Release Date(s)1939 (April 18, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Directed by John Brahm and starring Basil Rathbone, Rio (1939) is a crime melodrama that begins with some promise, but collapses utterly toward the end, with a climax that neatly wraps everything up according to Production Code guidelines. It has a few interesting qualities, and Rathbone is good if theatrical in an unusual role, but the film is very minor and the video transfer unexpectedly below Universal’s average for black-and-white films of this vintage (for various Blu-ray labels).
Rathbone plays Paul Reynaud, a Bernie Madoff-type Parisian financier arrested for embezzlement and forgery, causing a huge scandal in France’s banking industry and rampant personal bankruptcies among Paris’s millionaires, some of whom commit suicide. Sentenced to a long prison term on Devil’s Island, he asks Dirk (Victor McLaglen), his inexplicably devoted valet and bodyguard, to look after Reynaud’s wife, Irene (Sigrid Gurie), hoping she’ll soon forget him.
Instead, Irene and Dirk travel to Rio de Janeiro—according to dialogue because it’s so close to the island penal colony. (It isn’t. Rio is on the other side of Brazil, nearly 3,300 kilometers away.) She writes her husband regularly, but a petulant, sadistic guard (Irving Pichel) begins intercepting the letters and ripping them up undelivered, and Reynaud becomes increasingly desperate to escape.
Irene, meanwhile, has resumed her singing career, at Roberto’s Café, where Dirk works as a bartender. (Comedy relief supplied here by Billy Gilbert and Leo Carriilo.) There she encounters alcoholic American engineer Bill Gregory (Robert Cummings), on an extended bender after a bridge he designed collapsed. Bill falls in love with Irene, sobers up and is revitalized by an irrigation project, but she’s unwilling to abandon her imprisoned husband.
Rathbone’s character is intriguing at the start—serenely confident, almost psychopathically unconcerned about his crimes or the harm he is causing, yet also deeply devoted and gently caring toward his wife, who loves him as much as he loves her. What will happen to him on Devil’s Island, and how will this impact his marriage? Will he apply his charm and persuasive skills at manipulating guards there in order to escape, or will he reform? Will Irene be able to help him somehow, or will she give him up, as he seems to want?
Instead of exploring any of these ideas, the last third of the picture becomes depressingly conventional, with Reynaud indeed escaping with another prisoner (Irving Bacon), though just how he breaks out isn’t even shown. He then commits an act of violence so out of the blue—and, ultimately, one that serves no purpose at all—that it leaves the film nowhere to go from there. Its Production Code-mandated resolution so preordained, the script is forced into directions that neatly tie everything up but in the least interesting and satisfying way imaginable. No less than four writers worked on the script, including Aben Kandel, who decades later infamously partnered with Herman Cohen on virtually all that producer’s trashy horror films.
Interestingly, James Stewart was apparently briefly slated for this film, presumably in Cummings’s part, and nearly lost his Destry Rides Again role in the process, with Joel McCrea briefly replacing him on that film. The role of Irene had been earmarked for Danielle Darrieux, the great French star whose 80-year career stretched from 1931 to 2010, seven years before her death at 100. However, Darrieux didn’t like the script (with good reason), so eventually Sigrid Gurie took her place. Born in Brooklyn but raised in Norway and other parts of Europe, she was dubbed “the Norwegian Garbo,” though her singing in Rio is rather more like sub-Marlene Dietrich. She made a big splash in Algiers and The Adventures of Marco Polo (both 1938, that latter also starring Rathbone), but made few films after, the best known being the interesting Three Faces West (1940) with John Wayne. She’s adequate, but no Darrieux.
At $450,000, Rio was an A-picture by Universal’s standards, but still modest relative to the biggest studios of the period. Rathbone may have been attracted to its very un-Rathboney aspects—at one point for instance, he’s filthy and bare-chested, hacking his way through swampy jungles with a machete—but the script lets him down.
Kino’s Blu-ray is also a little disappointing. It claims to be derived from a new 2K master, but looks to my eyes more like a much older video master, with none of the impressive sharpness and inky blacks one can find in other Universal late-‘30s titles of the period, among them Son of Frankenstein and Tower of London, both 1939, both starring Rathbone. The 1.37:1 standard, black-and-white image here is on the soft side and a rather washed-out. Maybe original film elements weren’t available in this case, but I can offer no definitive explanation. The English DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is likewise okay but not impressive at all. Optional English subtitles are provided and the disc is Region “A” encoded. The only extra is an above average new audio commentary track by Samm Deighan.
One can’t help but wonder what kind of audience Kino is targeting here. Basil Rathbone fans? Classic horror fans drawn to tangential genre titles from the same period? Irving Bacon completists? On one hand, it’s great to see movies as obscure as Rio getting the Blu-ray treatment, and with an audio commentary yet, but the film is minor and ultimately a disappointment.
- Stuart Galbraith IV