On September 6, 2021, France lost one of their biggest cinema icons of the 20th century with the death of Jean-Paul Belmondo at age 88. The actor attained international fame in 1960 for his charismatic performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless as an amoral car thief on the lam. He was the epitome of bad boy cool in that film and would enhance that screen persona in other crime dramas like Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962). Then, Belmondo reached an even wider international audience with the cross-over commercial hit, That Man from Rio (1964), which was even more accessible to the average moviegoer than Breathless, especially in America.
Directed by Philippe de Broca, That Man From Rio is a rollicking, outlandish 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, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. 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, Agnes is kidnapped and drugged by thugs and taken to Brazil. Why? To assist her kidnappers in locating where her late father, an archaeologist, hid 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 over-the-top 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. Belmondo also makes it all look so 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 Ryan Reynolds, for example, in a film by Sean Baker (The Florida Project, 2017).
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.
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). Belmondo was famous for doing most of his own stunts and some of his accident-defying work here is why Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan often credits the actor as an inspiration for his own kinetic action-comedy films.
The sensual score of That Man From Rio, which mixes 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. In addition, 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 never 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.
As for Belmondo, he teamed up with De Broca again in 1965 for Up to His Ears, which was loosely based on the 1879 Jules Verne novel Tribulations of a Chinaman in China. Cast opposite Ursula Andress, Belmondo plays a suicidal playboy who hires an assassin to kill him but then changes his mind after he meets and falls in love with Andress. The film, an uneven mixture of black comedy and chase thriller, was not nearly as successful as That Man From Rio but it did result in a passionate offscreen affair between Belmondo and his co-star. Even though they never married, Andress has stated in interviews that he was the love of her life.
In July 2016 the Cohen Film Collection released new 2k restorations of That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears as a Blu-ray double feature. Both films look stunning and offer an ideal way to celebrate the legacy of the late Jean-Paul Belmondo.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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