Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An attempt to translate Ray Bradbury's poetry to the screen stumbles in Jack Smight's The Illustrated Man, a science fiction fantasy that comes up short on both imagination and production value. Star Rod Steiger puts his all into a potentially interesting character whose tattoos introduce a tame trio of 'stories of the future.'
En route to California, young Willie (Robert Drivas) meets Carl (Rod Steiger), a man covered in tattoos from his neck to his toes. Carl claims that the '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, enhanced by the direction of Jack Smight (Harper, No Way to Treat a Lady). Smight's 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 rest of the show lacks a sense of direction. Producer / writer Howard B. Kreitsek's previous credits were on cheapie Rock 'n' Roll musicals like The Teenage Millionaire, and his biggest contribution seems to be his skill at pinching pennies. The Illustrated Man takes place in the 1930s and Carl is supposed to be a carnival roustabout. We see no carnival and just 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 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 it is filmed in broad daylight with a zoom lens. The night scenes are done Day For Night. The film plays 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 who 'read' them. One conspicuously bare patch functions as a "mirror to the soul" in which viewers can see their own future. Ironically, it's high on Carl's back so he 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 several possible themes.
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 uses a predictable Twilight Zone twist for an ending, and the final 'The Last Night' story is a fragment too weak to serve as a radio skit. Again, the sameness of the settings is fatal to 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 attitudes 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?
Warners' DVD of The Illustrated Man is presented in a handsome enhanced widescreen transfer, with the troublesome Day For Night scenes carefully timed. The view of the naked Carl reclining on a dark sofa still has a weird feel, even after decades of Japanese Yakuza movies and our own tattoo-embracing culture.
Jerry Goldsmith's score compliments the film's changing moods without deciding on any particular genre style, as he did so successfully in the previous year's Planet of the Apes. This disc's extras menu leads one to the film's original trailer, and a short subject about the body paintings applied to actor Steiger. Knowing that this visual is The Illustrated Man's 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, and add to the film's stylistic confusion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Illustrated Man rates:
Supplements: Featurette Tattooed Steiger, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 31, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Return to Top of Page