After quickly rising out of the mists in an uncredited bit in Cool Hand Luke in 1967, Texas-born character actor Joe Don Baker found himself nearing that proverbial spotlight many performers out there dream of. He starred in the surprise breakout hit Walking Tall - a fictionalized 1973 account of Sheriff Buford Pusser's well-known one-man battle with the State Line Mob - which was followed up via a memorable, BAFTA-winning role as the sadistic hitman hired to kill Walter Matthau's Charley Varrick later that same year. After that, Baker moved on from exploitation oddities like Golden Needles to the short-lived Eischeid - wherein Baker became the first actor to receive a million dollar paycheck for a TV series.
It wasn't long after that Baker's career began to diminish from that of starring roles to the smaller parts - including the portrayal of two entirely different characters in several James Bond films. But somewhere in-between the kung-fu action comedy Golden Needles and that aforementioned failed detective series, Baker signed up to star as Mitchell. Here, Baker plays the quintessential depiction of an anti-hero cop: one with a firm addiction to Schlitz and defiance. But mostly Schlitz. In fact, when we first see plain-clothes Los Angeles detective Mitchell, he's in the backseat of one of LAPD's police cars - presumably on the verge of passing out after having a few too many beers somewhere.
But that doesn't stop Mitchell's keen sense of detecting, as he is the only person on the entire force to both realize and care that seedy trade union lawyer Walter Deaney (the great John Saxon) has killed an unarmed burglar in cold blood - and made it to look like self-defense. And the reason nobody else bothers is simple: Deaney is currently under investigation by the feds, and is not to be touched. His superior (Robert Phillips) quickly assigns him to an 18-hour-a-day stakeout assignment, wherein he is to watch a wealthy drug trafficker for the mob, James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam). Mitchell, however, has his own plans, and becomes determined to bring both parties to justice - even though his misguided plight may get him killed in the process.
Merlin Olsen (in his last theatrical feature) co-stars as Balsam's manservant brute, and Linda Evans is a hooker hired by John Saxon to keep the brazen detective at bay, while Morgan Paull and Harold J. Stone play the Mafioso characters here. Interestingly, the writer and director of Mitchell - Ian Kennedy Martin and Andrew V. McLaglen, respectively - were of British descent, and both came from television backgrounds. And therein perhaps lies Mitchell's biggest flaw: the feature-length movie feels more like a television pilot than an action picture. From some rather hazy editing, to very routine plot points, Mitchell might have been sculpted into something finer were it put in different hands. Theatrically, the movie failed to make an impact - and was doomed to a half-life of late night showings on television in a truncated form.
Ironically, its assignment to the boob tube seas would ultimately prove to be its salvation. In 1993, the cult Comedy Central TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (a personal favorite of mine) picked up the now-obscure cop flick in its already-abridged TV-friendly form as an ideal choice to bid its own creator and host - Joel Hodgson - a fond farewell. The episode became a cult phenomenon unto itself with fans - and MST3K geeks near and far can strike up a conversation based solely on quotes from their riffing of Mitchell just like two Star Trek nerds fluent in Klingon can elsewhere in the world.
But the thing a lot of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans fail to realize is that there is more to Mitchell than meets the eye. This Warner Archive release presents us with the original, uncut theatrical edition - replete with profanity, some minor nudity and sex, and a lot more violence. Cummings' hired hood in the Mustang that runs Mitchell off the road? Mitchell tracks him down to slam his own car door on his hand - hard. Linda Evans's sophisticated prostitute character (who somehow manages to fall for Mitchell)? Yup, there's some sideboobage to be found here, kids. Oh, and you know how John Saxon simply disappears in the MST3K version? Well, in the original cut, Deaney and an accomplice try to mow down Mitchell in dune buggies. Sadly for them, their very angry, would-be prey manages to turn the tables - resulting in one guy's face getting smashed in with a large rock (a bit which is shown in slo-mo during the opening credits).
Much like its own titular protagonist, Mitchell suffers. It's an imperfect film either way you cut it (pun intended). But, when viewed in its truest form (this form), it emerges as simple-but-highly-enjoyable b-movie fare - and that's mostly thanks to Joe Don Baker's performance, which ranges from subtle to hopping mad in the blink of an eye.
You just don't mess with Mitchell, kids, and that's that.
Warner Archive's newly remastered Manufactured-on-Demand DVD-R presents Mitchell in a matted 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that presents us with the crispest, clearest look this cult favorite (whether riffed or on its own). Another theatrical edition surfaced on DVD in Australia a number of years back, which boasted more information on the top and bottom of the screen, but was so murky and coated with a blue haze, that it was quite an eyesore overall. There were also several cheapo DVD mutlipacks to sport this title - though they usually only gave us equally poor-looking VHS-to-DVD transfers. This DVD-R blows 'em all out of the water, kids.
It also sports a much nicer mono English soundtrack, though the lack of any extras is a bit strange: even the Rhino Video DVD release of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version included the original film's theatrical trailer. Of course, beggars can't be choosers. I've been wanting to see a decent print of Mitchell in its uncut form for years now, and Warner Archive has delivered just that. And that's plenty good enough for me. Why, I'm sure even Joe Don Baker himself would approve.
Break out the Schlitz and enjoy.