by A.J. Hakari
I can think of some weird choices for action heroes that the movies have made. Someone saw fit to give Dennis Rodman some screen time in the ’90s, and few anticipated Liam Neeson’s career resurgence as a kicker of multiple hindquarters. But with these guys, you can see how their physiques and attitudes earned them a shot at stardom, which I can’t really say about Joe Don Baker. Though he was a perfect fit for the role of a no-nonsense, hulking country sheriff in the original Walking Tall, his boorish persona doesn’t serve him well in a flick like 1975’s Mitchell that calls for a bit more finesse. In this vigilante cop drama made to piggyback on the then-current success of the Dirty Harry series, Baker only enhances his character’s worst qualities, making him seem less of a hero with his finger on the American public’s pulse and more like a slovenly jackass who lucked his way into a badge.
When bigwig attorney Walter Deaney (John Saxon) blasts away an intruder in his home, it seems like a cut-and-dry case of self defense. But there’s one man who thinks there’s more to this murder than meets the eye: Detective Mitchell (Baker), who’s lugged to the crime scene sleepy, slurring, and in the back of a police cruiser. Mitchell senses that the deceased couldn’t have been much of a threat and immediately sets about trying to expose Deaney as a cold-blooded killer. Unfortunately, due to a lack of evidence and the FBI’s own interest in the creep, the detective is taken off the case and assigned to keep watch over James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam), a well-to-do businessman with mafia ties. But Mitchell still can’t help being a nuisance and proceeds to sniff out both Cummings’ and Deaney’s criminal dealings on his own time, gleefully racking up even more enemies and attempts on his life in the process.
Mitchell is best known to folks today thanks to its appearance on a little program called “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” I’m not sure how I feel about that, since the film’s prints would probably be withering away in some cave where they belong, were the thing not lampooned by Joel and the bots in what became one of their most popular episodes. It’s no exaggeration when I say that, if anything, they undersold what an unappealing pile of dreck Mitchell is. From top to bottom, this is seriously depressing, a slog through cop movie clichés with no visible signs of life or personality. Be it the made-for-TV cinematography or the simple yet bafflingly roundabout story, everything about the flick feels routine to a fault, as the powers that be make no efforts whatsoever to offer more than what viewers can get from the kind of pictures it’s cheaply trying to rip off. There is simply no action, danger, humor, or anything of worth for the audience to latch onto, only the soulless regurgitation of tropes into a shape intended to fool people into thinking stuff is happening.
But even more than the lackluster directing and inane writing, what cripples Mitchell most is its own headliner. It’s not often that a movie’s fate is so contingent on its performers (the vast majority of whom do their jobs, with few hang-ups), but Baker takes an already unsavory project and sours it up yet further with his presence. As previously mentioned, the goal here was to create a Harry Callahan type of figure, someone with a disdain for bureaucracy and a hankering to see justice served, no matter what procedure says. Instead, Mitchell ends up chronicling the life and times of an oafish slob who basically bugs crooks into cooperation, complains about his duties, and literally tells old ladies to go wander off in the middle of nowhere. Baker’s exhausted look and nearly complete lack of charisma make it impossible to root him on as an antihero, and the way Linda Evans’ prostitute love interest paws him makes for some of the most shockingly ill-conceived sex scenes ever put on film.
Because of “MST3K,” there are many out there who consider Mitchell a schlocky guilty pleasure, a sentiment that I cannot share. Although certain parts are inherently silly (the attempted assassination via dune buggy comes to mind), there’s no entertainment I could glean from this joyless vehicle, ironic or otherwise. Mitchell was a tough enough sit on “MST3K,” but unriffed, it’s even less endurable.
(Mitchell is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)