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X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES (1963)
[aka X aka The Man With The X-Ray Eyes]

"Heart failure. I’d call it shock."
"Because of what it saw?"
"No, because it couldn’t comprehend or adjust to what it saw."

Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Ray Milland, Diana van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles, Dick Miller
Screenplay: Robert Dillon and Ray Russell, based upon a story by Ray Russell

Synopsis: Dr Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis) is sent to investigate the research work of Dr James Xavier (Ray Milland), to report on whether it should continue to be funded. Dr Xavier has developed a serum which, used as drops, increases the range of wavelengths over which the eye can see. When the serum is given to a conditioned monkey, the animal is able to see through a series of solid colour plates and identify them in the correct order. It then dies of heart failure. Dr Xavier believes that the monkey died because it could not cope with what its expanded vision showed it, and decides to experiment upon himself, so that he can report what he sees. His colleague, Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone), an ophthalmologist, tries to talk Xavier out of it but when he cannot, agrees to help. When Xavier uses the drops on himself he first sees brilliant light, then finds that he can see through surfaces, reading papers in a closed folder and seeing a pen in Brant’s pocket. Xavier uses more of the serum, but cannot tolerate his increased vision and lapses into unconsciousness. Dr Fairfax and Dr Brant play a recording of the experiment to the board of the Foundation and plead Xavier’s case, but a decision is made to stop his funding. Xavier dismantles his lab and returns to his surgical appointment, secretly continuing to use the serum on himself. When examining a patient, Xavier is able to see that a mis-diagnosis of her condition has been made, and that her planned operation will be fatal. Xavier tries to talk her doctor, Dr Benson (John Hoyt), out of performing the surgery and when he cannot, wounds Benson’s hand and performs the correct operation himself. The girl’s life is saved, but Benson is furious and suspends Xavier. Dr Brant makes another attempt to talk Xavier into giving up his experiments, but fails. Brant tries to sedate Xavier against his will. The two men struggle, Brant is accidentally pushed through a window to his death, and Xavier must run for his life.

Comments: This is an excellent example of the kind of film that Roger Corman did better than anyone. It’s short, and was quickly and inexpensively made, and yet for all that is a thoughtful investigation of the risks and responsibilities of scientific research, and of just where the line should be drawn. The film’s presentation of Dr James Xavier sets it apart from most of its low budget kindred. Whatever one thinks of Xavier experimenting upon himself, his action is a far cry from that of the stock genre film scientist whose first thought is generally to do exactly what Dr Brant suggests that Xavier do: experiment upon "an intern or a medical student, or better yet a condemned criminal" (which latter suggestion Ray Milland acted upon in 1972’s The Thing With Two Heads – but that’s another story). Once the fatal decision has been made, Xavier travels the road of many of Corman’s antiheroes: success, a brief triumph, then a descent into a nightmare. Overall, X is a surprisingly grim little film whose central message seems to be, be careful what you pray for. Xavier’s wish to "see more" is granted, but instead of allowing him to help people, as he intended, it turns him into a freak and a recluse. Xavier’s one moment of vindication, when his vision allows him to save a girl’s life, is swiftly over. It is followed by humiliation, as he earns a living first as a sideshow attraction, then as a "healer", and then, perhaps inevitably, by madness as, like his experimental monkey, Xavier finds cannot cope with what he sees. Unfortunately, Xavier’s "visions" are the least successful aspect of the film. As was so often the case, Corman’s ideas were bigger than his budget, and while a gallant attempt was made to convey something, perhaps a Lovecraftian presence lurking out of the range of normal human perception, in the end the film is simply unable to share Xavier’s visions with the audience. Ultimately, it is not the visions themselves or what Xavier might be seeing that really preys upon the mind of the viewer, but rather the fact that Xavier simply cannot stop seeing (it is a characteristic Corman irony that Xavier should end up in Las Vegas, that city of eternal light). But while there is real mental anguish in considering this aspect of the situation, worse still is the physical dread generated by the thought of what might be going on behind Xavier’s dark glasses. Few things in the world are as vulnerable or as precious as the human eye, and X segues from science fiction to horror the moment those glasses are in place. The scenes at the tawdry sideshow and in the rundown rooms where Xavier operates as a "healer" are convincing in their ugliness, and add immeasurably to the film’s dark tone. Ray Milland is effective as Xavier. His characterisation is not particularly sympathetic, but the stiff single-mindedness that Milland projects makes it believable that Xavier would experiment upon himself. Diana van der Vlis also gives a credible performance. Although in keeping with the film’s pessimism her relationship with Xavier is so low key as to barely qualify as a romance, Diane Fairfax is nevertheless a typical Corman heroine in that she is just as qualified and competent as Xavier himself: no sexual hierarchy here. The supporting cast is good, particularly Don Rickles as Xavier’s "partner", while Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze make brief appearances as a pair of wiseguys sent packing when they try to prove that Xavier is a fake.