Tropic of Cancer (1972)



I knew it was unlikely that either of the other films on Forgotten Giallo v5 could measure up to my beloved Nine Guests for a Crime, so I wish I had started with Tropic of Cancer (Italian: Al tropico del cancro) as it’s a perfectly enjoyable giallo on its own but lacked that je ne sais quoi that made the other one such a delight, giving it a bit of an unfair shake. However, what it lacked in sociopathic (read: hilarious) characters and applause worthy reveals, it made up for in relative novelty and – for reasons both good and bad – a mystery that wasn’t too easy to figure out.

For starters, it’s the only one of these things I’ve ever seen that was shot in Haiti, a rather novel location for any film but truly inspired for what boils down to the usual stuff (black gloved killer, red herrings, infidelity, booze. etc). And it’s not just the unique scenery – the island’s history of voodoo factors into the plot. While the movie is ostensibly about an unhappily married couple (Anita Strindberg and Gabriele Tinti) who visit the island and get caught up in the murders, the real main character is Anthony Steffen (who I thought resembled Franco Nero a bit, only to amusingly learn that Steffen was his successor for the Django movies) as a doctor named Williams, who has come up with a new wonder drug using some of the voodoo-centric drugs that are available there. Naturally given the kind of movie we’re dealing with, people start turning up dead and they all have a connection to the formula – Williams’ assistant, a would-be buyer, etc.

Alas, the script (co-written by Steffen himself) neglects to really tie Tinti and Strindberg’s characters into the story, making them inconsequential to the whole thing until Tinti tries to sell the formula himself near the very end. So there will be scenes of Williams investigating this or that, or a murder, or someone scheming to get the formula, and then… this bitter couple going shopping or something. I recently watched that movie where Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston get caught in a murder mystery while on a late-coming honeymoon, and couldn’t help but think that if this movie was the serious version (I can’t say “less funny” since I probably laughed as much here as I did in that tepid junk) of that one it might have worked better, with the two of them playing detective and also maybe fixing their marriage in the process. Instead Tinti just gets more abrasive and Strindberg, surprising no one, ultimately beds Steffen, which barely fazes her husband anyway. Ultimately, like 90% of the plot would play out the same if they weren’t even there, which makes it hard to stay fully engaged by the proceedings.

That said, there’s still enough “oh, that’s new” kinda stuff to keep it fun. Starting with, well, male junk! A lot of it! I’m all in favor of equality, but when it comes to nudity there is certainly a huge imbalance as you maybe see one penis for every hundred shots of breasts. Here, I didn’t exactly grab a stopwatch but I swear we see more nude males than females, so good on them for trying to level the playing field. There’s a scene where a stoned Strindberg makes her way through a hallway of naked men (she herself is covered up) that is almost certainly the sort of hallucinatory thing that has likely burned into the memory of a younger viewer and has no idea what movie it’s from – hopefully this release unlocks the mystery for those folks. There’s also a flamboyantly gay man that no one ridicules or oppresses in any way, so the movie really feels like it’s progressive and a real standout in a genre that’s commonly more misogynist than not.

I should warn you though, there is some random (and unnecessary to everything) footage of a slaughterhouse at one point, with our “heroes” visiting a plant and Strindberg being rightfully disgusted by the sight of an animal having its throat slit. I know we shouldn’t be ignorant about these practices (especially if we consume meat, as I do) but there’s a time and place, you know? That it’s yet another scene of these characters doing something that has little to do with the plot makes it seem even more extraneous. Otherwise it’s pretty light with the violence; one of the showstopper kills is actually essentially off screen, as the victim is trapped in a paper mill of some sort and presumably suffocates, so it’s weird (though perhaps part of the point) that the most gruesome image in the film is that of a (presumably) legit death of an animal.

As for bonus features, there’s another essay by Rachel Nisbet, though as with the one on Nine Guests it plays out over a still shot of the title card, so I couldn’t really concentrate on it as my eyes needed to focus on something else after a while and, naturally, I merely got more interested in that. It’s important to play these things over photos or appropriate footage, even if it takes a little more work! There’s a lengthy interview with director Giampaolo Lomi that’s pretty good; he discusses his cast (there’s a pretty funny anecdote about how he tried to avoid showing that Strindberg’s breasts were fake but couldn’t; another first for me) and also Haiti, including a rather long discussion of its history of dictators – a rare history lesson on a giallo supplement!

The other film on the set was A White Dress For Mariale, which gets points for weirdness (the movie it most reminded me of was Gothic, of all things) but the lethargic pace and unfinished mystery left me cold for the most part. There’s a pretty funny scene where a guy is mauled by dogs (where they cut between the actor pretending to be attacked by the dogs that are clearly not doing anything to harm him, and the dogs tearing up the world’s least passable dummy) and an all timer version of the “a young child sees one of their parents being unfaithful” motif that finds its way into every third giallo film, but the fleeting moments weren’t enough to keep me invested. Luckily I watched that one after Nine Guests, so Tropic of Cancer was a step back in the right direction. Still, the ideal order if you're thinking of picking it up would would be Mariale, Tropic, then Guests.

Overall I’d say Nine Guests alone was worth the cost of the box, but Tropic of Cancer (and even Mariale) both offered some variety to their time honored body count traditions, making this an overall satisfying set and, perhaps needless to say, enough to make me hope that there’s a volume 6 (and 7, 8…). Even if the movies are hit or miss, the sheer variety they offer within the genre, plus the basic fact that they’re being rescued from disappearing entirely, make it a worthwhile endeavor every time. Plus it reminded me that I still haven’t gone through volume 4 (which I bought myself, they didn’t send it for review or otherwise I would have gotten to it sooner), so perhaps there’s another Nine Guests-level delight already sitting on my shelf. Hurrah!

What say you?


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