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1970's rush to bring forbidden content to film screens saw two of Henry Miller's formerly banned books adapted into movies. A B&W Danish version of Quiet Days in Clichy followed a pair of unhygienic hedonists from Paris to Brussels and back, backed by rock tunes by Country Joe and the Fish. A color release from Paramount Pictures tackled Henry Miller's most celebrated novel, Tropic of Cancer. Miller's 1934 book had been published through the help of his married lover Anais Nin during his years as a Bohemian in Paris. A combination of autobiography and fiction, it drifts between an account of the adventures of a womanizing drifter and various philosophical and sexual musings. Filled with depictions of raw sex and crude profanity, the novel was banned in both the U.S. and Great Britain for years. Yet it found more praise than protest in literary circles, and received nods of approval from literary greats like George Orwell and Samuel Beckett.
Filmmaker Joseph Strick was one of a group of experimental filmmakers that included Irving Lerner, Ben Maddow and Sidney Meyers. They made 1960's The Savage Eye, a free-form cultural documentary about a modern woman's alienation from society. Strick is best known for his 1967 adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses, which fascinated critics even as they proclaimed it a hopeless attempt to adapt an unfilmable novel. Tropic of Cancer gives Strick more of substance to work with. Miller's episodic story lends itself to a cinematic retelling, and the central character (who retains the author's name) is a perplexing study in hedonistic anarchy. The director relocates Henry Miller's Depression-era wastrels to present day Paris.
Henry Miller (combustible actor Rip Torn) is a writer living off the cuff in Paris. He spends his free time with his mostly male friends, talking about prostitutes and sex. Henry's idea of a social life is unapologetically selfish. He has no intention of repaying the money he borrows, and he's elevated the cadging of meals and drinks to a high art. Always amusing and gregarious, Henry sees nothing wrong with ending a dinner invitation by asking if he can sleep the night, and will then remain in his host's apartment until he's finally asked to go. Promiscuity is a key activity for Henry. He frequents prostitutes (with money bummed from friends) while keeping an eye cocked for positive signs from any female in sight. Prospects include the wives of his friends and associates. Henry always has a sparkle in his eye and an easy laugh, even when he's lying or stealing.
Our unlikely hero's pornographic progress begins when his estranged wife Mona (Ellen Burstyn, as Ellen McRae) shows up desperate to sleep with him. Their cheap hotel room is infested with lice or bedbugs, and Mona is miserable until they find another room with a bath. She leaves soon thereafter, without comment, and Henry continues pressing his attentions on other available women. He sleeps with the wife of a friend, an arrangement that nets him bed, board and sex for a number of nights. Henry covets Princess (Magali Noëll of Rififi and Amarcord), the new girlfriend of his pal Fillmore (James T. Callahan). An untamed high-maintenance type, Princess breaks any wine glass she drinks from; Fillmore is crazy about her until they're in bed, when she calmly informs him that she has V.D..
Henry takes occasional proofreading work but prefers coasting on someone else's dime. When he exhausts the patience of his local friends, he takes a job teaching English at a boy's school out of town. The priggish headmaster locks the gates every night and is stingy with firewood for the freezing rooms. Henry retaliates by teaching his pupils about the sex habits of elephants, in graphic detail. When the fuel runs out, he goes over the wall. Back in Paris, a job escorting the son of a wealthy Middle Easterner to the facts of life in a brothel turns into an escapade with a disastrous finish. Henry then continues his vulgar study of Parisian prostitutes, as if they were a special breed of wildlife. He steals from one, shamelessly. He visits Fillmore, who has become distraught over his pregnant girlfriend and is seized by the urge to return to the U.S.A. with its ordinary Joes and English language. Another woman claims that Fillmore's fianceé is faking the pregnancy, and that she is really a prostitute. When Henry encourages his friend to gather up his money and rush to the train station, we can guess that he's hoping to profit from the situation.
Director Strick punctuates Henry's adventures with brief and colorful (in the four-letter word sense) excerpts from Henry Miller's prose, read by Torn. The film has an engagingly loose and gritty surface and the expected beauty shots of Paris. But for many viewers, the most memorable shot will be an angle on the clutch of tiny, horrid red parasites gathered on poor Mona Miller's naked shoulder. The film's only visual conceit is to play its main titles over a shot of a bidet that squirts fireworks instead of water. In one scene we see a quick cutaway to the nearly eighty year-old original author as he observes some action on the street.
As most of the other characters pass through the narrative in a casual manner, Rip Torn's Henry is the only one to make a lasting impression. Henry is a social anarchist. He's incapable of taking anything seriously yet he never complains or pressures anybody. That he remains an amusing tour guide in debauchery is mainly due to Torn's committed performance. We aren't expecting any kind of moral awakening to develop. This Henry exits the movie with a wad of cash to bankroll his lifestyle; the real Henry Miller made do with the generosity of a famous lover/patron until royalties began to trickle in from his notorious books.
Legend has it that Paramount chief Robert Evans green-lighted Tropic of Cancer on some kind of a bet. Originally rated "X" and now re-rated NC-17, it didn't see wide distribution. Joseph Strick would go on to produce several more notable movies, including the searing political documentary Interviews with My Lai Veterans as well as Disney's family adventure Never Cry Wolf. For actress Ellen Burstyn the movie was a calculated risk that paid off. After ten years getting nowhere in television, her daring performance led to the career explosion of The Last Picture Show, The Exorcist and Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, all films by hot young directors.
Olive Films' DVD of Tropic of Cancer is an enhanced widescreen transfer of this inexpensive but well-shot drama, made at a time when Hollywood was taking a serious gamble on X-rated entertainment. Colors are mostly good. If anything, Joseph Strick's adaptation lightens the mood of the Henry Miller original, and Rip Torn's lively performance makes it much more watchable than one might think.
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Tropic of Cancer rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.