duke dove headfirst into the deep end of the pool, wearing just about every hat imaginable on Massacre Mafia Style: writer, director, lead actor, music supervisor, and even financier. This from a man with no background in filmmaking other than having a handful of acting credits to his name, most notoriously the lead role in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Duke learned how to make movies by...well, making a movie. Before Massacre Mafia Style had even started making the rounds in theaters, Duke was hammering away at his second feature film. Kiss the Ring was shot over a handful of weekends in 1975 in whatever locations Duke could schmooze his way into and with a cast of friends/acquaintances/anyone-with-a-few-bucks who'd never stood in front of a camera before. It was never finished. Hell, Kiss the Ring seemed like an urban legend until Bill Lustig, Sage Stallone, and Bob Murawski started looking into reviving Massacre Mafia Style in the mid-'90s. Duke's son instead handed 'em a few cardboard boxes with a negative and a rough work print, in case they could piece something together out of what had been shot for Kiss the Ring. Murawski isn't just a cult cinema distributor: he's an Academy Award winning editor! There's not much of anyone the world over more uniquely qualified to complete this film. ...and though it took fifteen years to assemble this jigsaw puzzle and another five to find its way onto Blu-ray, here we sit with a shiny, new copy of Gone with the Pope.

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Duke Mitchell learned a hell of a lot from making Massacre Mafia Style. His direction here is more assured, the dialogue is sharper, and, storming onto the screen with the same balls and unwavering confidence as the first time around, Duke contributes a stronger lead performance as well. One key difference is that Massacre Mafia Style had...well, a script. Gone with the Pope, meanwhile, had a basic premise, a cast, and pretty much nothing else. Duke would come up with ideas for a few scenes, get everyone together one weekend, and shoot whatever came to mind. He'd scribble down "script" pages on cocktail napkins and pads of paper. He'd feed lines of dialogue to his cast as the camera was rolling. A couple weekends later, he'd start the whole thing up again. Duke was basically making up the movie as he went along, and it shows. As wildly entertaining as Gone with the Pope is from its first frame to the last, it doesn't really feel like it's building towards anything. Kidnapping the Pope -- hell, the Pope, period -- isn't mentioned until the movie's almost half over. It doesn't culminate in some frenzied, deliriously over the top climax with the Papal Gendarmerie Corps or whatever tracking down the hoods, with bullets whizzing around as His Holiness ducks for cover. Nope, the Pope is on a yacht with Paul and his goons, they talk for a while, and then he's let go. I mean, it's more interesting than I'm making it sound. Who knew the Pope was this much of a charmer, selling brilliant lines like "a Pope drinks a little brandy now and then"? I'm pretty sure "take off your clothes, Your Holiness" is going to go down as one of my lines of the year. Duke also delivers an impassioned monologue to the Pope about the Catholic Church squandering its power and influence during World War II. It really feels as if Gone with the Pope has no idea where to go with its pontiffnapping premise, and the whole thing is introduced so late in the film and is in the rear view mirror so quickly that it basically amounts to a subplot.

It's miraculous what Bob Murawski has accomplished in rescuing Gone with the Pope. When I say that there was no script, I'm not being snarky; there was literally nothing to guide the movie or give it form. Duke almost certainly would've shot more footage if he'd continued on with the film, so it was incomplete in every sense of the word. A good bit of Gone with the Pope was shot without sound, making this puzzle that much more impossible to try to piece together. I can't fathom what a Herculean effort this must have been, but Murawski nails it. Gone with the Pope cuts together beautifully, and despite the lack of any real narrative, it flows astonishingly well and never once let go of its chokehold on me. It's a movie that, in large part, is one random scene after another, but Gone with the Pope never feels that way when watching it. Hell, the movie fairly convincingly sells being set in Rome when it's all just posters on the wall. The only real letdown is its ending. I don't know what, if anything, Duke had in mind for a finalé, but Gone with the Pope kind of just...stops.

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Gone with the Pope is clumsily acted, unapologetically offensive, and barely bothers with anything resembling a story. Just the same, I had a blast, and I have nothing but awe and admiration for the staggering amount of work that went into salvaging Duke Mitchell's second and final film from its exile in a parking garage. You don't spend fifteen years on a project this ambitious without it being a labor of love, and that passion resounds throughout this Blu-ray disc on every conceivable level. Highly Recommended.

