Rod Steiger does what he can to anchor this slightly dreary and depressing film version of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1969) from director Jack Smight, who helms the film in much the same flat style he learned doing episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It’s that and the dated 1969 vision of the future that ultimately scuttles the film as anything more than an interesting curio. But a curio it definitely is.
The structure of The Illustrated Man is peculiar on more than one point. It’s essentially an anthology film with a framing story, making it no different from, say, Dead of Night (1945) or Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965). But the framing story here is more involved than most. And it frames not just the three stories that make up the bulk of the movie’s running time, but also its own backstory. To add to the oddness of this, the framing story and its backstory are fantasies—or part of the same fantasy—while the three stories are science fiction. It’s an uncomfortable blend made more so by the fact that the science-fiction stories are supposed to be the result of staring at the title character’s tattoos, yet the images on his body seem only vaguely related to the stories. How much of this is related to Ray Bradbury’s source novel, I don’t know, though it’s worth noting that Bradbury himself wasn’t happy with the film.
The sci-fi stories are all of the bleak-future variety and are neither very interesting nor persuasive. The view of the future—especially in the first story—is utterly defined by the era in which the film was made. The sequence even has an uncomfortable-looking Steiger wearing a Nehru jacket. Can the love beads be far behind? The whole idea of having the characters from the framing story, the backstory and the individual stories played by the same actors is awkward, though it probably sounded good on paper. It might have helped if Claire Bloom didn’t tend to sport the same echt-‘60s hairdo whether she’s in the Depression-era stories or the dystopian future.
The film is at its most interesting in the framing story, which details the meeting and subsequent weird relationship between Carl (Steiger) and a young drifter, Willie (Robert Drivas). Their relationship—starting from the opening, with them both bathing nude in the same river—comes across like some homoerotic mind game. Willie is both drawn to and repulsed by the tattooed and somewhat brutish Carl, whose entire existence seems predicated on finding and killing the woman (Bloom) who festooned him with skin illustrations and left him with no recourse but to become a carnival freak. In every instance, Carl comes across as the tempter who leads Willie to an inevitable end. In these scenes, the film is compelling—at least in terms of subtext—but it’s not enough to raise the overall work beyond the level of a very dated oddity.