Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Dean Martin as MR. RICCO

"A cop is not the law.  He just enforces it."  That's a line said by Dean Martin as MR. RICCO.  Here's a 1975 movie of his that definitely deserves re-appreciation.  You could take MR. RICCO, show it in revival movie theater tomorrow, and it would feel not only timely but relevant in these days of "black lives matter" and national news attention on police misconduct.  I saw it for the first time last month on TCM.  I watched because I have been a hardcore Dean Martin fan for decades, but I never saw this movie of his.  I remember when it opened.  I was a college kid.  But I didn't hear much talk about it.  Keep in mind that it came out the same year as JAWS, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, SHAMPOO, THE STEPFORD WIVES, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and the rock musical TOMMY.  Those movies got our college cash at the box office.  If you're a Dean Martin fan, make MR. RICCO a must-see.  Martin plays a reputable, dedicated lawyer in San Francisco.
But this isn't the swinger Dino of the "Rat Pack" buddy movies he did with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.  This isn't the funny hipster Dean Martin of OCEAN'S ELEVEN or ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS.  This was the Dean Martin after years of network success with his prime time NBC weekly music variety show.  This was the later Dean Martin, a Martin with the kind of mature serious role that reminded us yet again that he never, ever got the props he should have for his dramatic film work -- like Frank Sinatra did.  Fellow singer Frank Sinatra won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1953, and he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing a junkie in 1955's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.  Dean hit some of his screen assignments out of the park but never got a nomination.
 MR. RICCO was Martin's last lead role in a movie.  In this racially charged crime drama, he's a lawyer who represents a black militant.  The militant beats a murder charge.  A white person was killed.  Ricco works closely with the cops.  We go inside a precinct.  A white cop makes an offensive comment about black people and crime.  A black cop reminds him out loud that a white man shot the Kennedys, Dr. Martin Luther King and pro-segregationist former Governor of Alabama George Wallace.

Two police officers are shot and killed.  A little boy is an eyewitness.    He's black and his mother is someone who was helped by Ricco.  He helped her make positive changes in her life.  In their scenes, you see Mr. Ricco's respect and affection for the black community.  It seems that Frankie Steele, the black militant that Ricco defended, killed those uniformed cops.  But why after he was just cleared of murder?  There's tension between Steele and the police and there's some tension between the police and Ricco for being Steele's lawyer.  There's a sniper on the loose.  Is it Steele?
This role of Ricco, the liberal lawyer who believes in "the Bill of Rights and due process" is a great fit for Dean Martin.  Ricco is a very middle-aged widower.  In a nice touch that you usually don't see in movies, he dates a woman his own age as he works to solves this mystery.

In the cast, you will see familiar faces.  An actress who plays a police precinct secretary is recognizable as the housekeeper for the band of villains in Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST.  Mr. Ricco's legal secretary is played by Cindy Williams before she started years of TV stardom as half of LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, the hit ABC sitcom pair.  One jailbird who has a tie to the black militants is played by Philip Michael Thomas before he started years of TV stardom as a cop on NBC's MIAMI VICE.  The jailbird's sister works in one of San Francisco's most prestigious art galleries.
She needs Mr. Ricco's help.  She's played by Denise Nicholas who was wonderful as a high school guidance counselor on the hit ABC comedy-drama series, ROOM 222.  In MR. RICCO, she's organizing a major and newsworthy exhibit of Asian art.  That was such a perfect reflection of the San Francisco I know.  I lived there in 2011.  I lived close to and frequented a couple of locations Woody Allen used in his San Francisco-based movie, BLUE JASMINE (2013).  But no Asian-American actor was cast in Allen's movie with a speaking role and I seem to recall only one black person having maybe two lines. In its opening courtroom scene, Dean Martin's 1975 movie had the racial diversity of San Francisco that was lacking in Woody Allen's film.  Here's a trailer for MR. RICCO.  Click onto the link:


After huge box office success in a string of 1950s Paramount comedies with his then-partner, Jerry Lewis, the pair split and Dean Martin went on to show his dramatic chops.  Like in Vincente Minnelli's SOME CAME RUNNING (1958) co-starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.  To me, Dino also did excellent dramatic work as the blacklisted Hollywood director in CAREER (1959), also co-starring Shirley MacLaine, and the World War 2 drama, THE YOUNG LIONS (1958), co-starring Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.  Kevin Spacey said that director Curtis Hanson made him watch Dean Martin's performance as the town drunk in 1959's western drama, RIO BRAVO, as preparation for his role as the show biz-loving detective in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.  And Martin was effortlessly brilliant at comedy.  Long before John Malkovich did a send-up of himself in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, Martin lampooned his own "Rat Pack" member image playing himself in Billy Wilder's KISS ME, STUPID (1964) with Kim Novak.

Find MR. RICCO starring Dean Martin.  It's a crime this movie is as overlooked as it is.  It's quite good and Dean Martin ended his impressive film career with a solid performance. Thanks for very much for airing it, TCM.


  1. Mr. Rivers, thank you so much for more wise wonderful words about our Dino. "Mr. Ricco" has been overlooked for way to long and we are certain your post will encourage many more folks to view it. Know that your energetic efforts are being shared this day at ilovedinomartin.

  2. The real reason, I suspect, that many people dislike this film is the fact that Dean Martin was never “supposed” to be a serious actor. On the contrary, after his split from Jerry Lewis, Martin concentrated almost exclusively on dramatic – rather than comedic – roles. Movies such as “Ada”, “Some Came Running”, “Career”, “Rio Bravo” and especially “Toys in the Attic” show Martin on full display as a VERY serious movie actor.

    This, his final major screen role, is in no way a departure for Mr. Martin, but a continuation of a fine dramatic resume. True, he was wonderful in musical or comedic vehicles, in this movie, however, he returns to familiar territory as a serious actor (see “Showdown” in 1973). If he is – as many complian – too old for the role, it must be explained that the part REQUIRES a man pushing 60. The movie is as much about the reluctant aging of a lawyer re-examining his life in its final stages as it is a crime drama. How would, the film asks, an aging bachelor react to these violent changes in his life?

    Dean Martin answers this question with aplomb in “Mr. Ricco”.


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