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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The Illustrated Man’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, after you watch a film, you just want to scream, “To hell with more, I want better…”

The Illustrated Man (1969)
Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Directed by: Jack Smight

I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we’re not perfect and live accordingly.

When Ray Bradbury wrote this line for the story “No Particular Night or Morning” in his collection The Illustrated Man, he hopefully kept this in mind when the film adaptation of the book came out…

We open as the credits roll on a lonely stretch somewhere out West during the Great Depression. We watch as Willie (Robert Drivas) gets dropped off after hitching a ride, on his journey to take up an offer in California. He finds a small pond to settle down near for a rest before continuing on his way.

Into camp wanders the dog Peke, soon followed by his human Carl (Rod Steiger). Despite Carl giving off vibes that suggests he’s one of those hobos in a Roger Corman film who’s going to turn around and kill you any moment now, Willie shares the spot with him. Willie tells Carl what he wants to do, and Carl then states his objectives: He wants to find the woman who covered him in skin illustrations before she vanished, and then kill her.

Yes, he calls them “skin illustrations,” and not “tattoos,” thank you:

As the “pleasantries” roll out, we get to see the first of a set of flashbacks, when Carl first meets this woman (Claire Bloom). Over the course of a few days, we watch her slowly getting more intimate with Carl as she seduces him into being her canvas.

Carl, we find out soon enough, is more than a walking art gallery-cum-lout. People who look at his illustrations soon find themselves experiencing a story tied to each art piece, which makes the whole Carl and Willie discussion a framing device for three vignettes:

“The Veldt”

In one of the better known pieces from Bradbury’s book, which had numerous adaptations before and after the film was shot, we watch the Hadley family from the future, living a life the Jetsons would find too soft. We watch the parents, Roger (Steiger) and Lydia (Bloom), feeling concern as their kids keep having the VR nursey run a routine of a veldt with carcasses around them at the edge of a lion pride the VR nursey. After consulting with their family psychologist (Drivas), they try and break the kids of their habit, which goes as well as a modern family trying to take the phones from the kids, except with direr consequences…

“The Long Rain”

We later find ourselves on an alien planet that rains so much that even folks in Seattle would have problems staying there for too long. We watch as the survivors of a crashed spaceship make an arduous journey from their wreck to a “Sun Dome,” located somewhere nearby. It’s a tough slog, and the lieutenant leading the party (Steiger) is driving the survivors hard (one of whom is played by Drivas). It soon becomes a race for the lieutenant’s crew to see what will kill them first, the planet or the lieutenant…

“The Last Night of the World”

We later get a tale about a shared vision that the people of Earth have all at once, that their world is ending on a certain day. We follow a couple (Steiger and Bloom) as they prepare for all life ending, while deciding the merits of poisoning their children surreptitiously so they they don’t suffer when they think will happen to them…

It’s probably evident by now that Smight chose to tell these individual stories (only three of the 18 Bradbury’s collection contained) by casting the same actors in multiple roles. Which is not a bad path to take, usually, especially when you have Steiger giving his all and then some in every appearance.

Supposedly, Bradbury would only give the film rights to the collection if one of three leading men of his choice was attached to the project, Steiger being one of them, and the actor’s love and respect for Bradbury shows in his work. (The other two actors, Burt Lancaster and Paul Newman, would have certainly made this a much different film than the one we got.)

Rod Steiger preparing for makeup for the film

Having the ensemble play multiple roles, however, doesn’t really work if your cast isn’t gelling. Neither Drivas nor Bloom bring much to their portrayals in the three segments, hampered by Smight’s directorial enthusiasm. At times, the film’s energy level is so low, it feels like someone shot a community theater table reading of the screenplay.

While a large part of this reflects the limited budget the film had to work with, the project was hampered by only doing a few of the pieces of the collection. The screenplay by Howard B. Kreitsek not only didn’t do much justice to Bradbury’s original writings, it didn’t enough hooks or leads to help anyone except Steiger (who obviously read the original stories beforehand) find their characters. One of the worst decisions were the choices of stories to adapt, as the three chosen were not or at least could not be given the attention they needed. (In all fairness, such stories as “The Other Foot” or “The Man” or “Marionettes, Inc.” might have been more interesting to watch, but just could not have been made by any studio at the time.)

The end result was a film that feels listless and careless despite Steiger’s acting (and the 20 hours a day he’d spend in make-up to apply the “skin illustrations” on his body). It may have been inevitable, though, as we had an adaptation of a work that did not directly involve Bradbury himself. Even though the writer had a considerable screenwriting track record before the film was made (and after), however, it’s hard to guess if having Bradbury doing more for the film would have brought in the audiences that stayed away when it was released.

Perhaps the crowds still might have done as the trailer asked them to and just not looked…

 

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