Monday, August 18, 2014

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Director: Roger Corman                                Writers: Robert Dillon & Ray Russell
Film Score: Les Baxter                                 Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Starring: Ray Milland, Diana Van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone and John Hoyt

I never thought Roger Corman was a very good director. But if you define success by box office profits, he never lost a dime. He knew his market, stayed within his means, and always made a profit. In his early days as a filmmaker he had a formula for success that was, and still is, unheard of in the industry. After securing financing from the studio, usually American International Pictures, he would then commission another script using his own money, and make another film using the same cast and crew that the studio paid for. At the end of shooting, then, he’d have the film he made for AIP and another one that cost him next to nothing and wound up being pure profit for him. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes used another method he had of attracting an audience, hiring older actors with fading reputations, like Boris Karloff or in this instance Ray Milland, to draw in curious viewers. Ray Milland had already worked with Corman the year before on an Edgar Allan Poe picture called The Premature Burial. In my estimation Corman’s real genius is that he never hired really bad actors. Unlike most poverty row films that when seen today suffer the most from the acting, Corman’s films always had great talent that was either on the way up or the way down. And either way, the result is that the films still hold up today.

X,” which was the original title of the film, begins with Ray Milland in the office of Harold J. Stone to get his eyes examined. Milland is a doctor conducting research on vision and Stone is afraid he’s experimenting on himself. Diana Van der Vlis plays another doctor. She’s in charge of his research and so he gives her a demonstration. A monkey who is given the eye drops he has developed can see right through things but dies in his cage shortly after. There is no physical damage to his body, but Milland hypothesizes that it’s because the monkey couldn’t comprehend what he saw and it sent him into shock. When the hospital wants a report from him, Milland gets Stone to help him experiment with the drops on himself. Initially they work and he can see through things but, greedy as a mad scientist must be, that’s not enough and he gives himself more drops. Nevertheless, the hospital cancels his project and he returns to being a doctor on staff. When he sees inside patients and catches misdiagnoses, he comes into conflict with the chief of staff, John Hoyt, but it’s not until he accidentally kills Stone that he becomes a fugitive. The experiment, however, is having a cumulative effect and as his vision increases so does the damage to his brain.

The screenplay by Robert Dillon and Ray Russell is quite good. The scientific discussions ring true, and even the scenes with Don Rickles manage to keep him from chewing the scenery. And there are of course the expected gags that result from x-ray vision, like when Milland goes to a party and suddenly sees everyone dancing naked. He also winds up working as a carnival sideshow mind reader with Rickles as his shill, that is until the comedian understands that Milland’s gift is real and sets him up as a mystical healer. But the need for money drives him to the one place his gift will pay off big, Las Vegas. The special effects, though limited, work well for the story, which is another of Corman’s gifts. He doesn’t spend money he doesn’t have too. Using little more than a prism effect for the subjective shots, he relies mostly on Milland’s description of things to convey what he can see. And like many of Corman’s films, the endings are abrupt and give the audience no time for reflection. But ending on the climax itself is effective, especially given the implication before the closing credits, something that writers like Stephen King claim had been written into the script but which is really only implied by the visuals--and is probably more chilling that way. X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is a Corman classic, not great cinema but certainly a prime example of a unique directorial vision.

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