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Bouncing out of the Cohen Collection's film vaults come two bright new restorations (2013, actually) of a pair of adventure films that gave French star Jean-Paul Belmondo a lasting career as an action hero. Inspired, we learn, by equal parts James Bond, Jules Verne and the comic-novel hero Tin-Tin, these agreeable comedy thrillers were among the minority of non-art film French exports to find international success. Long available in fairly wretched video transfers, this double bill of spirited action filmmaking is loaded with beautiful co-stars, extravagant stunts and colorful locations across the globe.
That Man from Rio gives us Jean-Paul Belmondo in a breezy adventure that succeeds on charming personalities, colorful images and fast, fast action. Sort of a Hitchcock-style jeopardy thriller but in an even lighter vein, it whisks the viewer off to a simplified, exotic Brazil for music, romance and thrills. Art house habituées of 1964 took to the idea of a charming French hero dashing between action set pieces in the same exotic location they'd enjoyed in Black Orpheus. Belmondo performs many of his own stunts.
Loose on an eight-day leave from the army, Private Adrien Duforquet (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is flung into a dangerous adventure in Brazil. His girlfriend Agnès Villermosa (Françoise Dorléac) is snatched by kidnappers that have also grabbed professor Norbert Catalan (Jean Servais), killed one of his museum guards and stolen a priceless Maltec figurine. The assailants drug the young woman to get her on a plane to Rio de Janeiro, forcing the adroitly clever Adrien to sneak on board. Thus begins an endless series of attempts to free Agnès, avoid being killed by the assassins and figure out why the Maltec curios are worth all the trouble.
That Man from Rio moves at a breakneck pace, interspersing comedy with fairly realistic action. The inexhaustible Adrien dashes here and there like a madman for almost two hours straight. He makes friends with a Brazilian shoeshine boy (Ubiracy De Oliveira) and crashes a luxury hotel to find his girl. He evades the killers in tourist hangouts, buildings under construction, speeding boats and crashing aircraft. Events give us an impromptu tour of the then- new planned city Brasilia, built far out in the jungle. A last-minute attempt to seize a fabulous treasure of Maltec diamonds takes us directly into Indiana Jones territory, complete with North by Northwest- like ceramic figurines and a treasure chamber deep in a cave. In the extras, director de Broca tells us that Spielberg acknowledged the influence. De Broca also says that Rio was developed first as an adventure for the comic book character Tin-Tin. American boomers will relate the story's light tone, fast pace and quirky characters to Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck adventures. It's all there -- the exotic locations, the juvenile mystery, the tireless and high-spirited heroes.
Belmondo's ever-resourceful hero is always friendly and eager to please, even when his life is in danger. Just because their lives are at stake and they're marooned without money or friends, that's no reason he and Agnès can't indulge in some fast samba dancing or go in for some heavy smooching on the beach. They're French, after all. No matter how much they roll in the dust, they always look presentable.
Françoise Dorléac is as lovely as ever, and her carefree performance here is a fine addition to her brief string of memorable roles. Her Agnès is light-hearted but not an air-head. As far as the action is concerned she's only along for the ride, yet she's sensational when half-drugged, bumbling around in a daze as Adrien tries to rescue her from kidnappers. The scene reminds us of Buster Keaton in the old silent classic Spite Marriage, manipulating an unconscious woman like a puppet.
The intense Jean Servais (Rififi) helps the youngsters in their rush to Brasilia, to contact a third explorer whose life is also in danger, Mário de Castro (Adolfo Celi). This may be Celi's breakthrough role. He's excellent as a jovial developer throwing a gala party among the futuristic architecture. The other name actor is veteran Simone Renant, who plays a crooked dame who sings in her own frontier river bar.
The plot twists are not to be taken seriously, as we enjoy watching the unstoppable Adrien save the day time and again. He's forever clambering on ledges, leaping into jungle waters and dodging crashing cars (hope you had your shots, Jean-Paul). One fight with a formidable Brazilian thug uses action choreography that reminds us of the famed James Bond / Oddjob wrassling match from Goldfinger. Rio came out early enough in the year that it could have been an influence on the 007 film. The film's action is definitely escapist and 'fun'. I counted only two deaths, and even they have a touch of 'French' wit. Jacques Tati would approve of many of these gags.
Part of the fun is that Adrien is no fighting superhuman, like Jackie Chan. He wins most of his battles by his wits, clever timing or sheer luck. With the rough-and-ready nature of the cinematography and the dearth of special effects, we can tell that Belmondo is putting himself in at least some danger. I'm assuming that nets may have been used but it really looks as if the actor is climbing onto that window ledge high above Copacabana beach without a tether. He scampers among rickety scaffoldings, construction sites and mountain rocks in ways that beg for an accident to take place, if only a broken ankle. We're told that when hanging from a wire he got in trouble because he arms went numb. One near-disaster atop a building happens when he stumbles on a pile of loose wood and almost goes over the side. It's exciting because it all looks so unplanned: the cast and crew worked things out on the fly.
The movie takes its plot seriously with an obvious affection for juvenile thrills. The makers claim that their film is never a self-parody, but as Adrien's predicaments become more absurd that feeling comes to mind. The film's charm is expressed in other ways. The animated title sequence is backed by lively Brazilian music with heavy percussion. At the end of the titles the music thins out until all we hear is a single cowbell -- which dissolves to an image of a mooing cow in a field somewhere outside of Paris. The understated transition starts the film off with a good laugh.
