Whoever wrote the introduction for the recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast of Philippe de Broca's film was determined to categorize this and the director's previous team-up with Jean Paul Belmondo, That Man From Rio, as James Bond knockoffs or at least James Bond-inspired. But you can just as easily assign Up To His Ears to the international Jules Verne cycle dating back to 1954's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It's adapted from an 1879 Verne story, "The Misadventures of a Chinaman in China," wherein the great Frenchman apparently invented the idea of a man contracting for his own death, only to change his mind. De Broca and writer Daniel Boulanger updated the story to their present day and made the title character a Hong Kong-based French businessman (Belmondo) who, believing his fortune lost, wants to end it all. He's convinced by his Chinese friend Mr. Goh (Valery Inkijinoff) to take out a policy to ensure that his fiancee (and her parasite parents) will be taken care of. Very quickly reconsidering, he and faithful servant Leon (Jean Rochefort) must trek through Asia to find Mr. Goh in order to cancel the hit. Along the way, he acquires two incompetent bodyguards and a more likely life partner in Alexandrine Pinardel (Ursula Andress), an aspiring writer earning her way as an exotic dancer. In one of the film's many surreal touches, she's introduced doing a striptease in reverse, and later in the picture I suppose the idea of having her wash ashore on a beach after a shipwreck could have been inspired by her iconic entrance in Dr. No. While Goh only meant to teach our hero to appreciate life, his prospective in-laws decide that they'd like to cash in that policy after all, and eventually an obese American gangster, "the Al Capone of the South Seas" (Joe Said) decides to kill him on general principles.
Up to His Ears is episodic and ultimately overlong, the sort of film that looks to be wrapping up at least half an hour before it actually ends. In that respect it might be inspired more by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World than by any other picture, but let's remember that the French themselves invented sight-gag slapstick cinematic comedy and need no inspiration from elsewhere. Some of the gags here are truly inspired, none more so to me than the bit that finds our hero and his servant on a shaky rope bridge in the Himalayas. Inevitably they go over the side (or was it through) and descend dangling from a near-infinite rope of clothes disgorging from a suitcase. The thoughtful servant always makes a point of pinning his master's clothes together for trips like these, you see -- and one may assume that the clothes are all double stitched. Other moments are striking for their juxtaposition of silent-comedy style action in exotic Asian settings, as when our heroes struggle to escape a Nepalese village via a rope ladder dangling from a hot-air balloon, or when Belmondo in a stage-magician's costume gets into a fighting chase on the scaffolding of a tall building, as if Harold Lloyd were playing Fantomas. I don't think it's as good as That Man From Rio or my favorite from the Belmondo-de Broca team, the tragicomic swashbuckler Cartouche, but it's still terrifically entertaining just to look at. Belmondo is a kind of French Cary Grant, capable of being both the epitome of cool and, as here, playing an utter clown, while de Broca is more like a French Blake Edwards. I couldn't help thinking that the Mirisch Company should have hired them to do that Inspector Clouseau movie back when Edwards and Peter Sellers weren't interested. I can't guarantee that such a thing would have been good, but I would have liked to see them try. In any event, there are still more of their actual team-ups for me to see, those the three I have seen are just about enough to earn Belmondo and de Broca a place among the great comic actor-director teams.