Undisputed Fact: Roger Corman is the greatest B picture producer of all time. His ability to find (and exploit, if we’re being honest) amazing talent and pull together movie miracles on miniscule budgets is nothing short of astonishing. However, it’s often downplayed what a smart, succinct director he was on many a project. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) is a stellar example of his talent behind the lens.
Released by AIP in September, X turned a tidy profit on top of its $250,000 budget. Critics were generally kind, but dismissive, calling X well made hokum, essentially. And due to its meager fundage X certainly shows its pedigree through petty set design. But…there’s a kinetic buzz that permeates every frame of X, a swirling colorgasm that bleeds through with Corman’s gift for storytelling. X rises from pulp to a lucid perfection.
Dr. Xavier (Ray Milland – The Premature Burial) has developed a serum that when applied to the eyes, allows deeper vision than ever before. Doctors will be able to see patients’ ailments without the costly (and time deficient in its day) need for x-rays. He tries his serum on a monkey which, while successful, causes the simian to have a heart attack and die. Naturally, he wants to advance to human trials, as apparently cardiac arrest is not enough of a deterrent. His fellow physicians, Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis – The Incident) and Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone – Spartacus) warn him against it, but Xavier plows ahead regardless. Of course, the results are predictably heady – at first. As he increases each dose upon himself, his sight deepens exponentially; first through paper then through clothes, and eventually, skin. (The film’s one humorous bit involves Xavier at a party where he sees everyone dancing naked – the ‘60s, man. My kinda scene.) He has a chance to try out his uberphysician theory and usurps the chief surgeon, bringing suspicion upon himself. After an unfortunate accident, Xavier flees and finds refuge with a pier side fair as Mentallo, a mind reader. Xavier’s ‘boss’, Crane (Don Rickles – Kelly’s Heroes), realizes his special powers and convinces him to start a scam in the city as a faith healer where they can profit off of ‘donations’. Xavier reluctantly agrees; he’s worn down as his eyesight deepens to the point where he sees through his own eyelids, can’t sleep and has to continually wear thicker shades just to function. Diane tracks him down, and they flee from the flim flam to Vegas, where he’ll raise money to finance a cure before his sight and sanity are gone forever.
Corman, through his successful Poe adaptations for AIP, had grown in confidence as a filmmaker – enough so to make X, which, while briefly nodding to the cinematic aesthetic of the time (nude dance parties come to mind), makes a larger statement about the fragility of the mind in the face of the unknown, as well as disconnection on a social level.
Xavier’s journey becomes more fractured, from respected physician to sideshow attraction to man on the run – as does his mind. His vision becomes almost hallucinatory in nature; people turn into mere colors, and objects become ghost like. Sleep is a luxury when eyelids are translucent (you didn’t think that one through, doc), and his discomfort slowly descends to mania. The question asked, is: did Xavier bring this all upon himself? Of course. But usually in a film of this nature, we tsk – tsk the protagonist because their cause is selfish, fueled by megalomania. Xaviers’ intentions are noble; he simply wants to improve the medical profession. He’s practically apologetic when he corrects the chief surgeon during an operation, which results in a life being saved versus one taken. The ultimate irony is that his power is supposed to provide clarity and lift the human condition through healing; but instead, by the end, it renders any human interaction as viable as dancing with fire. The more he sees, the less Xavier connects with the world he’s known.
None of this would play without the right lead, and Milland perfectly captures Xavier’s thirst for knowledge and subsequent disillusionment with his fate. He seems more at ease here than in his previous collaboration with Corman, The Premature Burial (1962), where he was a last minute substitute for Vincent Price. You really feel for him in his final moments of desolation and despair. The rest of the cast is fine, with a special shout out to Rickles, making his first AIP appearance, and later appearing in such AIP classics as Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party, and Beach Party Bonanza. (Two of those are real.) When given the chance, he plays slimy and desperate better than almost anyone.
Corman’s directorial efforts are frequently swept aside or shrugged off, emphasizing instead his legendary work as B Movie Shepherd. But look at what Corman, along with screenwriters Robert Dillon (French Connection II) and Ray Russell (The Premature Burial) accomplish here with so little – a tight, fast paced thriller about one man’s descent into madness. Corman directs as efficiently as he produces; piano wire sharp editing and clever transitions inform every scene (a lean, 79 minute running time doesn’t hurt either), and the screenplay even allows for a couple of well placed, poetic monologues where Xavier explains what he sees, for example: “The city…as if it were unborn. Rising into the sky with fingers of metal limbs without flesh, girders without stone. Signs hanging without support. Wires dipping and swaying without poles. A city unborn. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.”
An absence of joy hangs in Xaviers’ words during his proclamation; as a matter of fact, it’s absent from the film almost entirely. X is as arid as the desert that holds the final scene, as Xavier stumbles upon a revival tent and makes a last minute plea to a savior who no longer holds any sway in his new world. It’s devastating – full of sorrow and helplessness, it must have thrown audiences for a loop at the time, and still stands as a twisted howl to the cosmic winds.
There are several interesting interpretations to the finale; what exactly does Xavier see? Budget limitations (and smart writing) prevent that from being shown. The Eye of God, perhaps? Maybe one could take a Lovecraftian approach, and stew in the Indescribable. Whatever Xavier witnesses, it’s his alone to bear.
Up until the ending, Corman uses crude but incredibly effective in camera manipulations to allow us entry behind Xavier’s eyes – unfocused shards of light, colliding with penetrating colors that predates psychedelic imagery in films by a few years at least. But the discombobulating effect is there from the very beginning, as the film opens on a bloody eye and holds on it for a full minute. How exciting it must have been at the time to witness a filmmaker shaking things up. And by the end of X, as surely as Dr. Xavier surpasses all that is known to him, Roger Corman manages to push past the eyes of perception and be seen as he should have all along – as an artist.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HELL NIGHT (1981)