Friday, 22 April 2011

Review: The Illustrated Man

The Illustrated Man (1969)

This  is a serious film.  You can tell it's serious because it has serious Rod Stieger starring in it at the height of his serious Rod Stieger being serious in a Rod Stieger being serious sort of way.  Also, having to go through makeup for ten hours a day must have made him a bit peevish.  Based on Ray Bradbury's 1951 anthology disguised as a novel, The Illustrated Man takes three of the book's 18 short stories and tries to turn them into a feature film with mixed results.  The framing device used is of a young man in the countryside of Great Depression America meeting a man named carl with his 90 percent of his body tattooed with "skin illustrations" put there by a mysterious woman from the future.  Carl is hunting for the woman in order to kill her in revenge for the tattoos, which have made him an outcast because they have the power to tell stories and reveal an ugly future to those who look at them.  It's sort of an anthropomorphic version of Night Gallery.

Ray Bradbury isn't an easy author to translate to the screen.  It's probably because he's the sort of author that school librarians like rather than what boys do.  At least his books were always easy to find at my school. They were the ones with the intact dust jackets and uncut pages.  His plots, when he wasn't doing flat-out horror, tended toward American Midwestern nostalgia and conveyed in an over-polished purple prose that some people find poetic, but is really more florid.  As long as you bear in mind that he's writing fantasy rather than science fiction, his stories are tolerable, but on the screen the nostalgia becomes cloying and the prose descends into the precious.

This is the problem with Illustrated.  The individual stories aren't bad.  They just aren't very good and trying to cram three of them plus a framing device plus a flashback into 103 minutes of running time gives it a rushed feeling that Stieger's histrionics can't cover.  "The Veldt" is the first and strongest of the stories and if Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock had adapted it, it would have made a nice episode on one of their shows.  "The Long Rain" tries hard at drama, but has trouble holding the audience's attention as the crew of a crashed spaceship on a rainy Venus slog endlessly around what is obviously a very small studio set.  It's also mystifying because we're supposed to hate Stieger's bellowing Colonel, but his companions are such a collection of crybabies who want to lay down and die that we can't.  "The Last Night of the World" is completely unengaging and it's puzzling why the screenwriter chose it instead of one of the stronger stories like "Zero Hour" or "Kaleidoscope".

The framing stories don't really work well at all.  They're far too amped up and Clair Bloom is seriously underused in what should have been a meatier role.  Robert Drivas manages to hold his own against Stieger even when the later has eaten most of the scenery and has started to work on the props, but he doesn't have the range to cover the varied roles that the anthology format demands.

Not a particularly good film, but when compared with Bradbury misfires like 1980's adaption of The Martian Chronicles, it could have been a lot worse.

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