In a long and varied career, there may not be a film style that Roger Corman has left untouched. His is a legacy that defies classification but, if you were to try, Corman is probably most closely associated with his Gothic horrors and low-budget B-movie fare from the 50s and 60s. The Gothic horrors were usually, but not always, based on Edgar Allan Poe stories and usually, but not always, starred Vincent Price. The B-movies spanned numerous genres but often included troubled teens, rubber monsters, wicked women, human mutation, sci-fi themes, or some combination thereof. The Gothic films may be more highly regarded but many of the B-movies have their merits and are very entertaining, if sometimes in a so-bad-it’s-good way. The title X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes leaves little doubt as to the lineage from which the film spawned and yet the story transcends those humble origins while remaining true to its B-movie pedigree.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes tells the story of Dr. James Xavier, a surgeon and scientist dissatisfied with the limitations of his eyes. Obsessed with improving the range of human vision, he has been researching the electromagnetic spectrum and has developed eye drops that he believes will allow a person to see into the ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths. Not only does he believe this can expand mankind’s knowledge of the universe and thus improve the quality of life, he also imagines x-ray vision as a tool to improve medical diagnosis. Dr. Xavier, as portrayed by Academy Award winner Ray Milland, fits all the tropes you expect in a B-movie scientist. His cause is a worthy one but, in his zeal, he puts his own theories before anything and anyone else. He scorns the establishment that questions the value of his work. In the pursuit of his research, he will abandon all scientific methods and caution. Most importantly, Dr. Xavier will ignore all risk indicators and choose to experiment on himself.
Of course, even the rash Dr. Xavier does not immediately experiment on himself. He has been conducting experiments on an angry, little monkey. It is only when the monkey, failing to comprehend what it sees, dies of shock that Xavier concludes he must give himself the eye drops. I suppose it is better than the alternative suggested by his colleague, Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone), who wants to experiment on a convict or even a student or intern. Not surprisingly, when the “Foundation” that holds the purse strings hears the tape of Xavier screaming out in pain after taking the drops and learns that he has been unconscious ever since, they decide to cancel all funding.
After recovering and learning that the funding for his research has been denied, Dr. Xavier continues to administer the drops to his own eyes. Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis), who, along with Dr. Brant, spoke on Xavier’s behalf to the Foundation, decides what Xavier really needs is to attend a dance party being held by some medical students. Of course, this being 1963, all the students party in suits and ties or evening gowns. But it is all the same to Dr. Xavier. His eyes act up and before long everyone in the party appears to him as completely naked other than some jewelry.
Dr. Xavier becomes so innocently lecherous that you cannot help but laugh. His viewpoint is always shown as being either at ankle or shoulder height but Milland grins and giggles like a little boy. When he confesses to Dr. Fairfax what he is seeing, she decides it is time for them to leave. Although he has commented on how attractive he finds Dr. Fairfax under the current circumstances, he also looks crestfallen at being pulled away from the party and the younger women.
The next day Dr. Xavier interferes in a surgery because only he can see that the patient has been misdiagnosed. Afterwards during a rant about the power inherent in his condition, he attempts to fend off Dr. Brant who wants to sedate him and accidentally pushes Brant through a window to his death. Dr. Fairfax strangely suggests that Xavier should flee rather than attempt to explain his actions. And so, Dr. Xavier takes it on the lam only to resurface a short time later as a sideshow act. Dressed in a gold lamé robe (over his suit) and a blindfold with a large, single eye embroidered on it, Xavier reads minds by holding papers up to his forehead on which the participants have written their thoughts. This is a lousy gimmick and knowing what Xavier is actually capable of makes it all the less impressive. Although, come to think of it, try to read a piece of paper that is pressed against your eyes.
Don Rickles plays Crane, the carnival barker working with Xavier. Rickles shares a hint of his ‘insult comedy’ when he is working the crowd at the carnival, but this is a dramatic role. He gives a compelling interpretation of the greasy conman who will do anything for a quick buck. The performance is fairly subdued, but Rickles makes it clear that Crane’s morals are negotiable. In direct contrast to Xavier’s nervous, childlike giggling at seeing through women’s clothing, Crane lays it all on the line when asked what he would want from Xavier’s power. “All the undressed women my poor eyes could stand.”
Xavier has not joined a carnival merely for kicks, although he does seem to enjoy the banter with the audience. The implication is that Xavier is trying to raise money to continue his research and possibly find a cure for what has become a debilitating condition. He has limited control over his ability, always wears dark glasses to combat the intensity of his vision, and finds sleeping difficult as he can see through his own eyelids and even the roof above him. That said, he continues to use the eye drops, even commenting once that without them “the effect is wearing down”. Once Crane begins to comprehend the extent of Xavier’s abilities, he suggests they leave the carnival and take the con to the next level. In desperation, Xavier agrees to become a mystic healer.
The tone of X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is, on the surface, fairly light. Even the death of Xavier’s friend, Dr. Brant, is quickly passed over. But right from the beginning, there are subtle suggestions of a deeper and darker context. In the film’s opening scene, Dr. Xavier claims that, through his research, “I’m closing in on the gods.” Xavier is not merely trying to improve the human condition. His actions are in defiance to the limitations of man. He seeks to elevate mankind so that we may examine and question the very nature of existence. Xavier wishes to see reality as it truly is, rather than in the limited capacity provided to man. The problem, as he begins to discover, is that reality may be more than the human mind can handle. As the film progresses, there are inklings that Xavier’s enhanced vision provides glimpses of something horrifying: something monstrous that leads Xavier to take drastic actions at the film’s conclusion.
It is in these hints at a Lovecraftian universe, that X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes offers more than your average B-movie. The plot is classic sci-fi nonsense and the production suffers from some obvious underfunding. However, for a low-budget, genre film, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes has an intelligent script containing some progressive ideas of a cosmic nature. Having won the Oscar for his depiction of an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend (1945), you might reasonably assume that Milland is slumming in a B-movie to pay the bills. In actual fact, Milland was known to occasionally take on “B” roles including leads in Frogs and The Thing with Two Heads (both 1972) and one of Corman’s Gothic horrors, The Premature Burial (1962). Milland was very pragmatic and did not consider it realistic to remain a leading man throughout one’s acting career. Later in life he indicated that he accepted parts that he believed he could get some enjoyment from. Regardless of the role, budget, or genre, he committed to every part and took the job seriously. No where is this more obvious than in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. According to Roger Corman, Milland was very enthusiastic upon reading the script and was very proud of the finished film. Even as Dr. Xavier partakes in a sideshow hustle or leers at young girls, Milland maintains the qualify of his performance. Milland, along with a strong supporting cast, lends the film a gravity that would be otherwise lacking.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Robert Dillon & Ray Russell; Starring Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, & Don Rickles; Available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.
This is my contribution to The Corman-Verse Blogathon. My visionary partner on this site has also contributed an article for the blogathon here. Click on the image below for many more Roger Corman themed reviews. Our thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and RealWeegieMidget Reviews for ensuring our musings are seen.