Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Mitchell
While we focus on many of the knock-off sci-fi and fantasy films which emerged in the wake of Star Wars here, the notion of copying a flick in the hopes of getting some of that reflected glory and box office does not originate in the blockbuster era. (Though that does remind me I need to order a copy of Tentacles.) Knock-offs and rips are older than cinema itself because everyone one wants a short-cut. And in the time before Star Wars, there were still cop dramas, horror flicks, and even prestige pictures to copy. And this week, we’re zeroing in on one of the greatest and cheesiest of the knock-offs to appear in the wake of Don Siegel’s 1971 classic film Dirty Harry. Yes, friends, it’s time to talk about Mitchell.
The plot concerns a drunken, oafish Los Angeles police detective named Mitchell (Joe Don Baker). When he takes the call of an apparent self-defense shooting, he suspects shooter Walter Deaney (John Saxon) staged the scene to quickly resolve the matter. Because Deaney is being investigated at the federal level, Mitchell’s boss reassigns him to stake-out local import/export man James Arthur Cummins (Martin Balsam).
Cummins, for his part, is entering a difficult phase in his criminal career. Local mobster Mistretta (Morgan Paull) is planning to use Cummins’ business to import some illicit heroin into the country. Though he disapproves of the plan, local mob boss Tony Gallano (Harold J. Stone) — who helped Cummins get his business of the ground — wants the shipment to come through.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s receives a special surprise: someone bought him the services of high-class escort Greta (Linda Evans). It eventually leads to one of the greasiest and least erotic sex scenes you’ll ever see in a cheesy movie.
The bulk of the film amounts to a back-and-forth between scenes of Mitchell watching Cummins, Cummins trying to stop Mistretta, and Gallano trying to get Cummins to kowtow. Occasionally, Mitchell and Cummins have dinner together and Mitchell kills an assailant or two in broad day light. Greta also continues to show up at Micthell’s door; even after he loses a battle of wits to her (alleged) son. Interspersed into the plot are occasional scenes of Mitchell returning to the Deaney investigation. In fact, he sneaks into the man’s home one night to re-enact the original crime. He nearly gets shot by Deaney himself before he makes a hasty retreat.
He eventually learns Deaney was paying for Greta and when the two finally get some face time, Deaney offers to bring Mitchell into a shady land scheme if he will just let the murder go. But here’s the interesting thing about Mitchell: his slovenly demeanor obscures a true heart. Mitchell might be bad at his job, but he is not a corrupt. The inability to sway him eventually leads Cummins and Deaney to team up and end the mutual thorn in their sides.
And if the plodding, case-of-Budweiser-bloated pace seems wrong for a Dirty Harry knock-off, that’s part of the charm. Despite being directed by long-time John Wayne compatriot Andrew V. McLaglen, the film has a very lazy feel to it. But, strangely enough, that really suits the persona of its lead character. Though a familiar face in actions films and his breakout pictures Walking Tall, Baker’s choices in playing Mitchell suggest he was very happy to sit in a car and drink budget brewsky all day. And like McLaglen’s tone, it works. Well, in as much as a bad movie that is nonetheless entertaining works. Both the sleepy tone and Baker’s performance create a Dirty Harry knock-off which is both overly-complicated and curiously unconcerned with itself. It also has a handful of passable — and laughable — action beats.
Ideas like Mistretta and Gallano being cousins occur, but fail to make an impression because it’s time for a very slow-speed chase in the area around Mulholland. Similarly, nothing in the film itself suggests the boy Mitchell fights with is Greta’s son. I suppose it is in dialogue, but the star power of Baker drowns it out.
Mitchell’s bumbling is the reason you want to watch this. Despite the film’s belief that he is some sort of a hero, he screws up a lot, gets beaten up a lot and accepts the services of a sex worker without first learning who’s paying the bill. He also crashes cars, bashes Deaney’s head in with a rock and breaks the chain of command. Screenwriter Ian Kennedy Martin — creator of the well-regard BBC cop drama The Sweeney — had a very strange idea of what “bad cop” meant. But thanks to Baker, it is pretty fun to watch.
Okay, I have to be fair to Baker. The guy is capable of good performances, but his sleepwalk through this picture may be career-defining. It feels more authentic to the man that any performance in a mainstream picture like Cape Fear. The fact he would deliver a similar performance in Final Justice suggests this is the real man.
It really is no accident that both movies would find their way to Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Which leads to a theory: McLaglen gave the film a neutral, almost television look because someone though bringing Joe Don Baker to television would work out for everybody. There is no information to back up the claim, of course, but Mitchell looks and feels very much like a TV pilot. In fact, a TV-version exists with much of the sex scene and the light profanity removed. This is the version used on MST3K and it came as some surprise to see the changes when I finally saw the un-riffed version earlier this century. And while Joel and the Bots definitely help it along, there’s something appealing to this half-hearted Dirty Harry wannabe in its original form. Even if the sex scene is a horror. Make no mistake, this is slow melted cheese drizzled over a can of Shlitz, but it is definitely one worth sampling.
Mitchell is available to stream with an Amazon Prime subscription. It is also available as an MOD DVD via Amazon or the Warner Archive.