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The James Bond film craze of the early sixties inspired an endless stream of pale imitations and parodies but occasionally a gem could be found amid the rubbish heap. Case in point, Philippe de Broca's That Man from Rio (1964), a tongue-in-cheek adventure tale that spoofed 007-like heroics while paying homage to everything from matinee serials like The Perils of Pauline to movie icons like Tarzan and Harold Lloyd.
In the title role is Jean-Paul Belmondo as Adrien, a French Air Force pilot who has just arrived in Paris for an eight-day furlough, intending to spend it with his fiancee Agnes (Francoise Dorleac, sister of Catherine Deneuve). Within minutes of their reunion, however, Agnes is kidnapped and drugged by thugs and taken to Brazil to locate where her late father, an archaeologist, had hidden one of three priceless statuettes. Adrien follows in hot pursuit, discovering along the way the culprit behind the abduction and the importance of the three Amazon effigies; they hold the key to a secret Maltec treasure.
Belmondo is perfectly cast as an average Joe who is suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances not unlike the protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock films (such as The 39 Steps, 1935) who are challenged physically and mentally. Belmondo is certainly up to the task here, whether it's parachuting into the jungle, avoiding the snapping jaws of a crocodile or outwitting a diabolical rival. As outlandish as some of the action stunts are in That Man from Rio, Belmondo remains a vulnerable but believable hero; his goofball charm and spontaneous risk-taking make him a much more human character than the super agent stereotypes that usually populate these genre films. Of course, Belmondo makes it all look easy and natural which is one of his great strengths. What other male actor of the sixties could move so effortlessly back and forth between commercial crowd-pleasers and the art cinema? From the harsh neorealism of Vittorio De Sica's Two Women (1960) to the swashbuckling giddiness of De Broca's action-comedy Cartouche (1962) to the intellectual cynicism of Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965), Belmondo remains one of the more intriguing international stars, not only for his underrated performances but his choice of films. Unfortunately, this sort of adventurous casting among popular leading men is rare today. Imagine Brad Pitt in a film by Claire Denis (Beau Travail, 1999) or Will Smith in a movie by Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry, 1997). It's hard to picture in today's box office-driven culture.
When That Man from Rio was released, it proved to be a huge international success for Philippe de Broca who had already established his reputation in the emerging French 'New Wave' with two well-regarded romantic comedies, Les Jeux de L'amour (1960) and L'Amant de cinq jours (1961). Typical of the positive reviews is this excerpt from Bosley Crowther's column in the New York Times: "Call it a comedy thriller or a tongue-in-cheek travesty on all the archeological mystery adventure movies and all the "chase" films that have ever been made. Virtually every complication, every crisis involving imminent peril, that has ever been pulled in the movies, especially the old silent ones, is pulled in this. And they are pulled in such rapid continuity and so expansively played, with such elan and against such brilliant backgrounds, that they take your breath away."
Indeed, the on-location filming in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and other exotic locales is stunningly lensed by Edmond Sechan with such memorable moments as Francoise Dorleac and little Ubiracy De Oliveira (as Sir Winston, a resourceful shoeshine hustler) performing a hillside samba in Rio's shantytown. And of course there are amazing stunts ranging from a slide down a tree trunk to a barroom brawl to a wild rapids sequence to an apocalyptic finish (an earthquake) which pre-figures the villains' demise in the climax to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The sensual score, mixing bossa nova with African rhythms, is by Georges Delerue and one recurring musical motif is a barely disguised rip-off of "Samba de Orpheus" from the Oscar®-winning Best Foreign Film of 1959, Black Orpheus. The script by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Ariane Mnouchkine, Daniel Boulanger and Philippe de Broca received an Oscar® nomination for Best Screenplay (it lost to Father Goose). One jarring note is the final fadeout where our hero and heroine are rescued by workers who are clearing a road through the jungle (with the use of dynamite). Seen today, Belmondo's triumphant exit is ironic since his rescuers are clearly responsible for the decimation of the Amazon rainforests - an ecological disaster of global proportions.
While That Man from Rio clearly established De Broca as a major international director, it was his 1966 film, King of Hearts, that earned true cult status in the U.S., playing at one repertory theatre in Boston for years. The story of some mental asylum inmates who take over an evacuated village during World War I, it starred Alan Bates as an English soldier who finds himself being drawn into their strange, magical world until reality intrudes. De Broca hasn't had a comparable success outside France since King of Hearts but his 1997 swashbuckler, Le Bossu (aka On Guard) was a welcome return to the high spirits of Cartouche and That Man from Rio.
Producer: Georges Dancigers, Alexandre Mnouchkine
Director: Philippe de Broca
Screenplay: Philippe de Broca, Daniel Boulanger, Ariane Mnouchkine, Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Cinematography: Edmond Sechan
Film Editing: Francoise Javet
Art Direction: Mauro Monteiro
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Adrien Dufourquet), Franoise Dorleac (Agnes), Jean Servais (Prof. Catalan), Simone Renant (Lola), Milton Ribeiro (Tupac), Adolfo Celi (Senor De Castro).
by Jeff Stafford