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Mr. Ricco

Mr. Ricco(1975)

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teaser Mr. Ricco (1975)

Dean Martin came to prominence as one half of the musical comedy team Martin and Lewis. He and Jerry Lewis met when they were both small time stage performers struggling for prominence. After teaming up, they finally hit it big in both the movies and on television. Martin wanted to expand beyond the act and do more drama. When he finally got the chance, in The Young Lions, he did better than anyone expected. The argument could be made he gives the best performance in the film and when the film costars Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, that's saying something. After several more dramatic roles and successes, Martin fell back on comedy and singing for most of the sixties. By the mid-seventies, nearing the end of his stamina for movie making, he tried one more dramatic role. The movie was Mr. Ricco and Martin gave one of the best performances of his career, a performance that would mark his last starring role in a movie.

Mr. Ricco opens in a courtroom, as a judge condemns the police for planting evidence at a crime scene. There's no clean proof that the man on trial, Frankie Steele (Thalmus Rasulala), is guilty of murder so the case is dismissed and Steele goes free. His lawyer is Joe Ricco (Dean Martin) and Ricco looks anything but happy with the result. His client is free but he didn't really do anything and a woman is dead with no one in jail for it. Ricco's best friend just happens to be the lead detective on the case, George Cronyn (Eugene Roche), who thinks that Ricco just helped a murderer walk away without so much as a slap on the wrist. When a couple of cops are murdered shortly after, and a young boy identifies the shooter as Frankie Steele, Ricco starts getting a bad rap around town as the guy who got the cop killer off. Then, unexpectedly, the shooter starts going after Ricco which leaves Ricco wondering, if it were Steele, why would he be going after the man who helped him in court.

The movie was a change of pace for Martin who had spent the last several years doing Matt Helm movies and performing Vegas routines with the rest of the Rat Pack. Coming midway through the seventies, it was a perfect fit for the times. Starting in the sixties and early seventies with cop movies like Bullitt, The Detective, and The French Connection, the cinematic landscape of the onscreen detective was becoming more cynical, an updating of the cynical private eye from the heyday of noir. Martin's Joe Ricco, though a lawyer, not a cop, fit right in with the downbeat mood of the times. He's world weary and worn, and seems tired in every scene. It's hard to know if that's just Martin projecting himself onto the role. It's said that Martin was tired of making movies and simply wanted to do one more drama before he quit. Whatever the case, it works. Ricco is tired of the system and when Cronyn gives him hell for his assistance to murderers, Ricco reminds him of the Bill of Rights and the notion of presumed innocence almost as a formality. Inside, he feels pretty bad about all of it.

Mr. Ricco was directed by Paul Bogart, more notable as a television director than anything else. He had worked in television since the fifties and had moved up to such notable work as All in the Family. His television experience didn't slow him down and the movie has a great look to it, with Bogart making full use of the freedom of movement that film gave him. At times, the movie feels a bit too slowly paced, though, like a movie of the week at the time that used long pauses between lines and takes as a way to stretch the meager plot. And the tone stays on almost the same downbeat level for the entire film. Everyone is weary and tired, which is fine as long as the film itself doesn't feel the same way. At times, it does.

The cast is excellent. The great Eugene Roche, good in everything he ever did, once again delivers a terrific performance, as good as his work in The Late Show a year later. He had worked with Paul Bogart before, on television, and would work with him again, most notably in a tv production of the play, You Can't Take it With You.

Thalmus Rasulala, famous for his starring role in Blacula, plays Frankie Steele, leader of a Black Militant group, who has gone off on his own and, possibly, become a murderer. For the first two thirds of the movie, Rasulala is barely present but later, in probably the best scene in the movie, he and Martin both verbally and physically duke it out, finally releasing all of the pent up anger brewing inside of both of them. Rasulala is excellent and, as with Roche, brings a great performance to a movie that doesn't necessarily deserve it.

A couple of other actors would become famous later on in their careers. Cindy Williams, fresh off of American Graffiti and The Conservation, but not yet famous as one half of Laverne and Shirley plays Ricco's assistant. Philip Michael Thomas, before his fame as one half of the team of Crockett and Tubbs in Miami Vice, plays a partner of Steele's, who takes the fall for him rather than turn him in.

Mr. Ricco didn't make much of a splash when it premiered. The critics didn't seem to care one way or another and Dean Martin no longer had the star power to pull in a 1975 movie going crowd with his name alone. But Martin gave as good a performance as he ever did and proved he was a far better dramatic actor than, perhaps, he ever got credit for. In the end of the movie, both Ricco and Martin, one and the same, look defeated. There would be no sequel for Ricco and no more dramatic roles for Martin. Mr. Ricco may not be the best movie Martin ever did, but it turned out to be a fitting final starring role.

ByGreg Ferrara

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