Produced and directed by Peter Strick and based on Henry Miller's controversial novel of the same name, the big screen adaptation of Tropic Of Cancer takes Miller's story out of the 1930s and drops it into the 1960s in what we can assume was an attempt to connect with the audiences of the day in which it was released to theaters. The plot isn't all that interesting, in fact, it's pretty basic, but what there is follows Henry (Rip Torn), a would be novelist having trouble making ends meet with his writing as he goes about Paris having various sexual encounters. As he tries to find himself in bars and bordellos alike, his wife, Mona (Ellen Burstyn), tries to figure out just what exactly to do with her philandering, hard drinking husband. She's unhappy that they live in a squalid motel full of bedbugs and so she basically dumps him, letting him loose to couch surf and mooch off of anyone who will put up with him.
Tropic Of Cancer was like Naked Lunch in that it was considered by many to be an unfilmable book. In the hands of a craftsman like Cronenberg, Naked Lunch turned out to be a flawed but very well made film. Sadly, Strick's take on Miller's source material is interesting, but hardly riveting viewing. In fact, it's been aptly described by some as tedious, and parts of the film definitely deserve that label. The film isn't a complete waste of time, however, and it's quick eighty seven minutes actually go by fairly quickly if you're in the right frame of mind for something a little less conventional than your average film.
Most of what makes Tropic Of Cancer watchable stems from what's in front of the camera. The movie is quite nicely shot and makes good use of its Parisian locations to make for a film that, if nothing else, looks interesting and has some genuine visual character. Add to that two very solid performances that really do suit the source material and you can see how all of a sudden, maybe it's not so hard to defend this almost universally panned picture after all. Rip Torn is excellent in the lead. Anyone familiar with Miller's prose, which my high school English teacher would describe (along with the works of John Steinbeck) as 'earthy,' is pretty much dead on. He's got an authenticity to him that lets you believe him in the role - he's as seedy and shallow and self centered and, to be blunt, fucked up as Miller's semi-autobiographical work would want you to think. Ellen Burstyn, who is quite fetching in this film and spends a fair bit time naked as a jaybird, is also very good and wholly believable as Henry's distressed bride and honestly you can't really blame her for bailing on him when she does. Both actors suit their roles well. They look the part, they suit the roles, and the perform very well in this film in spite of the rather obtuse subject matter which they've been dealt.
The book on which the film was based has been widely discussed in academic circles and beyond and is, of course, one of the more controversial novels to have come out of the thirties thanks to its graphic discussions and frequent depictions of sex. The filmed version isn't as pornographic as some might want you to believe, but it does have quite a bit of nudity in it. Most of the controversy that still rings true in this day will stem not from what is seen on the screen but from what is said. The dialogue is much raunchier than anything we actually see in the film, with Torn's in character narration reaching almost surreal levels highlighted by a line in which he expresses his desire to chew on a woman's clitoris and spit out Francs.
It doesn't really go anywhere, the ending doesn't tie anything up or provide us with much of a resolution at all and it often feels like it's being as sexual as it is simply for the sake of provocation, but Burstyn and Torn make it work. Tropic Of Cancer is no masterpiece but it is... interesting.
Tropic Of Cancer is presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer isn't bad at all. Colors are generally pretty decent though you might notice some fading here and there. Black levels are okay, but not reference quality and can sometimes look more like dark grey. Detail is strong and there isn't much in the way of print damage to complain about at all. Some grain is present but that's not a bad thing as it's neither overpowering or distracting at all.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is of decent enough quality. You won't have any trouble understanding the performers and the dialogue comes through clearly enough. Occasional scenes have a tiny bit of hiss here and there but if you're not listening for them then it's likely you won't even notice and it's certainly not enough to distract from the movie. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are provided.
The DVD includes a static menu screen and chapter selection but no other extra features.
It's not always coherent or to the point but Tropic Of Cancer is, if nothing else, an interesting bit of seventies cinema which surprisingly, considering the strength of its content and how that related to the social mores of the day, came from a major studio. Some extras would have been really welcome here and it's a damn shame that there aren't any supplements, but at least the movie looks and sounds pretty good. Not a great movie by most standards, but an interesting one with some solid lead performances that comes recommended for fans of Miller, the principal cast members, or seventies cinema.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.