X!/X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) ***
A surprisingly good mad scientist movie directed by Roger Corman for A.I.P., X! suffers from very few of the plotting and pacing woes that so often plagued B-movies of its vintage. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but neither could it be fairly described as boring by anyone with a respectable attention span. It was also a fairly big-ticket movie by Corman and A.I.P. standards-- it was budgeted at somewhere between two and three hundred thousand dollars, most of which ended up going into star Ray Milland’s pocket.
The film begins innocently, with Dr. James Xavier (Milland, from The Premature Burial and Panic in the Year Zero!) getting his eyes examined by his friend, Dr. Samuel Brandt (Harold Stone, of Spartacus fame, who also, let us not forget, made movies like The Werewolf of Woodstock). There is nothing at all wrong with Xavier’s eyes, nor is there any reason to expect there to be-- he had Brandt give him exactly the same exam just three months earlier. So why the concern about his eyes? Well, it seems that Xavier is conducting some research into the possibility of developing a chemical treatment to drastically increase the frequency response of the human eye. For some reason, the doctor is greatly bothered by the fact that our eyes react to “only ten percent” of the electromagnetic spectrum, and he intends to do something about it. (Actually, the frequency response of our eyes is much worse than Xavier maintains. The breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum is essentially infinite, but the human eye can only see EM radiation with a wavelength between 0.004 and 0.007 microns. It’s thus not really possible to say what percentage of the spectrum we see, but bear in mind that radio waves more than a kilometer long have been observed, while the gamma ray band begins with wavelengths shorter than 0.0000001 microns, and you’ll get some idea of how narrow the range of human vision really is.) So far, Xavier’s experimental subjects have all been monkeys, but he thinks the time has come to test his formula on a human subject. Which leads us to his obsessive fixation on the state of his eyes. Because his studies involve such a major reworking of basic human characteristics, Xavier thinks it would be unethical to experiment on any human but himself, and before he gets started, he wants to be absolutely certain that his eyes are in perfect working order.
After receiving his clean bill of ocular health from Dr. Brandt, Xavier heads over to his laboratory at the hospital where he also works as a surgeon. At the lab, he runs into another doctor, a Diane Fairfax (Dianna Van der Vlis), who represents the foundation from which Xavier gets his grant money. Fairfax herself believes in Xavier’s work, but her foundation is beginning to get antsy; the higher-ups want to know when they’ll start seeing some kind of results for all the money they’ve been spending. Xavier decides to give Fairfax a little demonstration, which, after all, would probably be less time-consuming and more effective than writing up a report. He presents Fairfax with a monkey, which has been trained to throw the switches on a small electrical gizmo in its cage in response to a set of colored cards. When the monkey sees the white card, it throws the switch that activates a white light bulb on the roof of the cage. The monkey does likewise in response to the other cards; when it sees blue or red, it turns on the corresponding bulbs. Xavier then gives the monkey some of his special eyedrops, and stacks all three cards so that the red is on the bottom and the white is on the top. When he shows the monkey the cards, white facing out, the animal predictably turns on the white light. However, after a few seconds, it then throws the switch for the blue light, and after another brief pause, the red as well. The monkey, it seems, can see all three cards through each other! (Okay, I’m going to put on my white Dr. Science lab coat again, and point out that no amount of increased sensitivity to EM waves would produce this result, because there is no frequency of EM wave that can penetrate cardboard painted white, but not cardboard painted blue or red. Either all three cards would be rendered transparent, and thus mostly invisible, or they would remain opaque, but take on new and unimaginable color because the monkey’s retinas were now picking up frequencies of reflected light that they couldn’t previously. Who cares though, right? It’s a Roger Corman movie for Christ’s sake!) There’s one minor complication, though, in that the monkey almost immediately drops dead of shock. Now you or I would probably conclude on that basis that more work is necessary before trying the eyedrops on a human, particularly on ourselves. Not Xavier, though. He just figures that a monkey lacks the cognitive horsepower to deal with so fundamental a change in its perceptions; humans, being much smarter, shouldn’t experience such difficulties. Okay, doc, whatever you say; just keep that eyedropper the hell away from me! After much argument and exhortation, Xavier manages to browbeat Brandt and, to a lesser extent, Fairfax into helping him with the experiment. One drop in each eye, and Xavier can read the text on one sheet of paper through another and see through Brandt’s lab coat. Two drops in each eye, and he passes right out, his nervous system apparently unable to cope with the strain of all the new input.
