X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes (1963)

Director: Roger Corman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are few film buffs who don’t have some affection for Roger Corman, the shlockmeister from American International Pictures who produced careers for budding filmmakers almost as fast as he did movies. No one would confuse an AIP film with great art, but Corman’s sense of the bizarre and sensational, his ability to make decent B pictures for so little money, and his knack for attracting some pretty decent talent have earned our respect. X is one film from his vast oeuvre I hadn’t caught up with until our local revival house showed an outstanding print of it last night. It is a surprisingly compelling, even moving picture. It might even be the best Corman ever made.

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Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) is a physician who has temporarily abandoned his practice for research. The film opens with him in the chair of his optometrist Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone) having his eyes examined. Brant says there has been no change since the clean bill of health he gave Xavier three months before. “No change yet,” says Xavier. “You intend to experiment on yourself, don’t you,” scolds Brant. Xavier explains that the human brain processes only 10 percent of the known wavelengths in the universe. He wants to extend the range of human vision, perhaps look directly into the human body to diagnose diseases that standard X-rays can’t reveal.

Xavier returns to his lab, where he is visited by Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diane Van der Vlis). Fairfax works for the foundation that funds his work, and she says the foundation is ready to pull the plug because of a lack of results. Xavier says he’ll show her results that will knock her socks off. He places a drop of a compound he’s developed called “X” into each eye of a test monkey, and shows how the monkey can see through several sheets of paper. Suddenly the monkey dies. An autopsy reveals no organic damage; Xavier says the animal must have died of shock because it could not adjust to all the new images it was seeing. Fairfax is convinced.

Xavier starts to experiment on himself. With his new X-ray vision, he sees directly into a patient he is supposed to help operate on. His vision shows she was misdiagnosed, but he can’t get the chief surgeon to listen to him. In the operating room, Xavier cuts the surgeon on the hand so he cannot continue operating. Xavier takes over and goes after a tumor in another part of her thorax. Despite proving he’s right, he’s threatened with sanctions and his research funding is pulled.

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A tragedy Xavier causes has him on the run, using his new sight, renewed by regular doses of X, to support himself in a carnival sideshow as “Mentalo.” His partner in the carnival, Crane (Don Rickles), finds out he’s not just pulling a stunt and sets him up as a healer who accepts donations. When Diane tracks Xavier down through the patients who visit her after getting diagnosed through him, they decide to head for Mexico or Canada where he can continue his research. Before they leave, he heads to Las Vegas to win the money he’ll need to set up shop elsewhere, but fate has something different in store for him.

As science fiction plots go, this one certainly isn’t the most farfetched. Despite the silly lab Xavier has, rigged with bottles containing colored liquids and tubes, the scene with the monkey is handled in a fairly believable way. In 1963, the general public might not have bought that the doors to perception could be opened with eye drops, but subsequent knowledge of how powerful a single drop of LSD could be lend some veracity even to this simple plot device.

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Corman, of course, can’t keep cheese off the menu. His opening credits feature a close-up of an eye floating in formaldehyde. He knows what audiences would do with X-ray eyes, and throws them the bone of a party in which Xavier sees everyone naked (he even has Rickles voice this desire later in the film). He covers Milland’s eyes with white and black contact lenses, and gives us POV shots from Xavier’s eyes that employ colors suggesting theatres may have handed out 3-D glasses before the film. The scene in which Xavier spots the tumor inside his patient looks like nothing discernable to me; other scenes employ fluoroscopic images of skeletons moving and models of internal organs. Naturally, everything is cheap and looks it.

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What really makes this picture the engrossing experience it is is the commitment of Ray Milland to this role. Xavier doesn’t become an evil scientist; he stays committed to trying to perfect X, make it more controllable, even as he seems to develop an addiction to it. Milland, an Academy Award winner for his star turn in the only Billy Wilder film I wholeheartedly endorse, The Lost Weekend, has considerable acting chops. Even though his career dipped into B pictures, he brings a force and grace similar to what Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing lent to the best of the Hammer horror films. Even with a basic script and players who were not his match (though Rickles’ combination of his insult act and self-interested huckster was better than I thought it would be, and the character of Dr. Fairfax was a strong, intelligent woman, not just a loyal woman at her man’s side), Milland gets us on his side so quickly and thoroughly that we don’t feel that dread many scifi/horror films sell regarding the folly of science. He tempers Xavier’s idealism with practical ambition, his undercurrent of belief in the benefits of his work a spur to staying out of the reach of authority, and his mad dash in a stolen car a cause for concern at what might happen to him.

I know I’m a little behind my fellow bloggers in singing the praises of this B movie with an A heart, but I’m glad I now know what all the fuss was about. If you are like I was, it’s time you found out, too.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    14th/06/2009 to 11:11 pm

    The reference to Huxley made me wonder if in fact the film was intended to work on at least two levels. Keeping in mind that Corman made a film that was about LSD, The Trip, and that he probably had some awareness of what some in the Los Angeles arts community were doing, makes it seem like Corman, or at least his screenwriters were interested in exploring the tensions between ordinary existence and the more obsessive and sensitive life of an artist. William Blake for the drive-in crowd maybe? My understanding is that the guy who directed 28 Weeks Later is to do a remake. He’s a pretty good filmmaker, but I’ve always thought that because of the drugs and self-destructive search for the truth or “God”, X should be remade by Darren Aronofsky.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 8:10 am

    I think that choosing the director of a horror film will tip the balance of this film, which incorporates both horror and scifi in a pretty masterful mix. We don’t get hybrid films like this much anymore, and I think that’s a pity. I don’t really know Aronofsky’s work, but I’ll take your word for it, Peter.

  • bill r. spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 9:14 am

    Great write-up, Marilyn, and I agree that this is Corman’s best film, even better than his Vincent Price/Poe films. I, for one, loved the black contacts, and I thought they added a really creepy, monstrous tone to the ending. Milland was beginning to look pretty satanic by the end.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 9:21 am

    Bill – Yes, he looked satanic, but I felt pity more than revulsion, like Frankenstein’s monster. I know the film was right to end where it did, but one has to wonder what happened to Xavier after the cheap special effects wore off.

  • bill r. spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 9:48 am

    Oh, I felt pity, too. His life was a living nightmare by the end. But as an image, those contacts were very striking, more striking than any other use of that “black eye” effect (and there have been many) that I can think of.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 9:55 am

    I’m not entirely sure I agree. The contacts didn’t seem to fit very well, like they were bulging at the sides. It looked, like the white contacts, fake. However, I will agree that the idea of them was horrifying, and that for me, they almost looked as bad as they were supposed to.

  • bill r. spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 10:23 am

    Well, for me, the power of the contacts may have had more to do with their context in the film than it did with the success of the effect itself. Though I don’t remember them looking too bad, myself.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 10:34 am

    Black eyes are very powerful. I don’t know if you ever watched “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but when Willow seeks revenge for the slaying of her lover, her eyes glow a malevolent black. Unbelievably scary.

  • bill r. spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 11:12 am

    I’ve resisted Buffy for years, but I’m going to have to cave eventually. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of Joss Whedon’s other work too much to keep up the barrier.

  • Charlie Meyerson spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 2:28 pm

    A great movie, haunting for kids of a certain age, particularly in tandem with its comic book adaptation.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 3:07 pm

    Thanks for the link, Charlie, and I’m not surprised to see it coming from you. I’m very good friends with Mike Gold, whom I know is a good friend of yours, too.

