Mr. Ricco

Director: Paul Bogart  
Dean Martin, Eugene Roche, Thalmus Rasulala

Like most people out there, I work at a job outside of my home in order to get the money I need in order to support myself. It happens to be a job that I often enjoy doing. That's not to say that it's perfect - sometimes things about the job drive me crazy, such as having to deal with dim-witted customers. But even all of these bad and annoying things about the job added together don't outweigh the good stuff. Plus, I know that even during the bad times, I happen to have a job that I think most people would approve of. Over the years, I have made numerous observations about certain occupations, occupations that it seems the majority of people disapprove of. I count myself lucky to not have one of those jobs. For example, there are occupations in the sex industry, like porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes. Though there seems to be a great need for those occupations, the majority of the population officially turns their noses up towards these people. Another job that people don't look fondly towards to are those who collect taxes for the government. Nobody likes to pay taxes, so IRS agents and their counterparts are often mocked and thought badly about. Other authority figures that are not looked fondly upon often include police officers. I'm sure most police officers are honest and work their hardest, but every so often you hear about a bad apple in the force that spoils the feeling for the whole bunch. One of the most hated occupations has to be that of the mime. Don't you just want to punch them in the face whenever you pass them as they perform on the sidewalk for your hard-earned change? But the police would no doubt arrest you for that, which is another reason why I often don't look fondly upon cops.

Those occupations, as well as many others I could list, are certainly ones that many people look down upon. But for this review, I would like to focus on one specific occupation that has not only been viewed with much disgust in this day and age, but also for centuries in the past. I am talking about the occupation of lawyer. Just think about it for a few seconds - the profession of legal representation has been ripped to shreds from MAD Magazine to The Simpsons. Why has there been so much hostility towards lawyers over the years? Thinking about it for a little bit, I have come up with some possible answers. One reason is that quite often they seem to be taking advantage of people's misfortunes. I get a number of television channels from America up here in Canada, and I am amazed by how often commercials come up on these channels for lawyer firms wanting to represent you in various accident and personal injury cases. (This type of thing happens on Canadian TV channels too, but much less often.) This tidal wave alone of desperate commercials trying to get you to call a toll-free number makes the legal profession look sleazy to me. Another possible reason why people hate lawyers so much is when it comes to criminal cases. How many times have we seen people who are so obviously guilty, but their lawyers claim to the press and to the jury that their clients are innocent? It gets you wondering what kind of sick mind would try to free someone who is guilty of the crime they are being accused of doing. Though I suppose that the prosecution can at times be frowned upon for trying to get a conviction for people who are clearly innocent of the crime they are being accused of.

There are a lot more bad things about lawyers that I could list, but I'll leave it as it is. I will say, however, that there is only one good thing that I've learned about being a lawyer, something that I learned as a child from MAD Magazine: No matter if your client wins or loses, you get paid Mr. Riccoall the same. So as you can imagine, like many people out there, I don't look that fondly upon lawyers. I am not even fond of TV shows like Perry Mason or Matlock, despite the fact that those individuals' clients always seem to be innocent. However, I am always up for some entertainment that shows a lawyer finding himself in some kind of big trouble. That's why I sought out Mr. Ricco, a movie with that particular subject matter. But there were other reasons why I sought it out. It happened to be a movie with Dean Martin acting seriously instead of using his oft-used lovable boozer persona. Also, before the movie was released on DVD a few years ago, the movie was practically impossible to view anywhere despite being from a major studio. As you've probably guessed, Martin plays the title figure, one Joe Ricco. Ricco is a successful and controversial San Francisco defense attorney, who has recently gotten off one Frankie Steele (Rasulala, Blacula), a black militant who had been on trial for murder. But not long after Steele is set free, two local police officers are murdered - and the evidence points to Steele being the figure who gunned the policemen down. Naturally, the S.F. police are enraged, and they begin cracking down on various people who have a connection to Steele as they attempt to track him down. But Ricco believes that Steele is innocent, and he begins his own investigation. He soon finds himself not only clashing with the vengeance obsessed police investigating the murders, but dodging several attempts to assassinate him by what appears to be Steele. Is it really Steele trying to kill Ricco, and if so, why is he trying to kill the man who earlier got him free? And is he really responsible for the earlier murders of the two police officers?

