It's a serious work, intended for adults, and has a certain classiness. Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1967) had been recently adapted by director François Truffaut, and invites comparison. Though not a commercial hit, and in spite of an inadequate budget Truffaut's film was mostly wonderful. It has a great performance by German actor Oskar Werner, a superb musical score by Bernard Herrmann, and many fine sequences, particularly the moving finale. Many of the film's visual effects were quite bad but ultimately unimportant if distracting in their awfulness. What counted was that Truffaut understood Bradbury's themes, dramatizing them with the same understanding and passion. The Illustrated Man is stillborn, dead in the water. Lifeless.
The movie adapts three of the original collection's 18 short stories, and expands upon the Bradbury's linking material, though badly.
A young man, Willie (Robert Drivas), happens upon a hobo, Carl (Rod Steiger), who is tattooed from the neck down to his toes (including, it is needlessly explained, his penis), which he grouchily insists Willie call "skin illustrations."
In flashbacks Carl, a circus roustabout, is attracted to Felicia (Claire Bloom), who lives along in a rural farmhouse creating skin illustrations. She seduces Carl into letting her tattoo his entire body, but the drawings, seemingly with a life all their own and possessing an ability to tell the future, has cursed his existence.
Willie, gazing at various parts of Carl's body, three stories unfold, with Steiger, Bloom, and Drivas playing the other lead characters in those as well. In "The Veldt," set in the future, parents (Steiger and Bloom) are concerned about increasingly anti-social behavior exhibited by their children (Tim Weldon and Christine Matchett) after they spend time in a recently installed virtual reality nursery. In "The Long Rain," a group of astronauts are shipwrecked on a continually rain-soaked planet (Venus in the book, unnamed in the film), with their commander (Steiger) determined to get them to the safety of a "sun dome" shelter before they all drown or go mad. In "The Last Night of the World," another set of parents (Steiger and Bloom again) learn their planet is doomed and agonize over whether to euthanize their two children (Weldon and Matchett again) and spare them a painful death before the terrible end comes.
The problems with The Illustrated Man are too many to count. For starters, Rod Steiger, fresh from his Oscar-winning role in In the Heat of the Night (1967), is painfully miscast. He's overbearing and irredeemably unpleasant as Carl, a character that should be tortured and threatening but also beguiling and sympathetically tragic. Bradbury had suggested Steiger, Paul Newman, or Burt Lancaster for the part. Lancaster would surely have been a better choice, as would Kirk Douglas, who was interested at some point. Even in the other stories Steiger comes off badly: ill-tempered and threatening as the father in "The Veldt," dictatorial and pig-headed in "The Long Rain," and sloppily emotional and ultimately very, very stupid in "The Last Night of the World." As the illustrated man, short, stocky, and flabby Steiger makes viewers want to look away.
Claire Bloom is no better. Most effective playing cold, emotionally aloof characters, she's not remotely mesmerizing or erotic or anything else as the skin illustrator Felicia, and icy cold in the other tales. She especially but also Steiger and Drivas are further hampered by ridiculously bad wigs worn in their multiple roles. The one Drivas wears briefly in "The Veldt" is laughably unconvincing, like something out of a high school play. Even the child actors are badly chosen, unconvincingly loving in "The Last Night of the World" and blandly threatening in "The Veldt."
Fahrenheit 451 tried to compensate its too-tight budget by avoiding costly studio-built sets, instead utilizing existing modern structures and an experimental monorail near Orléans, France. The budget on The Illustrated Man was undoubtedly a bit higher, but the filmmakers make bad choices throughout.
In an apparent effort to appear artful and restrained, though possibly to get around budgetary restrictions as well, the art direction is mostly bad. For "The Last Night of the World," the futuristic family lives in a huge silk tent, the kind of thing often used for outdoor wedding receptions, while the family wears costumes of the type seen in innumerable peplum. In "The Veldt," interiors meant to be suffocating and austere are way too much so, becoming ludicrously unfunctional and unbelievable. The elaborate, waterlogged sets in "The Long Rain" come off best, and it's by far the best of the three segments, though even it is badly directed by Jack Smight, who never seems to know where to point the camera, what to emphasize and where to be subtle. The spaceship briefly glimpsed is the redressed full-size prop from Planet of the Apes.
Probably owing to the limited budget, while the long framing scenes and the flashbacks with Felicia are set in the backwoods of rural America, all too obviously overused southern California terrain is made to substitute. Producer and screenwriter Howard B. Kreistek had an undistinguished career in film, first as a producer of low-budget teen and rock and roll/country music movies, none memorable, then as a screenwriter on a handful of other unmemorable movies, including the disappointing Charles Bronson film Breakout. One can't but help wonder why he was chosen to adapt as delicate as Bradbury.
Not much else works, either. The design of the skin illustrations is neither period authentic (the story appears set during the Great Depression) nor otherworldly. Instead, they reflect the psychedelic style of the late ‘60s and could almost be set flats on Laugh-In. Transitions from one story to the next are clumsily done. Even Jerry Goldsmith, one of the screen's great film composers, turned in music that at times seems so wrong one wonders if Smight or others overruled Goldsmith's suggestions.
Video & Audio
In its original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio, at least The Illustrated Man looks decent. Flat color and grainy dissolves appear inherent to the original theatrical release, so it's not exactly stellar, but at least true to the original presentation. The 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio is fine, and supported by optional English subtitles.
Supplements include a trailer and vintage behind-the-scenes featurette, focusing mainly on the arduous (but probably not quite as arduous and time-consuming as the film's publicity would suggest) makeup work on Steiger. A brief table reading is also included in the short, but it's not very illuminating.
The Illustrated Man is a science fiction/fantasy drama that isn't fondly remembered, and with good reason. It's worth seeing once, but disappointing on all levels. Rent It.