Again, we're talking about a forty year old, fiercely independent production that remained incomplete for decades. Sizeable chunks of it were shot on whatever short ends Duke Mitchell and company could get their hands on, so the film stocks frequently didn't match. It was kind of a run-and-gun shoot, and the image wasn't always in focus. There weren't scores of different elements to cherrypick moments from to piece together something pristine and gorgeous. Although the negative was in terrific shape, all things considered, there were still slews of nasty scratches and a staggering amount of cleanup to be done. ...and this is Gone with the Pope, not Gone with the Wind, so you're not looking at a multimillion dollar restoration here.

I'm not droning on about all that so you'll brace yourself for the worst. It's more to marvel at the fact that Gone with the Pope instead looks like this:

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There's miracle work, and then...well, there's this Blu-ray disc. I cannot get over how phenomenal Gone with the Pope looks in high-def. Its colors are often eye-poppingly vivid, and that's all the more impressive after seeing how monochromatic the unrestored negative was. The clarity and staggering level of detail outclass just about every last Blu-ray release I've come across, regardless of age, budget, or marquee value. There are so many sequences that could pass as having been lensed in the '80s or maybe even the '90s, dated only by the cars and clothing onscreen. Contrast is rock solid. There's a quip in the restoration featurette about a little bit of grain management having been applied to Gone with the Pope, but it's done with such a deft touch that most every single frame remains warm, natural, and filmic.

For the overwhelming majority of its runtime, Gone with the Pope looks so spectacular that I feel guilty for pointing out any of its rougher edges. Vertical scratches have been minimized but are still visible, particularly late in the film. The weight of the grain can vary greatly from sequence to sequence, presumably because of the variety of different film stocks in play. Some of the digital cleanup introduces anomalies of its own, particularly scratch removal and compensating for out of focus shots. The blurry prison sequence early on can look kind of unstable, with the bars of the cell door wobbling slightly while the rest of the image remains steady. It's very rare, but oversharpening out-of-focus shots results in a harsher, more digital appearance. As world-class as so much of Fotokem's spit-and-polish of Gone with the Pope is, some damage remains. Do not mistake this as me shaking my head in disapproval. Being thorough is just part of the job description, and I still have nothing but the very highest praise for what Grindhouse has delivered here. An absolutely incredible effort that just...there aren't words.

Gone with the Pope's audio is an even dicier proposition. Cinematographer Peter Santoro wound up having to run sound for a good bit of the shoot along with fielding the lighting and camerawork. A fair amount of the film was shot without synchronized sound. Only scratch audio was available for some stretches. Gone with the Pope was a hell of a jigsaw puzzle as it was even for an editor of Bob Murawski's immense talents, but to try to make a proper movie when so much of the audio is in rough shape or missing altogether...? The end result is inconsistent, but how could it not be? The best of the dialogue sounds terrific, benefitting from a meaty frequency response that puts the boxy, cramped recordings I'm used to hearing from '70s cult flicks to shame. At worst...well, it is what it is. The fidelity of the music can be all over the place, with some recordings -- particularly Jeffrey Mitchell's crunchy rock numbers -- roaring with ferocity while others, including some by the elder Mitchell, sound meek and dated. As bizarre a complaint as this might be, sometimes the audio is too good. Even though the rock recordings date from this era and were intended by Duke Mitchell to be used in the film, they're so clean and full-bodied that they almost seem out of place. As Gone with the Pope was never completed, there was obviously quite a bit of Foley work to be done, and it's a similar issue with such effects as gunshots, clinking coins, crinkled pages of a Hustler mag, and Paul's lighter at the race track. They're recorded really well, but hearing something that sounds so new in a forty year old film can't help but take me out of it a little. I am very likely the only person on the planet who feels this way, and I won't be offended if you ignore me. Whether you listen to Gone with the Pope in mono or in a 5.1 mix by Marti Humphrey -- 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio all around -- this is superhuman, straight-up miraculous work considering what Grindhouse had to deal with.

Also included is a lossy Dolby Digital stereo track (192kbps). There are no subtitles.

  • Gone with the Pope -- The Players (66 min.; HD): The centerpiece of Gone with the Pope's extras is an hour-long retrospective with actor Jim LoBianco, actor/producer John Murgia, cinematographer Peter Santoro, editors Robert Florio and Bob Leighton, and exploitation filmmaker/distributor Matt Cimber. It's just one phenomenal story after another: Santoro landing the gig after suggesting using a wheelchair as a dolly instead of a shopping cart, its editors working in shifts on an old Moviola in Duke's living room as his wife watched TV, the film lab equivalent of dine-and-ditch, and how Duke convinced a prison to move out all of its inmates for one early sequence. They also comment on that scene with the black hooker, why they think Duke never finished Kiss the RingGone with the Pope, and how much of the man is in his movie.

