Posted in: Film Reviews

Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

Carl is covered, neck to toes, everywhere (“Ev-er-y-where,” he emphasizes, in the movie’s only joke line), with what Willie is foolish enough to call tattoos, and which Carl insists are properly named “skin illustrations.” And not just any old I-love-you-Rosie vulgarity either. Weird, hallucinating, DayGlo-ish images, suggestive of the Tarot pack and Alan Aldridge’s designs for the opiate-seeking Sixties, leap off Carl’s epidermis, animated by the movements that go with his agitated haranguing of the by-now-a-tad-scared Willie. A lady put these designs on Carl, a certain Felicia, and she lives in a house somewhere near, and if Carl finds her, he says, he’ll kill her. But she’s gone and taken her house with her, gone “back into the future.” Don’t dare stare at the Illustrated Man, for those who do see their own futures, usually when they peek into the blank space around Carl’s left shoulder blade. And what they see scares them. So nobody comes near poor, lonesome Carl, only that Pekinese, which sets on its hind legs for great long periods and seems pretty scared itself. Soon Willie is staring, too: staring at the lion and the rocket and eventually at that blank space. And what he hallucinates, or imagines, or daydreams, or prophesies, is enacted before our eyes.

But The Illustrated Man is not a Dead of Night/Tales from the Crypt portmanteau horror film, with its essence found in the tales that are told. It’s a good long while before we get to the first jump into the future. The greater part of the film is, in fact, set in Now, whenever that is, and Smight dallies in Then before his abrupt (and surprisingly brief) precipitations of the action into Tomorrow. We learn first of how Carl, a fairground hand, got tired of pitching tents one day and, horny and thirsty, went wandering and came on Felicia’s house, with a sign outside saying (warning?) SKIN ILLUSTRATIONS. The Carl we see in flashbacks looks different, and not just younger. He doesn’t have the broken nose and we never do learn how he got it. Felicia’s attitude is … seductive, yes, alluring, yes, that hint of danger is undeniably sexual – isn’t it? The banter about quenching Carl’s thirst has underlying meanings a child could pick up on, and when Felicia suddenly, swiftly inscribes a rose on Carl’s palm, it seems the first move in some erotic ritual, some kinky game. No prizes for spotting the symbolism. But Carl is as alarmed as turned on, and we are too, perhaps, though for a different reason. Carl’s arrival at the house was preceded by a contact with the world outside this film’s hermetically sealed universe as commonplace and yet as unexplained as Willie’s departure from that auto right at the start. A pony and trap cuts across Carl’s path as he advances on the house, its occupants a prim-looking Midwest pair with their backs to us, he in a frockcoat, she in lace.

We never see their faces. In fact, the whole business of the trap cutting across Carl’s path and our image takes the merest second, and in medium-longshot as well. Just a bit of business to fill the frame? No way. If Now is the 1930s, what’s an image from the 1890s doing in Then? Carl looks younger, but not that much younger. And where the hell has this buggy come from? A reverse cut reveals the previously unseen (and unmentioned and, as far as we can tell, unnoticed) house slap bang right in front of our as-yet-unillustrated hero. But pony tracks? Wheelmarks? Suddenly the house is in front of us and the witchlike, catlike Felicia is illustrating Carl, and he wants to get away almost as much as he wants to get laid, and Felicia is keen for him to stay and promises him a happiness he’s never known, the present and the past and the future, but not quite yet. Afterwards.

We move to Willie’s first vision. Is it the future? Carl and Felicia look futuristic in their buttonless, oriental-style garments, but they seem to be in the middle of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a jungle spot with carrion and birds of prey and prowling lions. Oh, and a couple of kids named John and Anna. Their kids; for Carl and Felicia are married, happily so, and rich with everything the well-heeled 21st-century family could want, including this baffling veldt. For when Carl pushes a button on a dial in his fist, why, whoosh! the veldt is gone and the walls of a futuristic nursery enclose the nice, cosy, liberal parents. The veldt was an illusion, part of an ingenious virtual-reality play-with for kids of tomorrow to get off in, aggression-wise. Just like the movies; the more so because what we actually see of the veldt isn’t a back-projection but a real three-dimensional image. Those really are real lions near the real Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. It’s only when Carl returns himself and us to “reality,” revealing the veldt as an image on the nursery walls, that Smight uses a special-effects shot. What’s real? The lions are real.

John and Anna are supposed to get rid of hostility via their playroom imaginings. The back-projections on the walls are whatever they feel like imagining, and the stronger they imagine it, the more real the image becomes. But why do they keep wanting to conjure up lions and birds of prey, and why do they deny doing so to Carl and Felicia? The worried parents do the proper middle-class thing and send for the family shrink, Dr. Will – yes, Willie, also different, more affluent, more worried than in previous scenes. Will notes that the nursery machinery isn’t channelling their aggression, but feeding it. Appropriate turn of phrase. Next morning, Will wakes and finds the veldt is back, the lions picking at new meat; Carl and Felicia seem to be missing, and John and Anna look very happy with their jungle pets…. It’s a trenchant little satire on contemporary mores, of course, redolent of all that newspaper-confected controversy about the effect that movie and TV violence has on the minds of the young, and everything we keep being told of the banal, unhappy lives of the idle rich.

