(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
“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