What is Rio? We can safely say it’s a 1939 film directed by John Brahm and starring Basil Rathbone and Victor McLaglen. Wikipedia calls it a crime film, and maybe that’s true. Author Kevin Grant includes it in his 2022 book Roots of Film Noir: Precursors from the Silent Era to the 1940s. On the other hand, Rio might be a romance, even a quasi-musical. Whatever Rio is, a new Kino Lorber Blu-ray lets us figure it out for ourselves. One thing is safe to say: it’s unpredictable.
The first 20 minutes of Rio look like a polished, elegant European romance centering on a charming rogue. Rathbone is in his element as Paul Reynard, a dashing member of “café society”. We might say the jet set, except they didn’t quite have jets yet; still, he charters a private plane complete with a manservant. Paul Reynard is the type of man who is on a first-name basis with bankers, who telephone him with bluster and consternation while he reassures them with lies. Rathbone’s career was about evenly divided between suave villains and Sherlock Holmes, so his patrician demeanor and aquiline honker signal intelligence with moral ambiguity.
McLaglen plays Dirk, a fiercely loyal right-hand man. In the Middle Ages, he’d be called a squire or varlet. Apparently, Reynard saved his life once, perhaps in the First World War. Dirk feels a powerful emotional attachment to Reynard, although he might slug us if we called it homoerotic. It’s no coincidence that Dirk’s named after an outdated dagger. At one point, there will be a stabbing.
So Rio immediately introduces its main co-stars, who receive equal billing side by side at the top of the titles. The rest of the cast, including those who play the central romantic couple, are listed on another card and won’t show up in the story until later. The first oddity is that McLaglen, a major star of the ’30s and Oscar winner for John Ford’s 1935 The Informer, seems to be playing a lackey with nothing to do. For almost the whole of Rio, Dirk’s a barely visible figure whose only distinction is being played by McLaglen—until the last five minutes.
In a meeting of angry French bankers, Reynard (which means “fox”) tries a tactic he’s never used before: “Honesty!” He demands a million-dollar loan on the grounds that the enormous notes of credit they hold from him are mostly forgeries, and they’ll be ruined unless they keep him afloat.
Then Reynard finds time to drop in on his glamorous wife, Irene (Sigrid Gurie). He gives her a fabulous pearl necklace for her birthday. In a shot gazing up from her POV, his eyes glare out of a key light surrounded by shadows. She says he scares her when he looks like that. Then they trot off to her lavish birthday party in a nightclub, where everyone applauds as the spotlight picks her out, and she stands up to sing. Yes, this is one of those not-quite-musicals where somebody sings now and then as part of the package.
Alas, in the middle of the song and general darkness, the police have the “colossal bad taste” to arrest Reynard as the crowd gasps in stupefaction. For 1939 audiences, a penny drops: Rio is a riff on the 1934 Stavisky affair, in which a charming scoundrel with political connections created a financial scandal and political mayhem. This significant footnote in the ferment of the decade’s history inspired a handful of films, most famously Alain Resnais’ Stavisky from 1974.
In the first of Rio’s tonal shifts, the film suddenly becomes one of those grueling prison dramas out of Devil’s Island. Reynard has been sentenced to ten years on an island off Brazil. He’s now attended by Mushy (Irving Bacon), a fellow prisoner who shares the same sleeping plank, one arm draped tenderly across him.
The displaced Dirk bides his time as a bartender in a Rio nightclub where Irene sings. Arriving quite late in the proceedings, Robert Cummings shows up as Bill Gregory, a perpetually drunk and self-pitying American engineer. He must be redeemed and reformed to prove his worth.
Director John Brahm, one of the many displaced Europeans who landed in Hollywood thanks to the Nazis, directs Gurie and Cummings to signal their characters’ romantic interest by laughing merrily at each other’s jokes, and Irene’s matronly maid (Ferike Boros) also starts giggling like a schoolgirl. In a standard film, Gurie and Cummings might have been top-billed as the lead couple instead of Rathbone and McLaglen.
If we’ve forgotten McLaglen, his Dirk will make a decisive action at the end that forever cements him to Reynard after several developments. By that time, Reynard will have done more to prove he’s no hero.
These twists and shifts make Rio‘s story compelling, and Brahm holds the narrative together with pace, style, and a cast that knows what they’re doing. Under several scriptwriters, the story is credited to another European: future director Jean Negulesco. Like Brahm, he had an excellent grasp of visual expression and a taste for dark tales. Leo Carrillo, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovitch, Samuel S. Hinds, and another future director, Irving Pichel, round out the cast of reliable players.
Hal Mohr’s camera pulls off stylish moves like the dolly moving forward and back during one of Irene’s songs, with Gregory unobtrusively introduced on the far left as the camera glides past him. Then he reappears as it pulls back. Did they have to move his table? This forward-backward move at the service of spectacle summarizes the characters’ lives and fortunes in the public spotlight.
Rio belongs to no single genre but exists in its own world of Hollywood tomfoolery while reflecting the unsettled zeitgeist of a non-American world that’s glamorous and treacherous, marked by shifting fortunes. As Reynard learns when escaping prison, it’s a jungle out there, and he’s its most dangerous animal. In her commentary included in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, film writer Samm Deighan points out mild foreshadows of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.
Let’s read Rio allegorically. Far from mere escapist nonsense while the world is plunging into war, the story implies the decadence, narcissism, and greed that trigger world cataclysms. Irene’s vague European accent (it’s Norwegian) identifies her as a symbol of Europe, at first seduced by Old World charm and modern moral bankruptcy that conceal brutality (Reynard), and then possibly a prize for the New World (Gregory) if it can pull itself out of its isolating malaise. What Reynard builds is shallow and collapses, hurting everyone, while what Gregory builds with American know-how is helpful for the poor and meets church approval. We first see him working with matchsticks.
Dirk, also American, is more of a blunt instrument but one of crude basic conscience. If his loyalty is misplaced, it’s a noble quality in his character, and his final decisions can be seen as an extreme form of saving his master. This comes as enough of a shock that Brahm chooses to end Rio‘s story there, with the onlookers in horror, rather than with a typical romantic clinch signaling a new day.
Deighan situates Rio most precisely as a Brahm film, for he made several films that placed ambiguous or dangerous anti-heroes front and center. He seemed interested in how these characters manipulated the world and come to ruin, and perhaps that view had a foundation in his tumultuous life. His busy career in film and television shows a talent for drawing the more shadowy corners of human behavior.
Rio is a tasty obscurity that’s never been on home video before, and it’s looking excellent in a 2K master. While Brahm is known for a handful of later highlights in his career, it’s important for lesser-known or forgotten works like Rio to be exhumed so we can trace his development, not to mention those of everyone else involved. That Rio remains watchable and stylish after more than 70 years testifies to how well those folks knew their apples.