Saturday , September 26 2020
The DVD release of this 1969 film plays with time and also reflects the impact of time on the film itself.

DVD Review: The Illustrated Man

The role and impact of time on the arts is interesting. It is a fundamental foundation of much science fiction. When it comes to film, time is important in other respects. The timing or era of a movie's release may impact how audiences receive it. The passage of time may alter that initial impression for either the good or the bad. Each of these elements of time is brought to mind by the DVD release of The Illustrated Man, the 1969 film based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury.

The film seemed well timed at its release. Rod Steiger stars in the title role and is joined by his then-wife, Claire Bloom. Steiger was a hot commodity. He won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1967 (an award for which he was also nominated in 1965) for his role as Police Chief Bill Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night. The Illustrated Man reached the theaters less than a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey grabbed critics and fans; however, it didn't fare well with audiences and even Bradbury panned it.

Today, The Illustrated Man also reflects its time. Not only do Steiger's body illustrations have a psychedelic feel and look, a documentary extra on the DVD shows how the crew strived for the illustrations to blend in with paisley furniture and backgrounds in the film. Paisley, of course, was amongst the hot designs flowing from 1967's so-called "Summer of Love." Director Jack Smight also seems to have wanted to push the envelope a bit, having Steiger, Bloom and co-star Robert Drivas all appear nude in the film. While filmed so as to avoid exposing any genitalia, it may have been a touch on the risqué side for mainstream theaters at the time.

The real core here, though, is that the focus of the film, like the science fiction short stories it excerpts from Bradbury's book, is an examination of the future as well as a man's past. For those unfamiliar with the work, Bradbury's book is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories. The canvas on which these stories are portrayed is a former carnival worker who, with the sole exception of an area near his left shoulder blade, is covered from neck to toe with illustrations. As the Illustrated Man makes clear both in the book and the film, these are not tattoos. To the contrary, the illustrations come to life as people stare at them and relate each of the stories in the book.

In the book, the Illustrated Man is largely a framework around which Bradbury can launch the 18 stories. In the film, though, the story of the Illustrated Man himself, named Carl in the film, becomes a central plot focus. The movie gives us three of Bradbury's 18 stories and the rest is focused on how Carl came to be the Illustrated Man and Carl's impact on Willie, a young man he meets who is making his way from New York to California. That may have been part of the movie's problem. Those familiar with Bradbury's book would not only realize that making the Illustrated Man himself central to the work is as much a variation from Bradbury's approach as the film versions of the three short stories deviates from the original written work. That said, Smight does a fairly good job of telling us the Illustrated Man's story.

Carl's illustrations came from a witch, a woman who has "gone back to the future." Played by Bloom, the woman, named Felicia, is young and attractive in the film. Initially seduced by her beauty, Steiger becomes seduced by the illustrations she puts on his body. It is only after the fact and her disappearance that he realizes the illustrations do come to life. He has been searching to find and kill Felicia ever since she disappeared.

While Bloom and Steiger play the parts well (even though the couple would divorce in real life shortly after the film's release), the interplay between Steiger and Drivas as Willie is less satisfying. Steiger plays Carl as oscillating rapidly, almost psychotically, between anger bordering on violence and a seeming resignation. Moreover, he tends more toward anger as the only level at which he can play the role. Drivas, on the other hand, is at turns condescending, understanding, and appalled with little or no real rationale. That, however, is in their roles as the Illustrated Man and Willie the traveler. What also makes the film interesting is that Steiger, Bloom, and Drivas also play the characters in each of the three short stories that come to life and using the same names (although Drivas does not appear in the final one).

The first is the fairly well-known "The Veldt." There, Willie is the mental health counselor to Carl and Felicia, parents who feel threatened by a nursery for their children that allows the children to create realistic simulations of other places using their imagination. Here is where the film feels most dated. The home in which the family resides is a white, plasticized, sterile home intended to have a futuristic "mod" look but that comes off as almost hokey today. The film version also lacks the subtlety of the story, the first to come to life in the book.

Stories are somewhat mixed in the second tale. It stems from a rocket illustration on the Illustrated Man but the story that is told is not "The Rocket" that appears in the book. Instead, it is "The Long Rain," about four astronauts stranded on Venus. There, heavy rains are continuous and never-ending. Stranded by the crash of their ship, they set off in search of a "sun dome" in order to survive. Again, though, Smight deviates from the original, as he inserts Bloom at the very end as a characeter who does not appear in the original story.

The final tale is "The Last Night of the World," the story of the adults on Earth simultaneously realizing that today is the last day of human life on the planet. Again, Smight deviates substantially from the original. The short story, first published in 1951, was set in 1969 and tells how the adults face the end of life calmly and with little emotion. In contrast, the movie sets the story some 2000 years in the future in an almost Eden-like Earth. The end of the story also differs dramatically from Bradbury's version.

In the film, each of the three short stories is tragic. The same could be said for the Illustrated Man himself. The original stories, however, seem more introspective and thought-provoking that the film version.

As a result, those who are fans of Bradbury's book may find the film disappointing given its great variation from the original work. How they view Smight's expansion of the Illustrated Man himself from a bridge between stories to a central character will depend on just how much they want to hold the filmmaker to the original source. I, for one, actually found it a more interesting story than what the film did to the original short stories. When it comes to the stories, give me Bradbury's written work any time. For those unfamiliar with the written work, the film comes off with a certain raw and gritty edge, somewhat reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, a show for which Smight produced four episodes between 1959 and 1961.

The movie was released at year-end as part of "DVD Decision 2006," a joint promotion between Warner Home Video and Amazon.com.  Film fans were able to vote online this past summer on 30 different movies in the Warner Bros. film library that had not been released on DVD.  Voters were to select their favorite from the nominees in the action/adventure, comedy/musicals and drama categories with the winners to be released on DVD. Half the winners came out this month and the other half are being released next month. 

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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