Oct 25, 2017

Blu-ray Review: Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom in The Illustrated Man (1969)

The Illustrated Man (1960) is trilogy of terror-tinged sci-fi tales drawn from Ray Bradbury’s eighteen story anthology of the same name. Rod Steiger stars as the titular tattooed drifter in a framing story with Robert Drivas and then-wife Claire Bloom, and in various roles in the stories which his skin art describes. This eerie film has now made its debut on Warner Archive Blu-ray.

In the framing story, Steiger comes upon fellow wanderer Drivas, whom he frightens with his bullying demeanor and the shock of what was at the time considered a freakish number of tattoos covering his body. He begins to tell the younger man the story of what he calls his “skin illustrations”, which were inked by the enigmatic Felicia (Claire Bloom) in her isolated rural home.

The Bradbury stories that follow: The Veldt, The Long Rain and The Last Night in the World oddly don’t capture the writer’s imagination. While there are some fascinating concepts here, they are limply developed. The first is the scariest, set in a future where a children’s virtual reality game inspires sadism and violence. Though the others have a compelling sense of dread, they don’t do much to justify their existence.

Steiger’s sweaty, angry performance lacks subtlety, but he’s one of those actors who manage to hold your attention even when flying off the rails. He’s an unsettling match for Drivas, who has a shifty look that belies his role as an innocent youth down on his luck. You see a past of shameful deeds in those guilty eyes.

Claire Bloom savors her various roles with more elegance. She is smoothly evil as the skin illustrator, with the look of a woman who relishes the trouble she can cause. She has the appearance of threat lingering just below the surface of that coldly serene smile, like she’s hiding a pair of vampire’s fangs.

While the film could have used a stronger directorial hand and more developed script, it has its intriguing moments. The performances have more force than the production itself and the novelty of the set design and costumes add some interest. There's also a great futuristic tinge to the soundtrack in the Veldt sequence. It’s a misstep, but an interesting stumble.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer and a fascinating featurette, filmed at the time of shooting, which shows the exacting process of applying Steiger’s fake tattoos and a brief glimpse at the actor and wife Bloom behind the scenes. 

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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