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January 21, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #55 - The Illustrated Man

Before we officially name The Illustrated Man as this week's Midnight Movie of the Week, I have to give one disclaimer.  There's a lot more naked Rod Steiger in this movie than most movies I would recommend to you all.  In fact, the amount of naked Rod Steiger in this movie can be quite uncomfortable at times.  Like, really, ridiculously uncomfortable. And then there's this weird looking guy, Robert Drivas, who co-stars and is naked when the film begins too...which is also uncomfortable.  But hey, naked dudes happen.  We all had gym class growing up, we know it.  We just have to move on.
So, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the 1969 adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.  Featuring three stories from Bradbury's 1951 collection of the same title, plus a wraparound story about how a carnival worker (Steiger) becomes a human canvas for a mystical redheaded woman (Claire Bloom).  He shares his story with a drifter (Drivas, who looks like Tom Cruise's weird cousin), while resting on the side of a lake, which leads to the three stories and discussions of how he has to find the woman (who he repeatedly claims has probably gone "back into the future".  Marty McFly ripped him off).
The three stories all star the trio of Steiger, Bloom, and Drivas, and bounce between virtual reality worlds, rainy ghost planets, and a gloomy future where the world is soon to end.  In The Veldt, Steiger and Bloom play the parents of children who are increasingly addicted to the virtual reality room their parents have provided them.  There are strong similarities between this setting and the "picture walls" of Bradbury's Farenheit 451, but there's something much more deadly at work in this surprisingly vicious little tale.
The Long Rain is probably the dullest point of the film, and thus it's probably good that it was dropped in the middle of the film.  In it, Steiger and Drivas wander a rainy planet that is alleged to be home to "Sun Domes" which will hold all the pleasures they seek.  Most of the story focuses on the battle between the men as they search for the Sun Domes, which allows Drivas a little too much time to try out this thing called "acting" that he's not very good at, but the story looks sufficiently bleak and the characters' plight seems to parallel the scenes we often see in war movies.  It's an interesting idea, but the abrupt ending doesn't do this segment of the film any favors.
The third segment is entitled The Last Night of the World, and it also spends most of its time trying to get at us psychologically.  In this story Steiger and Bloom are again parents (the same child actors from The Veldt return, and the film's minimalist casting across dimensions is kind of cool to see), this time in a society that has decided the world will end on this evening.  Apparently, a bunch of elders had the same dream, and thus they know the world will end.  The society's children did not have the dream, and thus will be spared the horrors of the apocalypse - by being given cyanide capsules by their parents.  The dilemma, of course, regards whether or not these parents dare commit such an unpseakable act, and the short story features an effective twist ending (which is handled slightly hammily by Steiger).
In the meantime, segments between the tattooed - excuse me, they are "skin illustrations" - Steiger threatens to kill the woman who did this to him, and the drifter becomes more and more convinced that the illustrated fellow is dangerous.  And that's pretty much the whole movie.
The more I write about The Illustrated Man, the less I care for it on a cinematic level.  Steiger overacts often, Drivas is primarily terrible, and Bloom looks amazing but is used far too sparsely for the character(s) she plays to really impact us.  Director Jack Smight really seems to show no control over the film's stories (the pacing is atrocious), and Steiger just kind of takes over the whole movie.
There are several positives about the film, of course, or I wouldn't be listing it here.  Jerry Goldsmith offers another fantastic score, and the visuals and makeup are top notch.  The film tries hard to be a sort of warning to society - telling us that looking to the future can trip up the present - but there's not enough connection between all the segments to really sell that.
So, when it really boils down to it, I can't pinpoint why I'm choosing The Illustrated Man - a critical and financial failure that I can find plenty to complain about - as a Midnight Movie of the Week, but there's something mystical about it that sucks me in despite the flaws.  Though it doesn't succeed in many regards, there's something incredibly gripping to me in its awkward stumblings.  Maybe it belongs in the "so bad it's good" pile, or maybe it's got a deeper meaning that I haven't figured out yet.  But for some reason, that darn tatted Steiger grabs my brain and hooks my attention, never to let go until I'm left pondering what exactly happens next for The Illustrated Man.
Yeah, I know there's a book with fifteen more stories that I could read to find out.  But sometimes the middle-of-the-road movie is good enough for me.


Jinx said...

Fantastic, Mike! That's probably the greatest disclaimer I've ever read. I suspect that there's a naked, tattooed Rod Steiger in my not too distant future now. (That was me being a mystical redhead). I'm really easily convinced by peculiar nudity.

Emily said...

Despite what sounds like many flaws, I still want to see this film, as anything that has Ray Bradbury's name attached catches my attention. I haven't read "The Illustrated Man" but I've read plenty of Bradbury's other work- Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes of course, but a lot of his short stories as well. I don't love all of them, but they always intrigue me. I'll have to check this one out soon- maybe this weekend as I see it's available to watch instantly on Netflix.