Joseph Strick: Maverick film director who brought 'Ulysses' and 'Tropic of Cancer' to the screen

The American independent film-maker Joseph Strick was a maverick director who ruffled feathers with films that confronted moral and political taboos. A lifelong anti-establishment figure, he carved out a career away from the Hollywood studios.

The high point was his screen version of the James Joyce novel Ulysses (1967), whose stream-of-consciousness style and allusions to Homer's epic Greek poem The Odyssey many had regarded as unfilmable.

It starred Maurice Roëves as the disenchanted student Stephen Dedalus, Milo O'Shea as the advertising salesman Leopold Bloom and Barbara Jefford as his cheating wife, Moll. Strick's adaptation, co-written with Fred Haines, was faithful to the 1922 book, which had been banned as "obscene" in the US and Britain at the time of its publication. Although those bans were dropped in the 1930s, when a 16-year-old Strick was enthralled by the novel, the copy he read had been smuggled in from Europe by his Polish-immigrant, steelworker father in the 1920s.

Decades later, after fulfilling his boyhood dream by making a black-and-white film version of Ulysses on location in Dublin, Strick still had to face objections from the censors. Some subtitles were cut during its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, which he denounced as "corrupt and fake, and just a mechanism for keeping the hotels open".

Across the Channel, the British Board of Film Censors, as it was still called then, demanded 29 cuts, but eventually passed the film – it became the first in Britain to include the word "fuck" – after Strick re-submitted it with the "offending" sequences replaced by a blank screen and shrieking soundtrack.

In Ireland, the film was banned for being "subversive to public morality" – even though, technically, the book had never been officially prohibited there. Not until 2000, a year after the Irish censor finally passed the director Stanley Kubrick's controversial 1971 picture A Clockwork Orange for release, was Ulysses similarly given the green light.

Strick snubbed the Academy Awards ceremony after the film was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay honour. Ulysses failed to win, but later he sent his daughter to collect the Best Documentary Short Oscar for Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), his subsequent film in which five American soldiers talk frankly about the 1968 massacre of up to 130 Vietnamese villagers in four hours.

Although filmed by the celebrated cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the 22-minute documentary was as unremarkable for its style – straightforward interviews with the veterans, questioned by an unseen Richard Hammer, but with no footage from Vietnam – as it was remarkable for the candid content. One of the veterans described the act of wiping out all of My Lai's men, women and children as getting "some target practice".

Out of seven American soldiers who were prepared to speak, five took part. Strick believed that the other two were lying, explaining: "We didn't shoot them. Their stories didn't check out. Two said they hadn't done anything when they had, so we didn't need them on the camera lying. Five were telling the truth."

Born in Braddock, Pennsylvania in 1923, Strick briefly studied physics at the University of California, Los Angeles before Second World War service in the Army Air Forces as an aerial photographer gave him his training as a film-maker. "You'd hold a camera out of the bomb-bay door and you'd record the fact that you hit a potato field instead of a ball-bearing factory," he recalled, wryly.

After the War, Strick worked as a copy boy for the Los Angeles Times and began his career as a producer and director. He used an Army surplus camera to make his first film, the witty documentary Muscle Beach (1948), about bodybuilders in Santa Monica. This was followed by American Homes (1949).

Strick switched to fiction in 1953 with the crime drama The Big Break, shot on the streets of New York City, but he left the film industry to earn money that would finance his comeback and enable him to retain his independence as a film-maker. He set up science and technology companies that he then sold at a profit.

When he returned to directing, Strick found a particularly favourable response to his work in Britain. The pioneering drama-documentary The Savage Eye (1959), about a woman starting a new life in Los Angeles while awaiting her divorce, was screened at the Edinburgh Festival and won Bafta's Flaherty Documentary Award. Shot by Wexler, it was as much a commentary on the City of Angels as on the woman herself.

The film also established Strick's film-making style. "You don't decide on anything till everybody's on the set or on the location," he explained. "You see the elements develop and you develop them."

Making his home in Britain, Strick directed An Evening of Aristophanes for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1964. Two years later, he made the BBC television documentary The Hecklers, which followed the 1966 British general election by shooting public meetings, usually from the back of halls, to show how politicians dealt with questions and interruptions from dissenters – something at which the Labour leader Harold Wilson was more adept than his Conservative rival, Ted Heath. The Hecklers was notable for catching ejections and fist-fights on camera.

In between those British successes, Strick produced and directed an American feature film, The Balcony (1963), attracting star names such as Shelley Winters and Peter Falk to the adaptation of Jean Genet's allegorical play set in a "fantasy" brothel at a time of revolution.

Getting the rights to Genet's work was no problem, because the director was on the board of Grove Press, which won a string of victories over censorship in publishing works by writers such as Henry Miller and William Burroughs, and Genet was another of its authors.

But, when Strick went against his independent instincts and accepted Twentieth Century-Fox's offer to direct Justine (1969) – based on Lawrence Durrell's novel about a Jewess married to a wealthy banker in 1938 Egypt – he was sacked shortly after filming began. He had insisted that Glenda Jackson, with whom he had worked at the RSC, should have a role, but, he said, "they wanted a bimbo". George Cukor took over as director and one critic described the resulting film as "a sort of Peyton Place with camels".

Strick moved on, producing and directing adaptations of Tropic of Cancer (1970, based on Henry Miller's novel, complete with obscenities and nudity) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1977, from James Joyce's semi-autobiographical, pre-Ulysses work).

He met his second wife in France while shooting Tropic of Cancer and lived with her in Paris until his death. He made return trips to the US to make the drama Road Movie (1973, titled Janice in Britain) and the documentary film Criminals (1995, about those who had committed crimes on the streets of New York, Oakland and Minneapolis, and focusing on their underprivileged backgrounds). He also returned to Britain in 2003 to direct at the National Theatre.

Joseph Ezekiel Strick, film, theatre and television director, producer and scriptwriter: born Braddock, Pennsylvania 6 July 1923; twice married (three sons, two daughters); died Paris 1 June 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable