Tuesday, July 9, 2019

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

(1963) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Robert Dillon and Ray Russell; Story by Ray Russell; Starring: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt and Don Rickles; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“I had numerous opportunities to join the Establishment, and from time to time I did. But I have always stepped away. Perhaps that is why X has been called in some circles a serious Corman film – because of an identification with a scientist who is cursed by his vision and cast out by his community.” – Roger Corman (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)

“Sam, we are virtually blind. You tell me that my eyes are perfect. Well, they’re not. I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.” – Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland)

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is a modern variation of the Icarus myth, about a man who dared to soar too high and suffered the consequences. Change the characters and setting, but it remains a tale of hubris and poor foresight. After making a string of films in the Poe Cycle, producer/director Roger Corman made a conscious decision to explore new ground, thematically and stylistically. As in the previous Poe films, X was shot in color, adopting a 15-day shooting schedule, compared to the 10-day schedule for Corman’s black-and-white productions. Also following the lead of previous releases (starting with The House of Usher), the film was shown as a single feature, instead of a double bill. Veteran actor Ray Milland* (Corman’s first choice) starred as Dr. James Xavier, his second Corman film, after Premature Burial (1962). X originally ran with a prologue (included on the Kino Lorber Blu-ray), featuring a rambling montage about the five senses, and it’s easy to see why it was cut.

* Fun Fact #1: According to Corman, Milland stated he made two films in his long, storied career that he was proud of, The Lost Weekend and X.

Dr. Xavier is conducting research exploring the boundaries of human vision.* He develops a chemical compound that he hopes will expand the visible frequency spectrum to the naked eye. When tests on a monkey go poorly, and the subject dies of shock, he unwisely decides to take things to the next step. Despite the staunch admonitions of his physician (Harold J. Stone), he uses himself as a test subject. At first, he’s caught up in the wonder of the situation, as his eyes have been opened to a new world. Unfortunately for Dr. Xavier, his colleagues don’t share his enthusiasm, and funding is pulled. He gets into further hot water when he objects to chief surgeon Willard Benson’s (John Hoyt) diagnosis of a young heart patient. He takes the matter into his own hands,* performing the surgery** himself, but proving no good deed goes unpunished, he’s barred from practicing medicine. Things go from bad to terrible when a well-meaning colleague attempts to stop him from further self-experimentation, and is accidentally killed. Xavier is forced to flee, continuing his pursuits covertly.

Fun Fact #2: When Corman originally conceived of the film, he envisioned the main character as a sax player in a jazz band who comes upon his X-ray vision through drugs. He decided to change the musician to a doctor, because the MPAA would only have approved the former concept if drugs were portrayed in a strictly negative context.  

** Fun Fact #3: For the surgery scene, Corman used a real-life surgeon as a stand-in for Milland’s hands.

Corman and company employed a variety of techniques to depict Xavier’s transformative visions, shown through POV shots. The effects team used solarization of the negative and distortion of the final image to create a rainbow effect. As Xavier continues to see deeper and deeper, he sees skeletons instead of people and metal framework instead of city buildings (“…a city unborn. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.”). To create the illusion that the main character was seeing through structures, Corman photographed buildings under different stages of construction and reversed the order of the film. Although the film’s layered optical effects didn’t utilize a specific process, they were marketed by American International Pictures under the umbrella of “Spectarama,”

As good or crude as any special effects might be, it would be impossible to adequately depict something that is beyond the spectrum of human perception. As a result, the burden falls on the actor to convey this expanded vision. Milland proves to be up to the task, playing Xavier as a tortured man, cursed by his super-human vision. His anguished expressions communicate a tortured soul, damned to a hell of his own creation. The greater his vision increases, the more erratic his behavior becomes. What started out as a quest for truth becomes more like an addiction.

Don Rickles, in an early film role, turns in a noteworthy performance as acerbic, unscrupulous sideshow talker Crane. When Xavier joins a carnival sideshow as “Mentalo,” the seer, Crane senses that the doctor’s talents are more than an act, and looks for a way to capitalize on his abilities. For Xavier, it’s an opportunity to raise needed capital for his experiments, but for Crane, it’s purely self-serving. When asked what he would do with X-ray vision, Crane comments he would stare at “all the undressed women my eyes could stand.”

* Watch for Corman regular Dick Miller as a heckler.

The basic story, an intrepid scientist delving into mysteries of the universe that no one was meant to discover, is nothing new. But it’s in the telling that X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes rises above typical drive-in shlock (not that there’s anything wrong with schlock, mind you). With the help of Ray Milland’s committed performance, the film explores the philosophical and metaphysical implications of his expanded vision. His quest for truth is a self-destructive journey, which ultimately becomes what Corman termed a “low budget Greek tragedy.”
I’m generally not an advocate of remakes, but the material seems ripe for a new version someday (In his commentary, Corman seemed open to the possibility, hinting that Warner Brothers might have an option to remake the film), with modern effects in the service of a good story. This version, however, which relies on the audience’s imagination and intelligence to fill in the blanks, will be hard to top.

Sources: How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome; Roger Corman Kino Lorber Blu-ray commentary

Monday, July 1, 2019

Don’t Look Now

(1973) Directed by Nicholas Roeg; Written by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant; Based on a story by Daphe du Maurier; Starring: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“I love the very spine of the thing, the very premise of the story, that nothing is what it seems. How did these pieces fit together? After all, most of our life is a sort of puzzle. Why did this happen? Is there a reason? Is it random? Is it chaotic? But eventually at the end we can see how everything fitted in some way.” – Nicholas Roeg (excerpt from 2002 documentary featurette, “Don’t Look Now, Looking Back”)

A grand thanks to Gabriela of Noir or Never for hosting the Daphnedu Maurier Blogathon, showcasing the renowned author and the myriad film adaptations of her work. Be sure to check out all the submissions for this three-day event!

Daphne du Maurier’s fascinating stories spanned several genres, but it’s her tales of a more supernatural nature, such as “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now” that have garnered much attention from horror enthusiasts. According to du Maurier, the story for “Don’t Look Now” sprung, in part, from a childhood visit to St. Mark’s Square in Venice, observing a pair of elderly twins (from Daphne du Maurier’s Tales of the Macabre, “Notes to the Reader”). Director Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation (working with a script from Allan Scott) expanded on the short story, while retaining the Venice setting.

In the heartrending opening scene, John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) suffer the death of their daughter in a drowning accident. Months pass, and the story shifts to Venice, Italy, where John is involved in a chapel restoration project. During a chance encounter in a restaurant, Christine meets two elderly sisters (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania) vacationing in Venice – One is a blind clairvoyant, who claims to see their daughter sitting with the couple. Laura is convinced it’s their daughter’s attempt to contact them from beyond, but John believes it’s nothing more than a ruse. He further deflects her insinuation that he might possess latent psychic abilities.* By the time John suspects that something is awry, it might be too late.

* Fun Fact #1 (Spoiler Ahead): In an interview, Sutherland noted that he was fascinated by ESP at the time, arguing with Roeg that he felt his character should have been saved by his character’s second sight.

It’s interesting to note that Don’t Look Now shares some key similarities with the giallo film Who Saw Her Die? (1972). Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths are markedly different, both films concern grief-stricken parents, dealing with the loss of their respective daughters. Also, both films involve a murderer roaming the alleys and canals of Venice. Ultimately, the approach is quite different, but both films are effective in their own ways, depicting the dark side of the watery Italian city.

Don’t Look Now invites us to pay attention to the small clues scattered throughout. It’s the little things that add up over time to seal the characters’ fates. The ending, which seemed so random upon a first watch, becomes inevitable. The color red* (signified by their daughter’s raincoat in the opening scene) is used judiciously throughout, popping up in an article of clothing in a crowd, or a splotch on a photograph, suggesting an incursion of the supernatural or a confluence of seemingly unrelated events. Raindrops, mirrors, and a musical cue (courtesy of composer Pino Donaggio) signal our gateway to the unknown.

* Fun Fact #2: Per cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, the filmmakers made a conscious decision to omit red from the sets and costumes, whenever possible, so the audience could focus on the red raincoat from the opening scene, followed by subsequent sightings of a figure in a red coat.

Sutherland and Christie work well together, providing a convincing portrayal of a married couple grappling with a devastating loss. Coping with grief manifests itself in different ways. John becomes entrenched in his work, while Laura is open to the possibility, suggested by the older women, that her daughter isn’t really gone. Because of one fateful moment of neglect, there’s a strong current of guilt running through both characters. Given the traumatic circumstances, it’s a bit curious that they choose to distance themselves from their surviving son. Their distance, however, becomes an important plot point when Laura is compelled to return to England to check on him when he suffers an accident at his boarding school.

When a written work is adapted into a film, certain additions or omissions need to be made for clarity, brevity, or in this case, stretching out a short story for the purposes of a feature length film. The original story begins in Venice, with the daughter’s death from meningitis (not drowning) mentioned in passing. In the story, the couple are tourists in Venice, while in the film, they are working there. One sentence in the story becomes a pivotal scene in the movie, where John and Laura make love after a long dry spell. In this case, it’s more than the simple act that’s the focus, but a husband and wife reinforcing their bond after a staggering loss. The four-minute sequences cuts back and forth between two scenes, of the couple spontaneously intertwined, contrasted by the perfunctory normalcy of dressing for a formal dinner. One of the ways the movie diverges significantly from the source material is a subplot about a chapel restoration project, which provides further opportunity for padding out the film. Co-writer Allan Scott acknowledged that the middle, as originally written in the script, dragged a bit. As a result, the writers added a scene where the scaffolding supporting John collapses, leaving him to dangle precariously over the basilica floor* It sets the stage for the tension and unease that follows in the final third, mirroring the story’s conclusion.

* Fun Fact #3: Because the stuntman who was scheduled to do the scene backed out at the last minute, Roeg approached Sutherland (who suffers from vertigo) to shoot the sequence.

The unsettling final scene is quite faithful to the original story. (SPOILER ALERT) Hats off to Adelina Poerio as the dwarf,* for making such a big impression with so little screen time. Don’t Look Now doesn’t quite fit into the traditional mold of horror – think drama with a supernatural undercurrent. The horror elements are best enjoyed in retrospect, not immediately apparent yet glaringly obvious told in reverse. The uncanny, unsettling feeling builds throughout the film, working its way through your psyche. Much like the mosaic that John is restoring, only after we see how the pieces come together can we step back to appreciate the whole.

* Not So Fun Fact: In an interview, Christie commented that she almost turned down the role of Laura Baxter, because of the script’s negative depiction of people who were different.