  • mike p. spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 4:03 pm

    I was shocked at how good it was too–I had expected the corniness of the Poe adaptations, but this one really did have an A-list heart. And an A-list brain, too.
    I was especially pleased with how long it took Xavier to go off the deep end. For a long time, it really is about the search for knowledge taken beyond reason. I loved that it was money that finally sent him over the edge; I loved the finale in the revival tent, which is a nice play on the usual mad scientist’s attempts to exceed God.
    In fact, throughout I was comparing it in my mind with its predecessors of a previous generation, where Xavier would be played by Bela Lugosi and instead of experimenting on a monkey would kidnap a streetwalker and try it on her; he’d then move to himself as a guinea pig, go instantly mad, and the credits would roll after 66 minutes and a last scene where one of his colleagues would pronounce the moral of his sad story. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 4:14 pm

    Hi, Mike. Thanks again for choosing to screen this film and to whomever for the glorious print! I never really thought he went off the deep end in the way you suggest. I think he simply got fed up with people doubting that what he did was real, starting in the Mentalo show and then ending in the frustration at the casino. I thought the last scene was the least convincing – just a horror tag to send people home with a shiver. Was it hubris that led him to this end or physical torment? I think the latter.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 6:22 pm

    What an interesting little camp film to review, but as always it’s informed by stellar insights and infectious enthusiasm. I like the film too, though I’ll admit it’s not my favorite Corman (i believe that title would go to one of his Poe adaptations, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (two other Corman Poes do push close though: FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA.) Of his pure cap, I have always since childhood had a guilty pleasure regard for THE ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, one of those movies that’s ‘so bad that’s it’s good.’
    That eyeball is a hoot! And yes, Ray Milland is a major reason why this film does work. Boy Marilyn, that’s quite a revival house that would show the likes of this film! Amazing, but wonderful!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/06/2009 to 8:33 pm

    Thanks, Sam, for revealing some good Corman picks. I need to revisit some of his Poe films; it has been a long time.
    Yes, I’m lucky to have this theatre in my town; one I’ve been going to since 1972, when they used to show the films in the basement on a portable screen with the projector in the room. The commenter above, Mike P., programs and projects most of the films; this was part of his A-Z series. They always show a short of some sort before the feature, and the one before X was the Star Wars spoof Hardware Wars.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/06/2009 to 1:58 pm

    Kudos to Michael! That is indeed something to be grateful for, but your showcasing of the screening here with this kind of superlative treatment is truly celebratory. There are so few of these kind of theatres nationwide.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/06/2009 to 2:50 pm

    Sam – Here’s an interview with Mike and a little about the background of the theatre, which basically is in donated space at a bank. It’s an interesting story. “Those Were the Days” is a program of old-time radio; I used to listen on Saturdays growing up because my mom always put it on when we did the weekly housecleaning chores. It’s still going strong, too.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/06/2009 to 8:38 pm

    Great interview indeed Marilyn!
    What is great about this program is that they actively search for films not on DVD (admittedly, as they contend, not an easy task and getting more and more difficult as DVD is getting around to most stuff now) and they use 16 and 35 MM prints, which is of course the only way to watch these titles. I like the Saturday night time slot too and the admission that they really don’t make money but do it for passion. A noble venture!

  • mike p. spoke:
    17th/06/2009 to 1:23 pm

    When I said “deep end” I should have clarified. Another way this film distinguishes itself from its closest relatives is that X’s deep end isn’t some operatic, megalomaniacal crime spree or something–it’s just his loss of control when he starts yelling about everything he can see, which to me was shocking because he’d been so controlled and reserved up to that point. And what I liked about the final scene wasn’t necessarily the bloody shock at the end (although the preacher provided eminently reasonable advice), but the nod to the film’s ancestors that simultaneously sets this film apart from the genre. Sort of that instead of a moralistic statement about the dangers of attempting to play god, it was saying that in the end, science and god end up in pretty much the same place.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/06/2009 to 1:30 pm

    Understood. You’re right, and I think you have a good point about the ending, but it did seem a little Oedipus Rex to me. When they yell that they love God but hate sin, it seemed that Xavier’s loss of his eyes was like someone who unknowingly sinned, thinking to do good, like Oedipus.

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