A Roger Corman B-picture that transcends the standard fare for similar films, X: The Man with The X-Ray Eyes creates a modern day parable.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes sets up a tale of a mad scientist that once again ignores common sense and medical ethics to experiment upon himself. The results, while wondrous to begin with quickly show their dark side as the man realizes what he has truly unleashed.
Having never seen this film before I’m unsure whether to expect super low-budget Roger Corman work, or slightly higher quality Roger Corman. The film seems like a wish fulfillment sort of premise, with Ray Milland giving himself the ability to see through objects. He sees through women’s clothes, reveals cards in Las Vegas, and presumably gets himself in trouble, as the trailer indicates a big chase sequence at the climax of the film. The credits also list Don Rickles in the cast, which I’m interested to see how he is used. Maybe as a performer in Las Vegas, or perhaps a friend of Ray Milland. In any case, I don’t think things will turn out well for the main character.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes takes a while to get its footing, but once it does, the remainder of the film chugs along at an enjoyable clip. After starting with a 30 second shot of a disembodied eyeball, the film opens with Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) having his eyes tested by his friend and colleague Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone). They discuss the limits of the human eye and what it misses. Brant insists that Xavier not test his new formula on himself.
Xavier then meets up with Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) who is a liaison to his financiers at the foundation. She tells him he needs more oversight. He offers to give her a status report in terms of a demonstration. He shows her a monkey that has been trained to press certain buttons when it can see certain colors of flags. Xavier gives the simian a dose of his compound X eyedrops and stacks the flags one over the other. The monkey presses all the buttons, indicating it can see through the flags, before dropping dead.
Xavier feels he cannot wait anymore and takes a does of the serum himself. He can instantly see through file folders, and lab coats, but when Diane and Sam present the work in front of the board the next day, they reject his findings and shut off funding. At a party that night, Xavier is very much enjoying his ability to see through the clothes of the young ladies (and men). The next day during a surgery he assisting in, Xavier cuts Dr. Benson (John Hoyt) forcing him to stop. Xavier has seen the real problem with the girl’s heart and knows if Benson continues she will die. This results in Xavier being fired from the hospital. Xavier steals the remaining formula for himself.
In an argument with Dr. Brant, Xavier accidentally pushes him out a window where Sam falls to his death. He is now a man on the run. He hides out in the sideshow at a local carnival, masquerading as Mentallo, a psychic, assisted by Crane (Don Rickles). Crane comes up with a better scam when he realizes that Mentallo is for real. They setup shop in a small room where Xavier can “heal” individuals, while Crane accepts “donations.” Xavier’s use of the drug takes its toll on him as he can now see though his eyelids.
Diane manages to find him, realizing that they are in love with each other. They have no money to live if Xavier leaves Crane, but he does so, wanting to be a better man. They head to Las Vegas where Xavier knows he can make a few quick bucks. But his temper gets the best of him. When questioned by the casino management, he begins throwing punches and runs out. His sunglasses get dislodges and to everyone’s horror his eyes are now black and gold.
He makes a getaway in his car, evading a helicopter and the highway patrol. When he crashes his car, he begins running through the desert on foot. He comes across a tent revival where the preacher is speaking to his flock. The preacher invites everyone to come forward and have their souls saved. Xavier says that he can see the boundaries of the universe and even a giant eye that “sees us all.” The preacher tells him that it is Sin he sees, and offers him salvation if he plucks his own eyes from his head. Xavier does so, screaming!
“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.” – Dr James Xavier, when asked what he sees
History in the Making
The goal of this blog is to look at iconic, fun, and genre-defining science fiction films from 1950 to the present. Sometimes the films are watershed movies that change the direction of the genre. Other ones are famous for being bad. A film like X falls somewhere in between. It was designed as a low budget film from Roger Corman. As most Corman films go, this is not exceedingly well-written, it is shot inexpensively, and features few characters. But something about the film allows it to transcend the normal Corman style. Maybe it’s the cast, or the crew, or the script (perhaps a combination of all three) that makes X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes an interesting sci-fi film that sets a tone for future films.
Early in the picture, Ray Milland seems to be walking through the film, unfocused. Whether that’s due to his disinterest in the story, or maybe it’s a conscious decision of how to play Dr. Xavier. Yet later, his take on the character really steps up as he moves into the second act. By the time Xavier has gone to work for the carnival, Milland’s detachment becomes almost a super-power of his. The quiet menace of man slowly going insane begins to rear its ugly head, and the characters spiral decent beings to take shape. His portrayal of the character, and the arc itself, could have been completely at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
As with Milland’s performance, the script from Robert Dillon and Ray Russell takes a little time to warm up. There is a lot of exposition in the early minutes, explaining about how vision works, and having characters over-verbalize their needs. But once Xavier gets heavily using of his the Formula X, the story gets a little more exciting. It seems at times that the script bites off more than it can chew, but the more crazy things gets the more things the audience is ready to accept. As with any type of wish-fulfillment story, it’s always fun for the main character to do things that the general public wishes they could do, given the situation. In this case, see through clothing, cheat at cards, or pretend to read people’s minds. The ending is quite unexpected and shocking, creating another memorable moment.