Although Dean Martin after this movie was to act in further motion pictures and television productions before his death in 1995, Mr. Ricco turned out to be his final leading role in front of the camera. Why he didn't act in another lead role after this movie I cannot say for sure, but this final leading role does have some possible clues. Martin was fifty-eight years old when Mr. Ricco was released, and by this point he was starting to show his advancing age. Although he doesn't look downright ghastly, his appearance does show a clearly weathered weariness. But it's not just his physical appearance that looks aged and tired, but his performance as well. Martin doesn't seem to have the energy to give Joe Ricco spark in his speech. This by itself makes Ricco come across as bland, but the feeling is further increased by the fact that Martin also spends a great deal of the movie sitting down or standing in one place. At one point, when Ricco gets into a fist fight, it is painfully clear that a stunt double is being used for most of the scene. The times when we do see it's Martin, we in the audience wince seeing this aging character gets slammed in the gut. Clearly, the role of Joe Ricco should have been given to a somewhat younger actor. Slightly making up for the miscasting of Martin in the movie comes from some of the supporting cast. Eugene Roche, as the police captain who investigates the various aspects of the cop killings, gives a nice well-rounded performance, showing both a sympathetic side as well as one who is irked by the liberal Ricco and his poking around. A pre-fame Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley) and Philip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice) also make appearances as, respectively, Ricco's assistant and a black militant associate of Frankie Steele. Both actors show considerable spunk in their minor roles, enough that you can see why they became big stars later in their careers.

I'm not quite finished looking at Martin's disappointing lead performance, so please let me backtrack a little. While clearly a lot of fault for this bland performance has to fall on Martin's shoulders, a more in-depth examination of the movie reveals that Martin didn't exactly have a lot to work with. Joe Ricco isn't just bland in the way he acts. We learn very little about this character, from what makes him tick to what his private life is like. I didn't know what to make of or think of this character. But Ricco isn't the only badly written character in the movie. I seem to recall that the key figure of Frankie Steele has only one big scene (when over seventy percent of the movie has passed, incidentally) where he gets to let loose and express himself, and only has two or three lines of dialogue elsewhere in the movie. As a result, he doesn't become a real big threat or even an interesting multi-layered suspect. The problems with the screenplay aren't just confined to the characters, though. There is the whole mystery angle of the movie. This is one of the slowest mysteries I have seen in a movie for a long time. For long chunks of the movie, there is absolutely no progression in the investigation, either by Ricco or the San Francisco police. The few progressions in the case we get between these long and uneventful segments don't give the audience any real clues so they might be able to figure the mystery out for themselves. Then towards the end of the movie, a new character, never mentioned before, is suddenly introduced. When this character and his part in the entire mess are revealed, I instantly had a good idea of what was going on. And later, minutes before the "surprise" twist ending was revealed, the movie eliminates all other possible suspects, making it dead easy to deduce who the culprit was and his or her motivations behind it all. So after being bored for so long, the audience gets insult added to injury by the blatant telegraphing in this last part of the movie.

While I'm still on the screenplay, I would again like to backtrack a little and talk more about useless moments in the movie. The movie doesn't just pad things out with scenes of Ricco playing golf or poker. There are several subplots in the movie - a racist cop who shoots and kills an unarmed black militant, and Ricco finding out that Frankie Steele may not be innocent of the murder charge he got him off of at the beginning of the movie - that are introduced, but are eventually abandoned and are never brought up again. Clearly, this was a screenplay that needed a lot more work before filming started, but that is not to say that director Paul Bogart can't share some blame for Mr. Ricco's downfall. After watching the movie, I did some research, and I was not surprised to find that Bogart's other directing assignments in his career were almost all television projects. The movie more often than not has a made for television feeling to it, with its constant close-ups, obvious sets, and no feeling at all of the surrounding San Francisco environment. The budget for this movie obviously wasn't that great, so Bogart was obviously working in tough conditions. And he does manage under the circumstances to direct a few effective scenes. Scenes involving violence - the cop killings, the attempted killings of Rico, the raid on Steele's black militant compound - actually do pack a little punch, with genuine suspense right before some hard-hitting violence. In fact, I think that had Bogart had a well-written screenplay and enough time and money to work with, it's possible he might have managed to pull off directing this project and made Mr. Ricco a passable entertaining exercise. But as you can see from what I've detailed, the evidence found in the actual end results would make any defense lawyer try to strike a plea bargain with the prosecution.

(Posted May 24, 2016)

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See also: Brigham City, Cardiac Arrest, Ulterior Motives