  • Shooting Gone with the Pope (23 min.; HD): I'm the type of film geek who gets a little too giddy over the technical details that are lobbed out in the early part of this retrospective, including the headaches caused by the not-so-sound-friendly 35mm camera used here, exposure issues, mismatched film stocks, lighting, and shooting with whatever lenses were handy. If you're not into that sort of thing as much as I am, give it a few minutes. The conversation turns towards production in general: lining up a cast, Duke schmoozing his way into numerous locations for free, the short, spread-out shooting schedule, and doubling Rome on a college dorm room decoration budget. It feels like some of this perhaps would've been a better fit in the hour-long doc -- it's unclear why some stories are in one, the other, or sometimes even both -- but it's well worth setting aside the time to watch just the same.

  • Restoring Gone with the Pope (3 min.; HD): Peter Santoro didn't just shoot Gone with the Pope; he and his wife played a role in its restoration, working with Bob Murawski to convince Fotokem to further rescue this abandoned film. Santoro tells the story of a world-class restoration that was basically done gratis, and the before/after footage showcased in this featurette highlight the jaw-dropping scale of what went into bringing Gone with the Pope back from the dead.

  • Deleted Scenes (17 min.; SD): There are seven deleted and extended scenes in this reel, and they can be viewed individually or played all in a row. These include an assassination on a ritzy golf course, an extended Popenapping, a lengthier montage of the gang arriving in Rome, and a drunken fiesta on the yacht.

  • Outtakes (13 min.; SD): No wonder a good bit of the footage for Gone with the Pope was shot without sync sound; the dominant theme of this outtake reel is Duke blowing his stack when airplanes, noisy kids, and chatty crew members fuck up a take. The most interesting part for me is hearing Duke direct his actors.

  • Inserts (6 min.; mix of SD and HD): Duke figured one way to make a little scratch would be to shoot a hardcore insert and sell it to porn producers. Cinematographer Peter Santoro (not going to type out "DP" here lest there be any confusion) speaks for a bit about Duke's never-quite-happened career in pornography, and then he shows off the footage that was shot: a mostly complete scene, piling on both a somewhat romantic encounter by the water and a whole lot of writhing around naked in the sheets. It's a sex scene, alright, but I guess it's simulated since the penetration seemingly never happened (or wasn't photographed, anyway).

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  • Frankie Carr and the Nov-Elites, Live in Vegas (8 min.; SD): This is an extended version of what made it into the film, complete with camera slates and a mock-ventriloquist bit.

  • Hollywood World Premiere (21 min.; mix of SD and HD): It took three and a half decades to get here, and Grindhouse made damned sure that the world premiere of Gone with the Pope would be well-documented. The leadup with an enthusiastic crowd is infectiously fun to watch, and the lengthy Q&A that follows is even better.

  • Still Galleries (HD): Somewhere in the neighborhood of 67 images are divided across Gone with the Pope's pair of still galleries. "Production Materials" showcases a stack of invoices, checks, handwritten credits, and a pencil sketch of a title card, among others, while the "Theatrical Release" gallery focuses on posters, photos from the long-in-coming premiere, and marquees.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): The high-def trailer for Gone with the Pope does a much better job selling the movie than I could ever hope to do. Forget me and watch that instead.

  • Easter Egg (15 min.; HD): Poke around the main menu a bit to uncover a Q&A at the New Beverly from 2010.

This is an all-region release, by the way. Gone with the Pope is a combo pack that also features an anamorphic widescreen DVD. That second disc also includes early treatments, script pages both typed out and handwritten, and even a paper written about the restoration by a student in UCLA's Moving Image Archive Studies program. The terrific liner notes by splatterpunk novelist John Skipp double as a miniposter, showcasing again the spectacular, newly-painted cover art. The whole thing comes packaged in a Criterion-style transparent case.

The Final Word
The same as the man who wrote, directed, and starred in it, Gone with the Pope is one of a kind: crude, violent, offensive, unapologetic, deeper than it lets on, and a hell of a lot of fun. Things that'd register as missteps in most any other movie -- directionless storytelling, abysmal acting from the supporting players -- instead come across as character. I doubt if there's any other filmmaker, dead or alive, who could pull this off the way Duke Mitchell does. Hats off to Bob Murawski for rescuing Gone with the Pope, a movie that otherwise would've remained incomplete, caked under inches of dust in a Palm Springs garage. Though my reaction to Gone with the Pope as a film is awfully mixed, I defy anyone not to be floored by the complete package that Grindhouse has assembled here, one that's twenty years in the making. The visual and aural presentation eclipse anything I ever could've dreamt possible for a lost production like this, and the sprawling selection of extras hammer home just how much of a labor of love this is. Highly Recommended.
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