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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.