Philipe de Broca's follow-up picture Up To His Ears alters the formula quite a bit and still comes up a winner, if not achieving the same effortless charm as That Man from Rio. As David Cairns says, exoticism is racism's pretty sister, and we do feel the undertow of colonial stereotyping, with the scenery shifted from Brazil to Hong Kong, India and Nepal. I don't think anyone would be offended here, as there are no China Doll temptresses, nor any Fu Manchu types - the film's sinister criminal mastermind seems to be a European.
Attributed to Jules Verne, the story is essentially Poe's The Suicide Club lightened with a touch of Around the World in Eighty Days. The depressed and unmotivated millionaire Arthur Lempereur (Belmondo) hasn't let a world tour in his yacht keep him from attempting suicide ten times in one week. His fiancée Alice (Valérie Lagrange) and her greedy mother Suzy Ponchabert (Maria Pacome) don't want him to die before the wedding. Arthur's secretary shows up to announce that he's lost his entire fortune. Rather than keep up the foolish suicide attempts, Arthur is talked into a curious bargain by his friend Mr. Goh (Valéry Inkijinoff). Arthur takes out an insurance policy splitting his remaining $2 million between Alice and Mr. Goh, who sometime in the next thirty days guarantees that Arthur will meet a swift and painless death. Naturally, Arthur instantly meets the ravishing striptease artiste Alexandrine Pinardel (Ursula Andress), falls madly in love and changes his mind. But Mr. Goh is nowhere to be found. To call off his own murder, Arthur and his ever-loyal valet Leon (Jean Rochefort) must avoid various sinister hit men. Their search takes them westward to India and the high Himalayas. Just when it looks like he's going to survive, Suzy Ponchabert induces her consort Cornelius (Jess Hahn) to kill Arthur, and then puts out an official hit with Charlie Fallinster (Joe Said), the boss of a vast criminal empire.
Up To His Ears has its charms, along with plenty of action and some truly spectacular scenery. A couple of the gags are hilarious, as when Arthur and his constant companion Leon tumble from a rickety bridge high up in the mountains, to be saved by a rope made of shirts that Leon has providentially pinned together. "I'm doubling your salary!" shouts Arthur. Jean Rochefort makes Leon a pleasant variation on Verne's Passepartout character, the one that helped Phileas Fogg circumnavigate the globe. Here the deadline mechanism is a 30-day insurance policy. They evade Mr. Goh's hired killers but must fight like commandos when the murderous Fallinster sends a pirate army against them.
This is a great film for Ursula Andress, who was once promoted as the most beautiful star of the 1960s. She seems uncharacteristically relaxed in the role; I can't tell if she's dubbed in French but her voice is quite fetching. Andress is game for the physical action and has some good scenes lolling on a beach with Belmondo, wearing white underwear that reminds us of her Honeychile Ryder character in Dr. No. Once or twice she breaks up in laughter during a take, which seems to do no particular harm. Andress's Alexandrine is introduced via a reverse-striptease act that's become somewhat famous, as it begins with her naked behind some fans. Across cutaways she slowly acquires clothing until she's fully dressed. Babe hounds will perk up at the news that she's actually topless in a medium shot, for perhaps 6 frames.
The cartoon-like impossibility of the reverse striptease points up some big differences between Up To His Ears and That Man from Rio. Not only are many of the gags more exaggerated, but there's a greater reliance on out 'n' out broad slapstick. In the first movie the action never became silly-cartoonish. It was all worked out as a string of fairly logical actions. Things occur here as fancier stunts, but they're not always motivated by logic. It's also more evident that Belmondo is being doubled -- instead of gags that make us think, 'Gee, that looks a little risky,' we get more patently outrageous stunts that almost guarantee death or bodily harm. This happens from the very first, when Arthur's Rolls Royce (Bentley?) tumbles over a cliff and explodes. Although nobody leaps from the car, Arthur is revealed hanging from a bush on the cliff face. The sense of casual jeopardy isn't as acute.
The slightly shifty Mr. Goh is played very interestingly by Valéry Inkijinoff, a great actor famed for his starring role in a Russian silent classic by Pudovkin, 1928's Storm Over Asia. Sort of an Asian Noël Coward in terms of deportment, Mr. Goh's purpose in the story turns out to be a delightful surprise.
Although the writers have dwindled from five to one, much of the crew from Rio continued on this comedy epic. George Delerue again provides the music score, a bouncy confection of 'Oriental' themes. Perhaps another reason that Up To His Ears isn't as arresting as the first movie is Belmondo's character. Arthur Lempereur isn't particularly convincing as a suicide risk, although we like the sad extra-long lock of hair that's always in his face. Nor does he ever seem in much danger from the bad guys. He was better as an ordinary, carefree guy fighting the good fight for his lady love.
The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of That Man from Rio & Up To His Ears is a handsome two-disc set with bright restored video transfers. Colors are very nice, although some of the street scenes up front in Rio have a slight bluish tint. In every other respect this is a very pleasing pair of foreign titles, restored to near perfection. A second less expensive DVD disc set is being offered as well.
George Delerue's bright music comes across well on both pictures. The English subtitles are a blessing, finally; even at MGM I was only able to view these pictures in dubbed versions, which was not pleasant.
Cohen's making-of featurettes were produced in 2013. They feature input from surviving production people combined with archived interview material with director de Broca and star Jean-Paul Belmondo. Writer Ariane Mnouchkine is also present, talking about the odd way Rio came together. Additional featurettes spread across both discs cover the director, writer Jean-Paul Rappeneau and actor Jean Rochefort. All seem pleased to be able to speak out about their adventures on these pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.