The Illustrated Man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am


The Illustrated Man

Starring: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas

Director: Jack Smight

The film: Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man was published in 1951 as a collection of 18 short stories, each based on one of the tattoos of its title character, who acts as the book's anchor. Filming the whole thing would have called for a miniseries, so director Jack Smight (Airport 1975, Harper) selected just three, each set in the distant future.

The film begins in 1930s America, in the middle of nowhere, with a young wanderer (Robert Drivas) meeting a fellow gentleman of the road (Rod Steiger) who is covered with tattoos - or 'skin illustrations', as he prefers to call them - from the neck down. The main strength of the film is Steiger's angry performance (perhaps his best after In the Heat of the Night) and as he tells Drivas of his quest to find the woman (Claire Bloom) who made him an outcast by illustrating his body, later and similarly menacing characters such as Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter come to mind.

Steiger and Bloom had been married for 10 years at the time. By the end of the year their marriage was over, and some of the tensions between the several characters they play together seem all the more real when bearing this in mind.

Drivas is naturally intrigued by the body art and after some exposition regarding Steiger's current circumstances, glimpses of specific portions of Steiger's body send the younger man into a kind of hallucinogenic state where he, and the viewer, enter the realms of science fiction. And it's from here that most criticism of The Illustrated Man - and this is a much and unfairly maligned film - seems to stem. There's a certain awkwardness about the transition from the depression-era Midwest to the 25th century and beyond, and a certain amount of confusion ensues.

But if you stay with it and keep an open mind, there's much to admire aside from Steiger's splendidly seething performance, especially in the prescience of certain aspects of Bradbury's futuristic storytelling - video conferencing, virtual reality, bio-domes and more. Some questions are left unanswered, but as the opening and closing quote of the films says: 'Each person who tries to see beyond his own time must face questions to which there cannot be absolute answers.'

File under cult classics.

The extras: Supposedly given superlative recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records, the application of Steiger's illustrations took 20 hours, and a 10-minute documentary from the time of the film's production shows him undergoing the process.

Makeup artist Gordon Bau had almost 250 screen credits under his belt as he went to work on Steiger (starting with Boris Karloff in Mr Wong, Detective in 1938), and this seems to have been his crowning achievement. If you've ever fantasised about seeing a self-conscious and slightly overweight 45-year-old man in a pair of Speedos, here's your chance.

Otherwise, there's just a theatrical trailer for the main feature and one, inexplicably and completely inappropriately, for The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning, which is due to go straight to DVD next spring.

The Illustrated Man is one of those films that gets shown occasionally on late-night cable TV, in a full-frame, washed-out transfer, but this newly restored, widescreen-enhanced (2.35:1) edition looks marvellous.