L’HOMME DEL RIO (1964)

  • Director: Philippe de Broca
  • Writers: Philippe de Broca, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Daniel Boulanger
  • Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Françoise Dorléac, Jean Servais, and Adolfo Celi
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

A lot of the time, I try to plan our featured movies a couple weeks in advance, because that’s the sort of person I am. But I decided to call a quick audible this week after hearing about the passing of Jean-Paul Belmondo, perhaps the archetypal European movie star. In many of his roles he projected an assured cool to him that made him iconic even in the US, but in France he was an absolute superstar. He starred in a couple of classic films directed by Jean-Luc Godard that are still widely seen today, Á Bout de Souffle and Pierrot le Fou, both of which we will likely come to someday soon. In fact, Belmondo collaborated over the course of his career with a long series of great directors, including Chabrol, De Sica, Melville, Ophuls, Malle, Truffaut, Resnais, and Varda. However, his heart always seemed to be in his more swashbuckling roles. He commented that, despite being one of the faces of the French New Wave, he wasn’t entirely sure what “New Wave” actually meant, and said in interviews that his preferred reading material consisted of “Tin Tin comics, sports magazines, and detective novels.”

It was partly with that in mind that I picked out, not one of Belmondo’s still-famous roles in various artsier movies, but in a role that was both one of his favorites and one of his most financially successful, in L’Homme del Rio (That Man from Rio). It was billed at the time as a “James Bond Spoof” (at a time when only two James Bond movies had actually come out), but it really feels like very much its own thing. It clearly has a bit of a Tin Tin vibe around the edges, and even had a few sequences that clearly ended up influencing Raiders of the Lost Ark (the main plot of this movie ends up being about a villainous archaeologist setting up ancient statues in an overgrown Amazonian temple to reflect the sun’s rays and reveal the location of a treasure). Yet it is also very firmly ensconced in its Swingin’ 60s vibe. This is a big popcorn-y adventure movie that came out the same year as A Hard Day’s Night, and often has what feels like the same sort of heedless energy.

Belmondo’s character, supposedly a French soldier on leave named Adrien Dufourquet, is a hero less for his competence or moxie and more for his persistence and willingness to take punishment. There are at least three different, long sequences where basically one thing after another happens to him while he desperately chases the kidnappers of his beautiful girlfriend Agnés (Françoise Dorléac). Literally he sees these guys from a window pushing Agnés into a car, gets actual the line, “Oh shit, she’s being kidnapped,” does a car chase all the way through Paris to the airport, runs through the airport (where they make him buy a 1 franc ticket to access the airport as a non-passenger, which was an interesting detail), cons his way onto the plane to Rio, then keeps chasing them through Rio de Janeiro, where they finally do lose him. It is perhaps the single longest chase scene, in a geographical sense, in movie history.

So yes, this is the kind of movie where Belmondo jumps out of a plane into the Amazon rainforest, his parachute snags in a tree, and his feet end up a foot above a snapping alligator. But it is very close to the best version of that movie you could make. Plus, at least as much as any Bond movie, it features plenty of great location shoots, through Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and also an excursion to Brasilia, which I don’t think I’ve seen on screen as a location for a movie before. Brasilia (a new city planned as Brazil’s national capital) was only three years old at the time of this movie, and is still very much under construction. The movie takes advantage of this for lots of running around on cables at construction sites that reminded me of the opening sequences of the Daniel Craig Casino Royale. It also lends itself to the movie’s general milieu of free-wheeling mid-century modernism, as when the movie visits the Frank Lloyd Wright-ish mansion of a Brazilian millionaire (Adolfo Celi). His front yard consists of walkways between fountains, about which he comments, “It’s not Versailles, but it’s still cool.”

The secret weapon of L’Homme del Rio, I would say, is its female lead, as played by Françoise Dorléac. This is a role that easily could have been little more than eye candy (this is a character that gets kidnapped for two separate long sections of the movie) but between the quality Dorléac brings and the movie’s general interest in the foibles of its characters, she has a lot more to do. Dorléac (Catherine Denueve’s elder sister) spends the movie Giving A Performance, for better or worse, and I’d say mostly the better. She seems to have a ball pretending to be high (because her kidnappers drugged her) for a long stretch, and when she’s sober turns out to be headstrong and mercurial, constantly rubbing against (in a metaphorical sense) her erstwhile boyfriend played by Belmondo. In one scene, she declares that she will dive into the ocean to swim to a nearby boat and warn Celi’s millionaire of the assassins after him. Belmondo points out that this is a bad idea, since she can’t swim, so he’ll go instead. “I’m not good enough for you,” she pouts, “now you want a swimmer!” She completely pulls off this character for whom Belmondo would (a) fly to Rio on a whim because he thought she was in danger, then (b) sort of regret doing it once he finds her, but (c) still be in love with her.

L’Homme del Rio’s semi-nonsensical plot mostly showcases Belmondo as an action hero, but he is a very European action hero. This is not a muscle-bound American, or a cool Brit. He is not, for the most part, actually good at things. The few moments where he seems to have superpowers, those superpowers seem to mostly come from being French (for example when, refused entry to a hotel, he finds a random old lady, charms her by calling ‘mademoiselle,” and she lets him carry her Pekinese up to her room). He is the guy who gets punched in the face, rolls dramatically down a hill, gets up, dusts himself off, and lights a cigarette. Belmondo epitomized a certain sort of 1960s continental magnetism, but that magnetism came in many different forms. And if you like a big fun action movie, I bet you’ll enjoy L’Homme del Rio.

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