Ray Bradbury adapted to the screen is always something to check out; this Jack Smight- directed trio of stories bound together by a mystery man wearing the graffiti of the title at least works up a little ethereal-cereal excitement. Husband and wife Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom spout ominous dialogue as they face various futuristic threats.
The Illustrated Man
Warner Archive Collection
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date September 19, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas, Don Dubbins, Jason Evers, Tim Weldon, Christine Matchett
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Art Direction: Joel Schiller
Film Editor: Archie Marshek
Original Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Howard B. Kreitsek from the book by Ray Bradbury
Produced by Howard B. Kreitsek, Ted Mann
Directed by Jack Smight
Ray Bradbury must have had some frustrating times as a screenwriter, although the three times I saw him in person he never talked bitterly of his Hollywood experiences. His increasing popularity in print didn’t automatically translate into riches. Bradbury’s excellent work on Moby Dick wasn’t rewarded with a hit, and other Hollywood deals tended to be behind-the-scenes save jobs, as with King of Kings. By the late 1960s Bradbury was turning to stage work in search of a satisfying, rewarding creative outlet. Critics were unkind to Truffaut’s adaptation of his Fahrenheit 451, and he was sucked into a no-win miasma with Picasso Summer, a movie caught in a new kind of corporate ‘supervisory vacuum.’ Smarting from some of the same lack of judgment and oversight is Jack Smight’s attempt to visualize some more Bradbury short stories.
If you look at Warner Bros – Seven Arts’ output for 1969, you’ll see a couple of real movies, a lot of questionable imported product, and potential hits given insufficient publicity support. Somewhere in the middle is The Illustrated Man, a wistful fantasy / morality tale mounted with barely more resources than one might find in a budget TV show. Director Jack Smight had been one of the few younger directors of Warners pictures to come through with hits: Harper, No Way to Treat a Lady. Co-producer Howard B. Kreitsek wrote the adapted screenplay, something he would also do for John Updike’s Rabbit, Run — also directed by Jack Smight.
Star Rod Steiger puts his all into a potentially interesting character whose tattoos introduce a trio of tame ‘stories of the future:’ with his then-wife Claire Bloom, Steiger plays multiple roles. En route to California, young Willie (Robert Drivas) meets Carl (Steiger), a man covered in tattoos from his neck to his toes. Carl claims that his skin illustrations are the work of Felicia (Claire Bloom), a mysterious woman who subsequently disappeared, along with her house. Carl believes Felicia returned to the future, as each of the dozens of illustrations on his body has the power to relate a hypnotic story of times to come. 1.) A futuristic household is disturbed when the parents discover that their children are using a holographic playroom to conjure an African veldt, complete with man-eating lions. 2.) Astronauts marooned on an eternally rainy planet Venus go mad in a search for a rest station. 3) When their society determines that the world will end before dawn, another futuristic couple is told to spare their children the worst by giving them suicide pills.
Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom give their best efforts to The Illustrated Man. Smight’s careful introduction makes Carl both energetic and enigmatic, and Bradbury’s florid language mixes well with the illustrations on Steiger’s skin. For a few minutes, the movie works up a feeling of mystery.
But the show just isn’t very strongly mounted. Producer/writer Howard B. Kreitsek’s previous credits were on cheapie Rock ‘n’ Roll musicals like The Teenage Millionaire, and he cannot defeat what appears to be a tiny budget. The Illustrated Man takes place in the 1930s and Carl is supposed to be a carnival roustabout. We see no carnival and no period trappings, discounting one old truck. Most of the show is filmed on a generic movie ranch. The flashback to Carl meeting Felicia remains in the same monotonous Southern California scenery. Two of the stories conjured by the illustrations are likewise filmed out on the Warner ranch. Only an elaborate modern house and a fairly impressive rain-swept Venusian landscape appear to have been constructed for the film. The partial spaceship glimpsed in the Venus episode is likely the full-scale nose cone prop from the previous year’s Planet of the Apes. Another holographic setting is clearly the run-down castle set from Camelot. It would continue to crumble, and then be revamped as a sad Shangri-La for the remake of Lost Horizon.
The magical words ‘Ray Bradbury’ raise expectations of wonderful new worlds to explore. The Illustrated Man demands interesting visuals to match its fanciful stories, but most of what we see is filmed in broad daylight with a zoom lens. The night scenes are achieved with an inexpressive Day For Night. Parts of the film play like an under-budgeted TV movie.
Kreitsek’s framing story does leave room for some interesting psychological possibilities. Carl comes upon Willie bathing naked in a pond. He carries a yapping dog wrapped up in a gunny sack, and is quick to mention that his tattoos cover every part of his body (“Do not call them tattoos! They are skin illustrations!”). Carl claims that his only desire is to exact revenge against the betrayer Felicia, if only he could find her.
Carl’s cursed illustrations terrify the people that ‘read’ them. One conspicuously bare patch functions as a Mirror To The Soul, in which viewers can see their own future. It’s interesting to note that the blank spot is high on Carl’s back, making him the only person who can’t see it. Like The Flying Dutchman, Carl is possibly immortal: he lives on even after his head is bashed in by a rock. The script doesn’t elaborate on any of these possible themes, preferring a muted ambiguity.
Rod Steiger is in all three of the ‘tattoo’ stories. The Venus episode has only one memorable visual, a fountain of mud-like fungus that rises to consume a fallen astronaut. In the two remaining stories Steiger is a futuristic father with domestic problems. The first ‘African veldt’ tale telegraphs its Twilight Zone twist from the start, and the final ‘The Last Night’ story is a fragment almost too weak to serve as a radio skit. Again, the sameness of the settings doesn’t help the film’s mood. The holographic veldt, Felicia’s yard and the home of the parents in ‘The Last Night’ are more or less the same dry meadow. The movie has almost zero texture.
Claire Bloom is underused as the phantom illustrator. We never see her at work. Steiger’s poses range from threatening bully to concerned paternal figure, and he’s clearly invested in the role. Voted a ‘promising newcomer’ by exhibitors, young Robert Drivas conveys the emotional turmoil caused by the sinister tattoos. But he cannot make sense of the open-ended finale, and The Illustrated Man never goes beyond a murky character study. Do Carl’s skin illustrations represent stories from the future? The Original Sin? The burden of Knowledge? Unfortunately, the film’s verbal coda, spoken by Claire Bloom, generates a big mental zero: “Each person who tries to see beyond his own time must face questions for which there are no absolute answers.”
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Illustrated Man presents this vintage Ray Bradbury adaptation in the best possible light. The accurate, detailed HD transfer looks more or less exactly how I remember the film on screen in 1969 — lacking in arresting designs but attractive nonetheless. The movie was filmed in anamorphic Panavision, which seems a waste — the low budget has little to fill the wide screen. The close-ups of Steiger’s elaborately painted skin are convincing, however. Jerry Goldsmith did the music score, which is not one of his best.
The disc’s extras match those of a 2006 WB DVD: we get the film’s original trailer and a making-of short subject called Tattooed Steiger, which focuses on the application of the body paintings onto actor Steiger. Knowing that this visual is his one real special effect, producer Kreitsek is seen ‘supervising’ the painting process. The tattoos resemble images on a Fillmore West concert poster from the Summer of Love, which adds to the film’s stylistic confusion. The featurette is slightly faded. While watching, we can’t help but notice that Steiger’s pre-ink skin is anything but clear, with freckles, moles, etc.. Full body makeup must be a pain the tail, fun for the first hour and misery thereafter. Mr. Steiger must really have believed in this role.
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Illustrated Man
Movie: Good – Minus
Supplements: Trailer, original featurette Tattooed Steiger.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson