The Party’s Over: Dean Martin in MR. RICCO (MGM 1975)

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It’s an older, more world-weary Dean Martin we see in MR. RICCO, a fairly gritty but ultimately unfulfilling 70’s flick that would’ve made a decent pilot for a TV series (maybe in the NBC MYSTERY MOVIE rotation with Columbo and McCloud), but as a feature was best suited for the bottom half of a double bill. This was Dino’s last starring role, though he did appear in two more movies (THE CANNONBALL RUN and it’s sequel), and this attempt to change his image from footloose swinger to a more *gasp!* sober Martin doesn’t really cut it.

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Dean’s a defense lawyer, a “lily white liberal” who gets black militant Frankie Steele (Thalmus Rasulala ) off a murder rap. When two cops are blown away in an ambush, the witness provides a description of Steele, causing friction between Ricco and the police, especially his friend Detective Captain Cronyn (Eugene Roche, an underrated character actor who’s really good here). The cops raid the militant’s warehouse headquarters looking for Steele, and a racist cop shoots one of them, planting a weapon on the dead body. The dead guy’s brother Purvis (Phillip Michael Thomas, years before MIAMI VICE) is arrested, and sister Irene (Denise Nicholas of TV’s ROOM 222 and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) hires Ricco to clear him. Meanwhile, it seems Steele’s still on the loose, as Ricco’s home is attacked with a barrage of gunfire. But Ricco has his doubts about it all; why would Steele want to kill the man who got him cleared of a murder charge?

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This sets the stage for (few too many) action scenes, and what amounts to an introduction to Mr. Ricco’s world. He’s pals with Cronyn, has a faithful dog companion named Hank who fetches his wide golf shots, lives with elderly Italian Uncle Enzo (veteran Frank Puglia in his last film), a plucky girl Friday (Cindy Williams marking time between AMERICAN GRAFFITI and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY), and Italian restaurant owners Nino and Angela (Nicky Blair, Rose Gregorio) who set him up with sweet Katherine Freemont (Geraldine Brooks). If that doesn’t sound like a TV pilot premise, what does? The television connection is also linked to Emmy-winning director Paul Bogart, better known for his work on the small screen (series ARMSTRONG CIRCLE THEATER, U.S. STEEL HOUR, THE DEFENDERS, ALL IN THE FAMILY, the TV-movies LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL, AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, THE SHADOW GAME) than his films (MARLOWE, HALLS OF ANGER, SKIN GAME, TORCH SONG TRILOGY).

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But Dino had just ended a nine-year run on his variety show the previous year, and was in the midst of a painful divorce. The great crooner probably wasn’t up to the grind of another weekly series (or even the MYSTERY MOVIE format of every three weeks), and was slowing down as he approached sixty. The point is moot, however; whatever the film’s intentions, MR. RICCO tanked at the box office. A new generation of stars and filmmakers was on the rise, and Dean Martin no longer had the cache he did in the Fabulous 50’s and Swingin’ 60’s. He continued with his CELEBRITY ROAST specials, played Vegas for his aging fan base, and had a memorable reunion with ex-partner Jerry Lewis at the 1976 Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon. Dino finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1995, putting an end to one of show biz’s greatest careers. MR. RICCO is average at best, but it does have the last starring performance of Dean Martin to recommend it. For fans of old Hollywood, that’s more than enough.

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