‘X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes’ revisited

 The second collaboration between low-budget movie maestro Roger Corman and Ray Milland.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes was the second collaboration between low-budget movie maestro Roger Corman and Welsh actor Ray Milland, following 1962’s The Premature Burial. While their first film was a highly strung gothic melodrama, here we’re offered a slice of sci-fi schlock, complete with its very own “mad scientist” – but more about that in a moment.

Milland plays Dr James Xavier (hence the “X”), the inventor of a serum which, when dripped directly into his eyes, grants him the gift of x-ray vision. It’s a simple enough premise, a riff on H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man (itself a contemporary reworking of Plato’s ‘Ring of Gyges’), but with the concept more or less reversed. Whereas Wells’s hero, Griffin, effectively removes himself from the world while remaining ever-present, Xavier is given a god-like omniscience, and the ability to peer into men’s souls, or – more precisely – their wallets.

The idea of scientists taking on the gods is an old one, perhaps the oldest, in science fiction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was subtitled ‘The Modern Prometheus’, after the Titan who took fire from the gods, while Christopher Marlowe’s retelling of the Faust legend has the full title The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus, emphasising the character’s role as a man of learning and science.

There are certainly plenty of parallels between Xavier’s zeal and that of Faust, even if his experiment doesn’t involve a diabolical pact. Both are searching for knowledge and new sensations, and in the film’s opening scene Xavier tells his colleague Dr Brant that humans see only 10% of the world around them, lamenting:

XAVIER:         I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.

BRANT:          My dear friend, only the gods see everything.

XAVIER:         My dear doctor, I am closing in on the gods.

At first, Xavier sees through simple things like cardboard and fabric and – in a party scene that no doubt featured heavily in the film’s trailer – women’s clothing. Soon enough, however, Xavier is able to see inside patients’ bodies, identifying tumours and other ailments.

All this is the rather lengthy – and not particularly action-packed – preamble to the movie’s plot, which kicks off when, during an argument, Xavier pushes Brant through a fourth floor window. Now Xavier is a fugitive, and after months on the run winds up working as an end-of-the-pier mind reader with the stage name “Mentallo”.

While the earlier scenes, set in Xavier’s hospital, feel a little sluggish and heavy with exposition, things liven up considerably with this sequence set in the world of fairground hucksters (and featuring comedian Don Rickles as Xavier/Mentallo’s sleazy manager). It’s possible that Corman, the “B-Movie King”, feels more at home in this seamy underbelly of showbiz, but from here on, now that we’ve got the matter of how Xavier acquired x-ray vision out of the way, he allows the story room to explore what that might actually be like.

Quickly, Xavier learns that rather than gifting him with insight, his x-ray vision is a curse. When trying to sleep, he can see through his own eyelids, and rather than seeing the world around him with absolute clarity, he finds his vision blurred with a brilliant but disturbing light.

With a limited budget (it cost the equivalent of around $1.9million, adjusted for inflation) and not exactly “special” visual effects, it’s often down to Milland’s mesmerising performance, Les Baxter’s theremin-infused score and the script, by Robert Dillon and Ray Russell, to paint Xavier’s visual world for us. When his colleague Diane (Diane Van der Vlis) asks him what he sees, Xavier, in a description worthy of J.G. Ballard, replies:

“The city, as if it were unborn, rising in to the sky with fingers of metal. Limbs without flesh,          girders without stone… A city unborn, flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.”

Later, in the film’s climactic scenes, with Xavier’s eyes a uniform, 8-ball shade of black, he attempts once more to describe the world as he sees it, saying:

“There are great darknesses, further than time itself, and beyond the darkness a light that  glows and changes, and in the centre of the universe the eye that sees us all.”

Pretty metaphysical stuff for what was essentially a B-Movie (in fact, a grindhouse-like double bill with Francis Ford Coppola’s debut, Dementia 13), and this is where Xavier differs from other big screen mad scientists. While the likes of Metropolis’s Rotwang or Bela Lugosi’s character in The Devil Bat are mad from the offset, Xavier is driven slowly insane by his own experiment. Unlike Dr Jekyll, he becomes a monster thanks to an overdose of enlightenment, not its sudden, savage withdrawal.

In this, and with its spiralling, Saul Bass-esque opening titles, the film serves as a precursor to Corman’s 1967 LSD-themed exploitation flick The Trip, and parallels can surely be drawn between the ideas in X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and Timothy Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project, which began in 1960. Meanwhile, seven years before Hunter S. Thompson will experience Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Xavier uses his increasingly psychedelic x-ray vision to fleece the city’s blackjack tables. But if the main focus of X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is the psychological and spiritual perils of absolute vision, it is bookended with moments of pure body horror, opening with a prolonged close-up of a gory, disembodied eyeball, and ending – somewhat abruptly – with Xavier tearing out his own eyes.

In his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, author Stephen King claims that the very first cut of X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes ended with Xavier screaming, “I can still see!”, but that this was deemed too disturbing by the filmmakers, even more so than Xavier’s act of self-mutilation. Corman, ever the showman, has since both confirmed and denied this story in separate interviews, but no such version of the film has ever surfaced.

David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).

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  1. Absolutely tremendous writing – and
    just beautiful at times.
    Ray Milland’s tortured face is still in my dreams.
    Cap doffed!

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