Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mitchell (Allied Artists/Essex Entertainment, 1975)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Eventually Charles and I watched yet another Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode, this one the one in which Mike Nelson (playing a temp at Mad Scientist Central) definitively replaced Joel “Robinson” Hodgson as captain of the Satellite of Love. The film was Mitchell, a 1975 cop movie starring Joe Don Baker in the title role, a sort of slacker cop who’s assigned to trail a suspected drug dealer named Cummings (Martin Balsam, the one person in this movie who could actually act) but instead preferred to go after the politically connected Deaney (John Saxon), who in the opening sequence literally executes a burglar with the temerity to break into his home.

The MST3K crew seized on the fact that the burglar was played by an African-American actor with a marked resemblance to singer Johnny Mathis and started supplying surprisingly credible imitations of Mathis’ nasal tone quality and cat-torture vibrato. Indeed, they had a lot of fun with this movie — probably more than it deserved — since they seemed to be channeling it into a whole new genre, “whitesploitation,” essentially the Blaxploitation clichés done with a white cast. They even invented a version of the Mitchell theme song that riffed off Isaac Hayes’ great theme song for Shaft, which made it seem all the sillier when the actual theme song from this movie turned up and it was a piece of really putrid country-rock (by Steve Hoffman) with a faux “old-time” feel. (When I first heard the real song I thought it was yet another MST3K parody!)

They also pointed out some of the goofs in the film, like the boom mike that dipped into the frame at Mitchell’s home and the headlight on the red Mustang in the film’s chase scene (in which Mitchell is chasing Cummings and is in turn being chased by the Mustang, which in trying to run him off the road has had its right headlight bashed in — then the film cuts to another angle and the headlight is in perfect repair, after which there’s another cut and it’s broken again!), as well as the sheer silliness of a chase in which not only do the cars never seem to exceed 40 miles an hour but at one point Cummings’ driver obligingly puts on his turn signal just to make it that much easier for Mitchell to follow him.

Mitchell achieves a sort of bad-movie near-perfection; it’s a suspense film without any suspense, a thriller without any thrills, a mystery without any mystery and an action movie with almost no action. The whole idea of the title character — an alcoholic slacker cop who rallies and pulls himself together just long enough to bust one particularly nasty set of baddies, then sinks back into the haze — was good enough to deserve a better movie than this, and Joe Don Baker was an intriguing casting idea given that just two years before he’d played a far more butch lawman, real-life Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser (fabled for the baseball bat which he carried on patrol so he could literally take a whack out of crime), and this sort of role in a better movie could have been seen by the rest of the world’s casting directors as an intriguing and worthwhile extension of his range. Alas, Mitchell was a lousy movie start-to-finish — when I saw the “Allied Artists” distribution credit at the end (the production credit went to something called “Essex Entertainment”) it became apparent that, after years of producing genuinely good movies like Cabaret, this company had decided to get back in touch with its Monogram roots.