X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. 1963. Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Robert Dillon & Ray Russell.
Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, & Don Rickles.
Alta Vista Productions.
Not Rated. 79 minutes.
Roger Corman helped a lot of young directors and writers, as well as actors, get their start in an often ruthless business; one he knew plenty about. We can’t forget his genius as director, though. He might not get the praise he deserves, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out here praising him. I’ll gladly add my name to that list of folks.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is, as I see it, one of his best pictures. It’s such a unique and fun, old school movie with a sci-fi brain and a horror heart. The script comes from Robert Dillon (French Connection II) and Ray Russell (Mr. Sardonicus), together making the character of Dr. James Xavier one of the more tragically mad doctors of cinema.
While special effects heavy due to the nature of the plot, Corman does a fine job directing this to make it stand out as one of the more interesting films of its kind during the 1960s, when sci-fi had already been pumping out for years and only continued to more so afterwards. The psychological nature of this tale and its examination of a doctor with a God complex, to an extreme length, is a personal favourite of mine in the science fiction genre.
We start with a macabre opening on a loose eyeball, which is then bobbing in a test tube of fluid. Followed by the hypnotic spiral that pulls us into this strange film. As if preparing us for the oddities to come; the weird and unexpected are about to unfold. Corman’s best films, of which X most certainly is one, are amazingly vivid in terms of visuals. Especially those shot by Floyd Crosby, including this film, and the Corman Poe adaptations The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Premature Burial, and the loosest of all Poe movies The Raven. The gorgeous, colourful widescreen beauty is in full force here. More than that, Corman and Crosby used some interesting techniques to visualise the x-ray vision of Dr. Xavier (Ray Milland). Hell, even when the doc has eye drops put in Corman opts to include a point of view shot from the eye itself, blinking lids and all. This serves as a method of immersing us in the experimentation of Xavier along with those fun x-ray shots and other similar sequences.
The inevitable seeing people naked is a fun moment, if not a tad disturbing as Dr. Xavier finds his ability to control the x-ray vision slipping. Moreover, he’s a constant invasion of privacy, privy to your most private birthmarks. That ethical breach then extends, as the doctor uses his vision in order to push his way into surgery, to prove himself as the best in the profession. Of course this proves correct when Dr. Xavier can see exactly what’s wrong with a patient by looking inside her; this is the definitive commencement of his newly formed God complex – or at least recently exacerbated complex – which only gets worse, the hubris building him to scary heights. So high, in fact, that the only fall imaginable is on the same tragic level as that of Icarus, plummeting out of the sky.
I consider the plot on par with great sci-fi literature, the likes of which Richard Matheson might dream up on a dark, stormy night. There’s wonderful thematic material. Most importantly, great power – no matter how beneficial – when mishandled and disrespected can lead to nothing except woe. The proud doctor goes from top surgeon to sideshow carnival freak to a desperate gambler at the end of his rope. Another doctor tells him during the first scene: “only the gods see everything.” Almost as if taking that as his mantra, a challenge to achieve, Dr. Xavier makes the God complex of doctors into something which ultimately proves near lethal; at the very least, capable of destroying one’s sanity.
In the end one of the biggest concepts is, essentially: if/when man finally witnesses something so much bigger than himself, god-like, will he then also be able to handle the sight of such pure, magnificent power? At the centre of his new vision Dr. Xavier can’t seem to see that one last radiant glow of some Other right behind the wall. It drives him mad. Partly, this speaks to an idea that religion, in whatever form (Christian, Muslim, Pagan, anything else), doesn’t have all the answers, nor does science. When Xavier gets to the point he thinks he’s utterly at the top of the food chain, in a manner of speaking, he discovers there’s still a final dimension which he cannot see. At least not in life.
During the final scene, the doctor proclaims to a pastor and his flock that at the core of our existence lies “the eye that sees us all.” And this is what drives him over the edge, that he – merely a man – cannot ever rise to the level of a god. He can be a doctor, perhaps the closest literal occupation to that of a god, wielding life and death right in his hands, but he will never be god-like, not really. That is still something too powerful for even his scientifically engineered eyes to grasp wholly.
There’s much to love about X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Milland does a fantastic bit of work as Dr. Xavier, making us feel sorry for him even after watching his out of control hubris get the best of his better self. The progression of his intent on becoming a god is at times uncomfortable, simply because we can smell a downfall coming a mile away. But that doesn’t mean this story is predictable.
Corman is a great director, whose interest has always been to make the films he’d like to see, in hopes that others share his macabre sensibilities. He runs the gamut of pure horror to more sci-fi-type stuff such as this flick. His influence on genre filmmaking is nearly unparalleled; truthfully, nobody else has touched as many movie making lives as him. He deserves the genre community’s love as much as any other director in the business.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes in this day and age probably looks, in title, cheesy to people. To me, there’s not an ounce of cheese in this movie. There are little funny moments, such as the dialogue from Xavier at a party when a woman says she’s noticed him across the room and he replies that she has “sharp eyes” – the screenplay is not void of humour entirely. Mostly, this is a serious look at a doctor falling headfirst into the deep end, sinking quick and harsh into the mess he’s made fro himself. The God complex in doctors has never before felt so tragic because at the end of the day Xavier did all this to himself, rather than test it on another person. So, in line with poor Icarus and his ill-advised flight, the doctor with his x-ray eyes is more sad than scary, although no less horrific in psychological terms.
All I know is that this film doesn’t ever get enough love, and more people need to see it. We should all be talking about this when the conversation about top science fiction crossed with horror comes up; in Corman we trust.