The sequence is also, I think, a clue. The whole movie seems to me a pudding of clues and allusions, bits and pieces of unresolved jigsaw, never quite making a complete picture but hinting at one constantly. One almost has the impression that the movie in toto is nothing more than a prologue, for it twice lurches to a sudden conclusion of events whilst still apparently in media res, the second time being the very end of the film. The events of “The Veldt” (to give the episode Ray Bradbury’s original title) include a few items not as offhand as they may at first seem. The “happily married” Carl and Felicia are in fact in the depths of an Antonioniesque noia as dangerous in its soul-killing way as the violence that defines all the relationships elsewhere in the film. When Felicia, suddenly desperate, begs Carl to make love to her, he merely asks “What for?” and takes another drink instead. Different, indeed, from the Carl of the flashback; different, too, from the Carl of Now. This Carl, with his hair slicked over a face as bland as it was earlier ravaged, debonair and vaguely hip in his boutique clothes and his white-on-white livingroom (almost like the prison-without-bars in THX-1138), has all the violence, but also all the life, drained from him.

Is it then an alternative possibility? Are the various futures depicted on the torso of our Illustrated Man simply different lives such as the protagonists might live if trapped forever in some perpetual time-slip, all proving a sort of plus-ca-change, whatever-happens-to-you-you’re-just-as-trapped-as-you-ever-were fatalist philosophy? But why are John and Anna, who don’t seem particularly, well, odd or disturbed or nasty, so filled with spleen toward their miserable parents? All Smight will do is toss out an idea or two, and you have to wait, just as Carl waits in the Now scenes for his reunion with the lady and her living house, both “back in the future” at the moment, just as Willie waits, held by Carl’s glittering-eyed rambling and the still-yet-speaking cartoons plastered all over him. On Carl’s stomach, there’s a rocket. Another sexual symbol? Of course. But the coitus interruptus of Carl’s tattoo session in the past goes on, and so does the not-dissimilar pattern of this spider-web narrative, suddenly plunging us into the second story (“The Long Rain” was Bradbury’s title) and onto a far-off planet where it rains all the time, and where Carl and Willie and two other guys have crash-landed in that very rocket pictured on Carl’s gut.

A crashed rocket: so much for copulation, and the anaphrodisiac property of cold water, such as is pouring endlessly down on these unlucky astronauts, is well known. The bickering of this quartet soon resembles the most turgid kind of all-male squabble, and if Willie (now called William just as he was called only Will in his earlier incarnation) and the other two rankers are buddies of a sort, no one likes Commander Carl, a fascistic asshole forever hissing about the need to survive, no matter what. Even if you lose whatever makes you alive? The question may be pondered in suitable terrain. This planet is not just wet and sunless (all shot indoors, if my eyes don’t deceive me), it’s dead and dull, full of withered, identical plants and dripping caves (more sexual symbolism), and the only relief from the climate is in the sun-dome Carl keeps on talking about. Getting to the sun-dome, wherein all is bright and dry and warm and gorgeous, is a progress not unlike achieving an orgasm for nasty Carl, who also gets off a little by murdering all three of his colleagues with a laser beam (yes, Freud for beginners). Alone, he gets to the dome, and inside finds Felicia, looking as she did in the flashback, not as in “The Veldt”, holding a towel, all solicitude. And then…

Rod Steiger is The Illustrated Man
Rod Steiger is The Illustrated Man

And then the damn thing jerks us back to Now again. Whatever the hell it was happened in the sun-dome, Smight’s not saying. Just as the story really seems to be starting, we go back to Carl describing his conversion into a walking work of art. Coitus interruptus once more; for Carl, back in Then, had gotten it fixed into his head that he wasn’t going to lay the lovely but lethal lady after all, and had tried to split, but her sweet talk had silver-tongued him into hanging on just a little longer. Willie is now transfixed, he hangs on a little longer, too. The third story, “The Last Night of the World”, bearing almost no resemblance to Bradbury’s tale of the same name, follows.

