‘That Man From Rio’ and ‘Up to His Ears’ Find Jean-Paul Belmondo Shirtless and Athletic

These eye-popping '60s French capers feature the legendary Jean-Paul Belmondo hopping the globe in a series of illogical but zanily fun adventure pieces.

After French filmmaker Philippe De Broca and star Jean-Paul Belmondo scored a hit with the colorful swashbuckler Cartouche, De Broca was approached to make a film about Tintin, the comics character created by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Instead, he preferred to make an adventure that was “like Tintin”. The result, That Man From Rio, was an even bigger international hit; in its audience was a teenage Steven Spielberg.

The film today delivers the shock of discovering an original Ur-document, for it more than justifies Spielberg’s letter to De Broca 20 years later, in which he said that this film inspired his upcoming Raiders of the Lost Ark. This would then by extension apply to all films inspired by that classic, from Romancing the Stone on — you know, what hip cineastes grumblingly call American action movies, the ruin of cinema. De Broca answered Spielberg that he really owed it all to Tintin, and now Spielberg has made a Tintin movie. It’s a moebius strip of influence.

That Man From Rio is, among many things, a showcase for the dazzling athleticism of Belmondo, who does many of his own stunts, sometimes while decorously losing his shirt. Indeed, it’s almost nothing but a big stunt movie peppered with madcap mix-ups while rubbing its illogical nonsense in our faces. It opens with an Amazonian sculpture being stolen from a Paris museum while an ordinary French soldier, Adrien (Belmondo), comes home on leave to visit his girlfriend Agnès (Francoise Dorléac). When he spots her being hustled into a car by kidnappers, he leaps out the window and the chase is on.

This is the kind of movie that asks us to believe that after our hero crashes his (stolen) motorcycle, he proceeds to run all the way to the airport, where he follows the kidnappers onto a plane for Brazil. (It was easy to jump on a plane then, apparently.) In Rio, he runs around in circles until he stumbles upon them, or vice versa. Rescuing Agnès is only the beginning of many misadventures involving another kidnappee (Jean Servais) and three similar sculptures that combine to reveal a lost treasure.

The chic Agnès is something of a helpless damsel and the Brazilian people are a background of minor friends or foes who exist only in relation to Adrien, but De Broca throws in a surprising nod to reality at the end, when his camera lingers on an Amazonian tribal family displaced by the rampant development embodied by a millionaire blowhard (Adolfo Celi) who’s financing the ultra-mod buildings surrounded by empty space where much of the film occurs: Oscar Niemeyer’s constructed city of Brasília, in fact.

While the ancient sculptures can be seen as claiming an ironic revenge, the bewildered family seems out of place, and the camera stays on them long enough to undercut the visual punchline of their strangeness and make it clear that they belong to this place while the other things are the intruders. It foreshadows the final lingering shot of a Paris train pulling away from the station into the distance while a single old man hobbles toward the camera, another ancient citizen left behind by progress.

This is the sensibility that would have the “crazy” hero of De Broca’s King of Hearts retreat from the crazy modern world, and yet this movie can be seen as celebrating all the buildings and vehicles of modernity as much as it exploits their potential as traps. Adrien makes use of every type of transport, eventually even flying his own small plane–badly. The movie strikes a balance in which it exposes its mad, mad world while also embracing it, or at least those who throw themselves into it headlong and for noble reasons. Those who build it and own it aren’t celebrated, but those who must navigate it are.

At the time, the movie was perceived as a spoof of the only kind of contemporary movies it resembled: the James Bond films. Thus Judith Crist’s review in the New York Herald Tribune, quoted on the package, that “De Broca has made, wonder of wonders, a good movie about bad movies.” However, it’s not a spy story but a globe-trotting adventure-comedy, with some elements of the heist movie, that very fairly resembles the Tintin books and the many post-Spielberg rousers to come.

Even if you somehow don’t know any of the movies it inspired, De Broca’s film remains fresh and quirky, and the colors and compositions are a continual pleasure to the eye on this restored HD transfer. The making-of material is excellent, combining several sources and interviews. De Broca discusses Tintin, while his co-writer Ariane Mnouchkine (daughter of producer Alexandre Mnouchkine) says her source was Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, and co-writer Jean-Paul Rappeneau says he emphasized structure while dialogue specialist Daniel Boulanger probably wasn’t aware of any influence. They all must have been astonished when their screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

The whole affair is aided immeasurably by Georges Delerue’s bouncy, samba-fied score, which begins with the eye-popping colors of the opening credits that promise and deliver a good time. Kudos also to photographer Edmond Séchan, stunt and effects man Gil Delamare, and designer Mauro Monteiro, though assistant director Olivier Gérard says he had to find the props to clutter the sets. It would have been interesting to have an option for the English-dubbed version released in the U.S. (likely how Spielberg saw it), but it’s not here.

Chuffed, De Broca and his collaborators wanted to make a bigger follow-up, and they did. As the honest making-of on that second disc admits, however, bigger wasn’t better. The new film made money, but not as much, and De Broca considered it a failure. Rappeneau, who wasn’t involved, gets the last word by averring that it lacked structure, and he’s right.

Up to His Ears (1965)

That film is known in the U.S. as Up to His Ears, though the French title is Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine, or “The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China”. That’s the title of the Jules Verne novel used as inspiration by writer Daniel Boulanger, although it departs so far from its source that, as De Broca pointed out in an interview, it’s neither about a “Chinaman” nor set in China. Mind you, that man from Rio wasn’t technically from Rio either.

If it would be tedious and fun-draining to catalogue all the incidents in Rio, it would be more so to itemize every frantic stunt-sequence (sometimes underline by jolly undercranking) in the China film, which is rather set in Hong Kong, then New Delhi, then Kathmandu, then Hong Kong again. This film has an even more casual attitude to the locals in all these places, who exist as set dressing and chase impediments, ready to have their carts knocked over at a moment’s notice.

This time, Belmondo plays Arthur, a bored millionaire who habitually attempts suicide out of sheer ennui. When a friend (Valery Inkijinoff as the only Chinaman in view) encourages him to take out a one-month insurance policy and let himself by murdered by paid thugs, he rediscovers his joie de vivre along with an intellectual fan dancer (Ursula Andress) who does nothing much but run around most fetchingly. The plot isn’t a million miles away from the Jack London novel that would be filmed in a few years as The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., only it’s even broader and sillier than that outing.

It’s both generous and canny of Cohen Film Collection to package these films together, since the bigger yet less successful production makes an excellent contrast and comparison, and the HD restoration looks equally wonderful. All viewers must say the same of Belmondo, even more shirtless than before (at one point got up in drag for a striptease), and Andress, who wears either bikinis or feathers. As the interviewees point out, this film too wears its Tintin influence on its sleeve, even featuring a pair of slapstick “cops” (Paul Preboist, Mario Davis) and a faithful phlegmatic butler (Jean Rochefort) along for all the rides.

It’s too ramshackle and juvenile to be an overall success, yet it’s packed with too many visual and conceptual sparkles to be a total waste of time. Its isolated highlights offer moments of pleasure before the next twist comes buffalo-ing around the corner. At the very least, it’s a two-hour highlight reel for secret star Gil Delamare, who designed the stunts and effects and died the following year at age 41 while stunt-driving.

RATING 8 / 10