Wednesday, 10 August 2011

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

As director Roger Corman points out on the commentary track to X (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) there are two kinds of mad scientist movie. There’s the mad scientist as monster movie, and there’s the mad scientist as obsessed but well-meaning visionary movie. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes definitely falls into the second category.

Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland) is a dedicated surgeon. He had long been obsessed with the idea that doctors essentially work in the dark. X-rays can give a vague shadowy glimpse inside the body but they are subject to misinterpretation, with often fatal results. If only doctors could see clearly what was going on inside a patient’s body.

To this end Dr Xavier has been experimenting with ways of extending the range of human vision to cover the entire electro-magnetic spectrum rather than just the fairly narrow band represented by visible light. And he believes he has achieved a breakthrough. He now needs an experimental subject, and he decides to use himself.

The experiment is a success, of sorts. Dr Xavier is able to see through solid surfaces, although the experience is rather disturbing. He is able to save the life of a young female patient by diagnosing her illness by looking straight through her skin into her internal organs. Dr Xavier discovers he has other abilities as well - he can see through women’s clothing. He’s a serious and earnest man of science but it has to be admitted that he finds this to be a rather desirable skill.

Unfortunately Dr Xavier’s success does not impress his medical colleagues and he finds himself facing an accusation of malpractice, and shortly afterwards he finds himself on the run accused or murder.

He hides out in a carnival, working as a psychic under the name of Mentalo. Later he meets up again with his assistant, Dr Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis). She is keen to help him, but he needs money. Then he realises that he can easily get as much money as he needs - all he has to do is get to Las Vegas. With his x-ray vision he’ll be guaranteed of an unstoppable winning streak. Then he can equip a laboratory and continue his research. But his mind is starting to crack under the strain and his vision is too acute - he sees too much.

While there’s a fair amount of scientific silliness in the plot Corman and his cast play it generally pretty straight. There are moments of comic relief but overall this is not a campfest.

Ray Milland’s intense and committed performance is a major asset. Apparently he not only liked working with Corman, he also (to Corman’s considerable surprise) considered this to be one of his best roles. Even the presence of Don Rickles in the cast (as Mentalo’s manager/frontman) doesn’t give the film a camp feel. Rickles actually gives a fine, rather dark and sinister performance.

The special effects are of course cheap, but they work well enough. The movie was made in widescreen and in Pathécolor. Corman chose Pathécolor because, yes you guessed it, it was cheaper than other types of colour film. But as usual Corman manages to make a cheap movie look quite impressive.

The MGM DVD includes a commentary track by Corman. Most of the MGM Midnite Movies DVDs don’t include any extras so this is a definite bonus. On the other hand MGM usually come up with good DVD transfers and this one is no exception.

This movie takes a fundamentally silly premise and makes a fairly effective serious science fiction movie out of it. Recommended.


The Vicar of VHS said...

I've always liked this one. Milland's performance really elevates things, and Rickles was a surprise, as you said.

Speaking of that famous Corman parsimony, there's one scene in this movie I'll never forget, where you can actually see the paint dripping down a freshly re-painted piece of set--time being money and all, they filmed before the paint was even dry! Classic.

dfordoom said...

Vicar, I agree about Milland. In both the movies he did for Corman you never feel that he's slumming. He's giving it his all.

Prez said...

I adore this movie, possibly my favorite non-Apes sci-fi film. If it were trimmed a little to be a one hour "Twilight Zone" it would be considered one of the best episodes.

A minor disagreement, though: I think it's a pretty solid preimse (yunno, as far as sci-fi). And where they went with it, wow; that ending knocked me on my ass the first time I saw it.

Some time in the late '90s Tim Burton was on Stern and claimed he was remaking this. I was excited at the time, but based on his recent work I'm glad he didn't.