CAPSULE: THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969)

DIRECTED BY: Jack Smight

FEATURING: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas

PLOT: A young hobo meets a man covered from head-to-toe in tattoos; each illustration tells a story of the future if you gaze it at long enough.

Still from The Illustrated Man (1969)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It has a few odd moments, but overall this collection of speculative fiction isn’t that strange. Maybe people were easier to wierd-out in 1969; after all, this movie comes from a time when the tattoos that cover from Steiger’s character from head to toe made him a freak only suitable for a job as a sideshow attraction at a carnival. Today, the Illustrated Man could just be any old barista at Starbucks.

COMMENTS: Structurally, The Illustrated Man‘s concept is simple. Rod Steiger is Carl, the title character, whose body is a canvas of tattoos (“illustrations!,” he insists) that move and tell stories if the viewer stares at them long enough. Neophyte hobo Willie (Drivas) does so, which is the excuse for the movie to launch into three mildly ironic science fiction short stories. Meanwhile, a lot of time is devoted the interplay between Carl, whose harsh experiences are etched on his very flesh, and the wide-eyed younger wanderer who can’t resist peeking at the bitter future promised by the illustrations. Carl also relates, in flashback, the story of how he met the “witch from the future” (Claire Bloom), who seduces him into becoming her canvas.

The three tattoo-inspired stories involve a virtual reality nursery and some very spoiled children, a group of soldiers trapped on a planet where it never stops raining, and the tale of the last night on Earth. The major roles in these insets are also played by Steiger, Bloom and Drivas, but the framing story (and its flashbacks) outshines each of them. Steiger digs into the role like a famished hobo digs into a steak, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. He is grizzled and dominant as the tattooed tramp wandering the Earth looking to take vengeance on his witch, but fresh-faced and easily led as the younger man who stumbles into her lair. A couple of fantastical, surreal elements also exist in the framing story: Carl’s highly portable dog, and his ability to silence crickets. These moments give the film a strange altered reality and a creepy texture that goes beyond the chills elicited by mere campfire tales. The Illustrated Man received generally poor reviews at the time of its release. It’s not quite as bad as its contemporary critics thought, but neither is it a lost cult classic. It’s a perfectly serviceable science fiction anthology that will probably satisfy the average “Twilight Zone” enthusiast, but it also leaves a lot on the table, since Steiger’s meaty Carl seems like he could carry a feature-length film.

Ray Bradbury’s short story collection “The Illustrated Man” was first published in 1951. The framing story there only consists of a few paragraphs, so the adaptation necessarily expands greatly on the Illustrated Man’s character. Bradbury later wrote a short story also titled “The Illustrated Man,” which shows up in print editions of the book starting in 1997; it’s a dark fairy tale that is thematically similar, but very different, plotwise, than the story that appears in the film. There are rumors of a remake (which would adapt some of the other 18 stories in the original collection), with to direct.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[the] screenplay is unsharp, without focus, working into and out of the hallucinations with great awkwardness. It also is so thinly structured that it simply cannot contain Mr. Steiger’s baroque performance as the man whose very skin is haunted.“–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: THE ILLUSTRATED MAN (1969)”

  1. “There are rumors of a remake (which would adapt some of the other 18 stories in the original collection), with Zack Snyder to direct.”

    That’s the scariest thing on this website.

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