Director: Roger Corman
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (1945), 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.