Best Movies by Farr: Don’t Miss Dean Martin

February 3, 2012 | John Farr

Dean Martin, co-star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Ocean’s Eleven, achieved fame with his smooth singing and straight-man partnership with Jerry Lewis, but the reason he enjoyed a such an enduring career is that he could really act.

The Young Lions (1958)

What It’s About:
During WWII, singer Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) and Jewish American Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) enlist and strike up a close friendship. Meanwhile, in Germany idealistic Nazi supporter Christian Diestl (marlon Brando) joins Hitler’s army and becomes an officer in the Wehrmacht. Over the course of the war, each man falls in love and confronts unpleasant realities. Ackerman battles anti-semitism among his own countrymen; Whiteacre feels guilt for getting a cushy assignment far from the front lines, and Diestl becomes increasingly disillusioned with Nazi brutality. Thus director Dmytryk explores the gray areas to be found in war, and in all human conflict.

Why I Love It:
Based on Irving Shaw’s novel, Edward Dmytryk’s perceptive rumination on love, war, loyalty, and fate is notable for offering one of the first three-dimensional portrayals of a Nazi character, courtesy of Brando, in a surprisingly understated mode. Clift’s own turn as the proud, patriotic Jew is one of his shining moments on-screen, while Dino eased into his first serious screen role with assurance. Great support from Lee Van Cleef (as Clift’s racist superior), the superb Maximillian Schell (as a cynical Nazi), and Hope Lange, Barbara Rush, and May Britt (as love interests) keep these “Lions” roaring.

Some Came Running (1958)

What It’s About:
Returning to his Midwest hometown after WWII, card-playing soldier and once-promising novelist Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) is a perturbing presence to his older brother, Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a well-to-do businessman who feels Dave is more trouble than he’s worth. When local creative-writing instructor Gwen French (Martha Hyer) takes a liking to Dave, he cleans up his act, but his acquaintance with Chicago floozie Ginny (Shirley MacLaine) and card sharp Bama Dillert (Dean Martin) threatens to undermine their budding romance.

Why I Love It:
In the wake of “From Here to Eternity,” Warners adapted another James Jones novel for the big screen, pairing director Minnelli (best known for musicals) with Ol’ Blue Eyes, who puts in solid work here as a wayward writer with a troubled heart. On- and off-screen drinking pal Martin is aces, too, playing to his breezy, real-life persona, but the fellas leave the heavy work to Best Actress nominee MacLaine, whose heartrending turn as the self-sacrificing Ginny really burrows under your skin. If “Running” has a moral, it’s this: Messy lives can be as noble as carefully ordered ones.

Rio Bravo (1959)

What It’s About:
Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) is in a tight spot. He’s captured dangerous outlaw Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), and must hold him in jail until the territorial judge arrives. Problem is, Burdette has lots of confederates who’ll clearly attempt to break him out before the judge arrives. And all Chance has in his corner is Dude, his alcoholic deputy (Dean Martin) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), a crippled old geezer. Can Chance hold out?

Why I Love It:
Hawks’s colorful, exciting western boasts an archetypal, larger-than-life turn from the Duke, and perhaps Martin’s finest acting job ever as Dude. Film neatly blends pathos, suspense, comedy, even songs to create top-notch entertainment. Look also for Ricky Nelson as Colorado (he and Dino get to croon together), and the leggy, alluring Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a young woman with her eye on Chance. Bravo indeed.

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