Henry Miller (Rip Torn) has been in Paris for some time, mostly making his way through life by borrowing money from his friends and sleeping on their floors, all the while seeking to make ever more sexual conquests which is his chief purpose and what gets him through the day. However, he pines for his wife Mona (Ellen Burstyn) who lives abroad, so when she makes the journey to meet him again he is delighted, meeting her at the port and immediately whisking her away to a hotel room so they can make love. Unfortunately, Henry opted for one of the cheapest rooms he could find, and on waking up in bed Mona is unimpressed to see she is covered in bugs...
Tropic of Cancer was a notorious work of literature which may have been penned in the nineteen-thirties, yet was not widely available for many decades later thanks to its scandalous nature; indeed, its merits as literature have been debated ever since. Nevertheless, it does have a high reputation among some readers, and a film version was what independent moviemaker Joseph Strick had in mind, being a man who liked to adapt supposedly "unfilmable" works and keen on a challenge. Thus the big screen was graced with Rip Torn doing his best Henry Miller impersonation almost forty years after the source was published, that in spite of not looking much like the writer at all.
There were problems, naturally, especially with censorship: Strick did not set out to craft a pornographic movie, but one on the subject of sex, though that did not stop it being banned in various territories including the United Kingdom, mostly for its salty language: this was the first time the C-word had ever been heard in a film, and there was a lot of it, as if the newfound freedoms of cinema of this era was all the excuse they needed to go nuts with the swearing. That said, as far as the sexual acts were depicted, this remained coy about showing too much, so predictably you would get the actresses disrobing regularly but no more than that: Torn had gone further in Coming Apart not long before.
So it was up to that dialogue - and monologue - to make sure we were certain this was an adults only effort, which in effect had Torn reciting passages from the book over montages of Paris and Parisians, not the best way to bring the prose to life and sounding heavy-handed to say the least when liberated from the page. Unless you wanted to see the nudity, there was very little reason for watching the movie when the book was now available to read thanks to the esteem it was held in, and Strick was unable to prevent a monotony setting in early on which proved difficult to shift. Basically, hearing about, or in this case watching as well, Miller's sexual conquests was not half as entertaining for you as it was for him, and a decided tedium set in when you began to wonder why you were spending time with such a character.
If anything, Torn's Henry was a boor, not so much celebrating the majesty of womanhood as using every opportunity to exploit it without so much as a thought for them beyond what they would be like in bed. The sole female to be depicted with anything approaching affection was Mona (Burstyn went uncredited for reasons best known to herself) and she walks out of the story ten minutes in, leaving a parade of less famous actresses to undress for the rest of the film, including somewhat bizarrely the British comedienne Sheila Steafel who appeared clad in nothing but a tutu, which may or may not have been an attempt at humour. Not that Henry's male friends were shown with any great affection either, being a collection of clueless middle aged blokes who look to Henry for advice and are stupid enough to take it. Very little of the philosophy of Miller survived, or if it did you didn't really notice as the ugly-looking scenes played out, maintaining if nothing else a grubby appearance which, the thirties updated to the end of the sixties, left the results neither one thing nor the other. Music by Stanley Myers.