Tropic of Cancer
Screenplay : Betty Botley and Jospeh Strick (based on the book by Henry Miller)
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 1970
Stars : Rip Torn (Henry Miller), James T. Callahan (Fillmore), Ellen Burstyn (Mona), David Baur (Carl), Laurence Lignères (Ginette), Phil Brown (Van Norden), Dominique Delpierre (Cheeri), Stuart De Silva (Ranji)
After the author Ezra Pound first read Henry Miller's 1934 semi-autobiographical novel "Tropic of Cancer," he gave it to a friend and said, "Here is a dirty book worth reading." Basically, the same can be said for Joseph Strick's cinematic rendition: it is a dirty movie worth watching.
For those who have not read "Tropic of Cancer," it is a rollicking, cantankerous, often moving account of the author's unashamedly bawdy adventures as an expatriate in Paris during the Great Depression. The book has been both praised as one of the ten or twenty greatest novels of this century (by Norman Mailer) and condemned as the work of a sick, perverted sex fiend (by far too many people to list).
Miller spent his ten years in Paris living hand to mouth, bumming food off friends, shacking up wherever he could, getting drunk and laid with and by whomever. The book itself is obscene in the best sense -- it doesn't posture, and it doesn't ask you to take it for anything more than it is. Instead, it hits you over the head so much with its dirtiness that the shock quickly wears off, and what you have left is a series of amusing scenes punctuated with some inarguably brilliant passages about happiness, death, pain, men, women, God, food, poverty, and life itself.
The film opens with Miller (Rip Torn) meeting briefly with his estranged wife (Ellen Burstyn), and ends with him stealing money from a prostitute. It's that kind of story. In between is a series of mostly unrelated vignettes involving Miller, and his fellow expatriates.
Rip Torn cuts a striking image as Miller. He has the kind of chiseled features, wiry black hair, and deceiving eyes that fit the mold perfectly. He grumbles and bumbles his way through Paris as only a pure American could. He exists solely for the physical gratification the world can offer him, and he goes about his business with single-minded clarity.
For the film, writer/director Strick preserves the physical setting, but updates the time period from the late twenties to the early seventies, when the film was made. He attempts to infuse the richness of the novel's burlesque language by including long segments of voice-over narration from the book, but they feel almost like an afterthought. Despite Torn's otherwise affecting performance, his narration is mostly droll and uninspiring.
Strick maintains a fair amount of sex and nudity (enough to still warrant an NC-17 rating today), but he cuts back on some of the more distasteful elements of the book, namely the squalid living conditions Miller often found himself living in. Strick almost completely removes the starvation, the stink, and the lice that infested a great deal of Miller's writing.
Instead, he lightens the tone enough that the film can almost be mistaken at times for a sexual farce. There are several particularly hilarious scenes, one of which takes place in a French bordello where a naive foreigner takes Miller's sarcastic advice about where to relieve himself. Another memorable scene involves Miller accepting a English teaching position at a boy's school, and using most of his time teaching the French students about elephant mating practices. This is, of course, before he escapes over the wall late at night, because if there was one thing about Henry Miller, he could never be walled in.
©1997 James Kendrick