THAT MAN FROM RIO: International Thriller Meets Madcap Comedy
A dazzling picture that's as comedic as it is entertaining, bursting with a Brazilian energy that brings to mind the Bossa Nova rhythms of Sergio Mendes.
That Man from Rio is a find. It’s a dazzling picture that’s as comedic as it is entertaining, bursting with a Brazilian energy that brings to mind the Bossa Nova rhythms of Sergio Mendes, somehow married with the world of James Bond. And it’s true, there’s without question a major debt to be paid to Dr. No and From Russia with Love. It’s a good old-fashioned international thriller in the most delightful sense.
Jean-Pierre Belmondo is one of our intrepid albeit reluctant heroes, more of a Gilligan than a masterclass spy- a bungling Bond if you will. In fact, Adrien (Belmondo) is fresh off a stint in the air force with a week’s worth of leave. And he’s planning on some nice relaxing R & R with his best girl, our spunky heroine Agnes (Francoise Dorleac). But that all quickly goes to hell.
A mysterious statue belonging to indigenous peoples of the Amazon Rainforest is purloined from its place at a Parisian museum in the wake of a silent murder. It’s in these opening moments that the film feels strikingly similar to a caper comedy released only a couple years later, How to Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. But that’s just the setup for the chaotic endeavors ahead.
Adventures in Rio
The story rapidly leaves behind the museum corridors for territory more at home in, if not Bond films, then certainly Tintin serials. Most memorably pulling from his adventures in South America as well as snatching some eerily similar plot points from Herge’s Prisoners of the Sun and Red Rackham’s Treasure.
Belmondo quickly is thrust into the ruckus as our comical and nevertheless compelling action hero, who can be found riding a commandeered motorcycle through the Parisian streets in pursuit of his kidnapped girlfriend.
He’s more than once seen pitifully chasing after a car on foot and his being in the air force must explain why he’s utterly lacking in hand to hand combat skills, more often than not swinging wildly with blunt instruments and getting knocked to the ground. He’s a far cry from any of his characters in the arthouse ventures of Godard or Melville. It feels surprisingly liberating.
However, there’s also a bit of Indy in him with his own personal Portuguese Short Round, the local shoeshine boy and if rumor serves as fact, it’s no surprise that Spielberg supposedly saw the film nine times in a flurry of infatuation. If the influences of Tintin can be seen in Rio, then the film undoubtedly inspired Raiders and its sequels, making it no surprise that Spielberg would produce a Tintin picture of his own.
The madcap antics are in one sense reminiscent of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World also featuring trains, planes, and automobiles of every color and description. It too has an outlandish progression of events that nevertheless make for a thoroughly entertaining adventure.
The stolen statue and murder lead to kidnapping and a spur of the moment trip to Rio where Adrien somehow snags a seat on a flight so he can catch up to his girlfriend. But soon they’re both on the lamb, looking for the missing statue and trying to rescue Professor Catalan (Jean Servais), a friend of Agnes’s late father who as luck would have it, also winds up kidnapped. That’s about all you need to know to latch onto to the workings of the plot as they surge ever onward through crazy chase scenes, frantic escapes, bar fights, and whatever else you could possibly imagine
The Shadow of Imperialism
Phillippe de Broca’s film right from its opening credits boasts gorgeous photography that positively pops, making the most of Parisian streets and most certainly the luscious Brazilian locales that still somehow purport a grittiness. There’s the juxtaposition of the worn street corners that at times feel cavernous and somehow still manage to be quaint with a tropical affability thanks to the myriad locals and tourists who inhabit the world.
However, there are also some admittedly archaic presuppositions in the film that are the remnants of imperialist culture where white westerners are allowed to run roughshod over other cultures as the self-proclaimed saviors of mankind. Even if these sentiments are never overtly expressed they are implicit throughout the sequences, particularly in Brazil. Although this film can still be thoroughly enjoyed, the issue nevertheless needs to be addressed. The elephant in the room needs to be brought out into the open.
Because every other character feels like a mere foil or a thin caricature for the main protagonists to play off of. Whether it is the happy go lucky streetwise shoeshine boy or the plethora of bronze-skinned natives who mix brawn and booze with their penchant for song. Even the statues that become the MacGuffins propelling the plot forward to a chaotic end undoubtedly had no right being in the possession of those who have them, to begin with. It’s true that this film follows much the same lineage as Tintin or any such narrative. This is not a new phenomenon by any means.
While not completely detrimental, there is undoubtedly a need to acknowledge the norms that are being propagated while at the same time still enjoying everything else the film has to offer as quality entertainment. However, some might find it impossible to separate the film from its cultural viewpoint without harboring disdain and that’s okay. Those are valid criticisms.
But being a fan of all the aforementioned diversions from Tintin comics to Raiders of the Lost Ark since boyhood, it’s equally difficult for me not to at least enjoy the sheer delight of That Man from Rio’s comic energy and its eye for excitement. In some ways, those qualities manage to overshadow, if not completely mask other faults. Aside from that, cinematic perfection went out the window the moment the first film was ever made, as it should have. Film is a vehicle to observe, to engage, to laugh, and ultimately to grapple with those very fissures that run through humanity. Rio has faults but that does not mean for a moment we cannot still get something out of it, even if it’s, at the very least, some unadulterated thrills.
Putting a Spotlight on Rio
There’s no doubt that Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac make a wonderful pair of leads and they never take themselves too seriously which suits them in every escapade they get caught up in. It’s great. Having first become acquainted with Francoise Dorleac in The Young Girls of Rochefort opposite her sister Catherine Deneuve, it was easy to consider her the lesser star despite her being slightly older. That’s how hindsight often gives us a contorted view of the past. After all, following her own untimely death in a car crash, her sister Catherine has gone on to an illustrious career that has kept her at the forefront of the public consciousness as one of France’s preeminent cinematic treasures.
But after seeing Doreleac in some of her films including That Man in Rio, it could easily be questioned whether or not she or Deneuve was a greater star early on as both were involved in some stellar projects. Umbrellas of Cherbourg still gives Deneuve the edge but a film like Rio at the very least deserve a brighter spotlight.
Alongside Belmondo, Dorleac is his comic equal as they gallivant frantically every which way both pursuing and being pursued. And from both actors, there’s an obvious exercising of their comic chops that really becomes the core of this film even with its certain amount of intrigue. In truth, they both perform wonderfully and their work here serves as a light, refreshing change of pace. Do yourself a favor and enjoy it.
What are your thoughts on older films that have an inherently imperialistic perspective even if it’s comedy or not explicitly expressed? Should we still be able to enjoy them?
That Man From Rio was originally released on February 5th, 1964. It can be purchased for home viewing from the Cohen Film Collection as well as streamed on Amazon.
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