Up until this point, most sci-fi films had positive messages and resolved their storylines at the conclusion. The Blob was frozen. Humanity found a way to kill the Triffids. The Seaview found a way to save the entire planet Earth. But X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes doesn’t feel that way. This film feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone, with the loss of Dr. Xavier’s eyes. It’s tragic and a downer, but also an ending that was dictated by the direction of the script. An apocryphal story attributed to Stephen King concocts an additional line of dialog to the ending of the film; one that would have made the film so much more powerful. The story was that after plucking out his eyes at the behest of the preacher, Dr. Xavier screams, “I can still see!” Chilling, but not something that Roger Corman ever conceived or shot.
Corman expands his oeuvre, with more complexity and locations. Rather than create a film in a single location that focuses on its characters, Corman takes a journey with James Xavier, from respected scientist to raving madman. Nowadays following an anti-hero such as Xavier is not uncommon, but during the 50s and 60s it was much more uncommon. It’s not just a simple character arc for Xavier either, but a continued descent from a lucid man to a frazzled paranoic. His look becoming more horrific as the film plays out.
Coincidentally the last film of Corman’s that Sci-Fi Saturdays looked at, Not of This Earth included a mysterious man wearing dark glasses, but for quite dissimilar reasons. Dr. Xavier’s super-human abilities are gained for a very high price. As a wish fulfillment type of story, X creates situations that the audience may see themselves in. Gambling in Vegas for example, where the ability to cheat would be an advantage. But as a science-fiction film, the moral of the story comes with a high-price.
The price that James Xavier pays is heavy, and one that must surely dissuade viewers from wishing for a similar power. But his is not a simple tale of greed and hubris. It’s a story of a man in the throes of addiction. At the beginning of the film, Xavier only sees the benefits of the use of compound ‘X,’ ignoring the warnings of his friends, and the death of his test animals. His first use of the drug provides amazing results, and he cannot wait to try it again. But the more he uses it, the less time it takes to wear off. The more frazzled he becomes. Eventually the physical side-effects become such that he must constantly wear dark glasses, lest others gaze into his black and gold eyeballs.
As with any sort of prolonged addiction, there is great trauma associated with Xavier. He accidentally kills his colleague as he tries to help him. Xavier destroys his career using his new powers to help the young girl, who arguably would have been killed under the procedure planned for her. He runs afoul of grifters, gamblers and the police, actually running for his freedom when he finally – in a fit of madness (or maybe relief) – rips out his own eyes.
Addiction was only beginning to be understood at this time. Xavier’s usage of drugs follows a long history of other sci-fi protagonists that saw fit to host their experiments within their own bodies, most recently reviewed in The Nutty Professor. Corman and Dillon & Russell do a good job to show the negative effects of the use of compound X. They do not sugar-coat the results, but do manage to show the benefits that were possible having the ability to see through objects. Maybe under more controlled circumstances, the use of compound X could be moderated to do more good than harm.
The Science in The Fiction
You don’t need to be an ophthalmologist to understand the crux of this film. There’s a lot of setup about how a human sees, and what the possible benefits to expanding mans field of view. The argument in regard to how limited human sight is echoes arguments about the use of the human brain. But then again, there’s probably a reason for the limitations placed against ourselves. Scientists often argue the philosophical dilemma of doing something just because they can. Xavier’s apparent lack of ethics in regard to his experiments define the genre’s mad scientist to a ‘T.’
Often times in science-fiction films, questions arise during the viewing. Questions that cause the audience to remove themselves from the film. Sometimes, these are nitpicky – such as the use of sound effects for space ships in the vacuum of space. Other times the questions relate to plot holes. Things that the writers seem to have ignored only for the sake of convenience to their characters or their plot. Once such question popped up during this viewing of X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes: if he can see through human tissue, wouldn’t he see through his own eyelids?
While not expecting a resolution to this question, as this is a lower-budget film, I was surprised to see that this topic was addressed midway though the film. Early films about invisibility also skirt this issue, as it would be inconvenient ot the plot. When characters have X-Ray vision it’s usually a power that they can turn on or off, like Superman. But here, Xavier is flooded with the power unable to control it. As his abilities get stronger, he realizes that not even his eyelids can stop the power from working. While it’s never explained scientifically what he’s going through, the thought to address this issue and other problems he would have (insomnia, sensory overload as two examples) proves that the picture is not as base a film as initial expected.
The Final Frontier
Some notable actors appear in cameo roles in this film. We’ve talked about Morris Ankrum on this blog before. He’s had an interesting career playing doctors, military personnel and even the President of the Uniter States. He had a small uncredited cameo as the head of the board of directors that defunded Xavier’s work. This would turn out to be his last film made, and his second to last film released before his death in 1964.
Also appearing in a cameo is Dick Miller, who shows up in many of Roger Corman’s films. Here he plays a heckler that taunts ‘Mentallo’ and Crane, before being run out of the tent and embarrassed by Xavier, proving he is, in fact, the real deal. And finally hardcore Star Trek fans may recognize John Hoyt, who played the original doctor of the Enterprise – Phillip Boyce, as the head of surgery to whom Xavier confronts about the young girls condition.
As a side note from the actors of the picture, the cinematographer of this film was Floyd Crosby. He had shot a number of films for Roger Corman, but was also the cinematographer for films such as the western High Noon (1952). He was also the father of musician David Crosby. Crosby designed a number of the psychedelic photographic effects for this film, creating Xavier’s “x-ray point of view,” which provide much insight into what the doctor sees.
In closing, X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes creates a modern parable about the wonders and pitfalls of modern medicine and tries to inform the audience about exercising proper judgment when dealing with such wonders.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.