We’re further on again into the future, into the 42nd century. Carl looks and acts just a little different yet again. Felicia is his wife, John and Anna are their children; there’s no one else around. Carl has returned from something called the World Forum with disquieting news. Felicia and he have both had the same dream simultaneously, and so has every other person on Earth: tonight will be the last night of the world. No one knows how, but everyone is going to die. Thanatos displaces Eros yet once more; but now at last Carl and Felicia hit the sack. The lovemaking is not a little desperate, however. The World Forum has distributed little black pills, suicide capsules, so that the possible pain of unimaginable extinction will be avoided. Felicia tries to stop Carl from dishing out these tablets to John and Anna, and thinks she has succeeded. But the copulation with which they seek to end, and perhaps justify, their lives has urgency and pain and terror in it. Death is our only certainty, isn’t it? But tonight isn’t the last night of the world after all. Felicia wakes to a fine, sunny day. So does Carl. But John and Anna are dead. And back in Now, Willie screams, “You killed them, you bastard! Didn’t you?” at the very different Carl in front of him. The past tense, please note. Are all the Carls the same Carl? And is it the same Carl who, in that blank space into which Willie now has no choice but to stare, is seen strangling Willie?

Trying to make sense of this five-pronged time-jangle, one obvious solution came to me: Carl and Felicia (and by implication everyone else, i.e., you and me) are like T.H. White’s Merlin. They live backwards. Carl doesn’t know this but Felicia does. Hence, the stories need to be considered in reverse. John and Anna used the veldt to destroy their parents because John and Anna were murdered in the 42nd century. Felicia (in “The Veldt”) wanted the love she could recall Carl giving her 20-odd centuries into the future, but he wouldn’t give it. Felicia remembers now her husband’s future failures, and has avenged the future by turning the Carl of Now into a kind of human memento mori. It was after painting him all over, Carl says, that she finally let him make love to her; she showed him, he ambiguously remembers, the past and the present and the future, and then she vanished, and her house vanished, and he was alone with only his illustrated skin for company. For reminders too? Reminders of sexual betrayal, of the vengeance of children, of violent acts meant to spare pain, and all of them back in the future like Felicia and her magic house. Whether an old-style place with a sign reading SKIN ILLUSTRATIONS, a white palace-prison with a veldt in the nursery, a sun-dome with an enigmatic landlady or a happy home where young children die, the house is essentially the same, and so are the people.

Is there any way destiny can be altered? Willie seeks to forestall his own demise by battering Carl, apparently to death, with a rock (a form of murder going back to Cain and Abel), but his effort, whilst convincingly nasty, is a failure. No relief via death can halt the misery of the Illustrated Man who, with a great wound dislodging his right eye from its socket, gets up and staggers after his assailant. Willie is running like hell, but he doesn’t seem to get very far away. What he doesn’t notice (does Carl?) is that, in the distance, hitherto unseen, is a house, too far away for us to get a good peek at it, but not so unlike Felicia’s. With both men in mid-chase, with our questions still getting no firm answers, the movie very suddenly ends (though there’s no actual end title, just a cast list). Once more, a sort of coitus interruptus.

One can, of course, take only so much of this sort of thing. The Illustrated Man is undeniably a mess (“50 percent disaster” was Ray Bradbury’s estimate), a jigsaw where the pieces hint at some sort of overall unity but never quite fit. I’m by no means sure that my attempt to decipher the film hasn’t overestimated its subtleties, if such they be, placing precise or semi-precise interpretations on what may merely have been haphazard day-to-day improvisations by Smight, Kreitsek, and others. Bradbury has hinted in interviews that Steiger himself did some last-minute rewrites in an effort to bring the film more in line with its source (not a successful attempt, one must say). I’m quite at a loss to put any kind of meaning (symbolic, allusive, surreal or what-have-you) on that cute Pekinese, and the cut-off point in “The Long Rain”, its separation from any other aspect of the film, seems a mistake in strategy, just as, for symmetry’s sake, one expects John and Anna to be in its sun-dome along with Felicia.

As Bradbury has conceded, the part of the movie that really works is the linking story, which occupies, rather to one’s surprise, a good 60 or 70 minutes of this 103-minute film. Would it have been too difficult to spend all our time here without those digressions into the future? Or should Kreitsek and Smight have simply turned to other tales to demonstrate the Illustrated Man’s prophetic skin-imagery (there are 18 in Bradbury’s original collection)? Even so, as I said at the outset, the film remains in the mind, haunting, suggestive, as hard to get rid of as a “skin illustration”…

© 1979 Pierre Greenfield

Direction: Jack Smight. Screenplay: Howard Kreitsek, after short stories (“The Illustrated Man,” “The Veldt,” “The Long Rain,” “The Last Night in the World”) in The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. Cinematography: Philip Lathrop . Art direction: Joel Schiller. Visual arts consultant: Richard Sylbert. Skin illustrations: James Reynolds. Costumes: Anthea Sylbert. Editing: Archie Marshek. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Production: Ted Mann, Howard Kreitsek.
The players: Rod Steiger, Claire Bloom, Robert Drivas, Jason Evers, Don Dubbins, Tim Weldon, Christie Matchett, Pogo (the dog).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.