Xavier doesn’t just have a fainting spell, either. He spends at least a few days in the hospital unconscious, so that Brandt and Fairfax must present his findings to the foundation’s leadership in his place. The moneymen are not impressed. Leaving aside the possibility that the tape of the experiment is a hoax (which some of the foundation heads clearly believe it is), the consensus seems to be that it may not be such a good idea to invent a super-Visine that enables its users to see through things like clothes and paper and walls and human flesh. After thinking about it for nearly 20 seconds, the heads of the foundation vote to cut off Xavier’s funding. When Dr. X. hears about this setback in the hospital, he is understandably a bit put out. His efforts to convince the hospital itself to fund him go nowhere, so he reconciles himself to the idea of continuing his work at home until he has exhausted his supply of the eyedrops.
In the meantime, he finds that the doses he has already taken have made him a talented man. For one thing, his old friend’s lab coat isn’t the only article of clothing Xavier can see through. Not long after the failed presentation to the foundation heads, Diane cons Dr. X into accompanying her to a party, to which he clearly hadn’t wanted to come. He has his usual eyedrop-induced headache, and he seems to lack certain essential social skills even under the best of circumstances. As he uncomfortably sips his martini, Fairfax asks him to dance, which he does badly and grudgingly until he is struck by a wave of migraine-like pain. When the pain passes, he realizes that his dance partner-- and indeed, everyone else at the party-- appears to be completely naked. (This is a wonderful scene, but don’t get too excited, now; X! was made in 1963, so you don’t get to see anything beyond a bunch of backs, legs, and collarbones. But the sight of Ray Milland roaming around the party with a huge shit-eating grin on his face, ogling all the young women, is payoff enough, believe me.) It isn’t all fun and games, however, for Xavier soon acquires the ability to see into his patients’ bodies to diagnose their afflictions with unheard-of accuracy. While assisting his boss at the hospital in a delicate operation, Xavier notices that his superior has misdiagnosed the patient’s condition, so he takes over the operation in mid-stream. The other doctor is understandably peeved, even though (or perhaps especially because) Xavier turned out to be right, and he tells Xavier that he plans to begin malpractice proceedings against him. That’s bad enough, but then Xavier accidentally knocks Brandt out of a window, killing him, as Brandt tries to sedate him soon afterward. Xavier flees, leaving behind his practice, his home-- everything, in fact, but his eyedrops.
The next time we see Xavier, he’s working in a carnival sideshow under the name “Mr. Mentalo.” He’s billing himself as a mind-reader, but what he really does is read the contents of people’s pockets, wallets, and purses to find clues about their identity. He’s eerily good, and Crane (the ever-odious Don Rickles), the owner of the sideshow, soon begins to suspect that Xavier really does possess some sort of supernatural power. This development leads eventually to Xavier’s second change of career; Crane sets him up in a small flat in the city, out of which the two run what amounts to a psychic healing business. In exchange for whatever donation the “patients” see fit, Xavier will determine what is wrong with them, so that they will be able to tell their regular doctors exactly what to look for. Xavier hopes to raise enough money to resume work on his project; what he really needs is a way to control the effects of the eyedrops, which come and go erratically and without warning. Ultimately, the whole operation gets shot to hell when one of the “patients” turns out to be Diane Fairfax, to whom most of Xavier’s customers have been going to have their “psychically” diagnosed ills cured. Diane wants to get Xavier away from Crane, but the latter man has himself discovered Xavier’s true identity, along with the fact that he is wanted for the murder of Dr. Brandt, and he threatens to spill his guts to the police if Dr. X. abandons him. Xavier and Fairfax split anyway, and the doctor’s renewed life as a fugitive takes him, among other places, to the casinos of Las Vegas (amazing how much better your luck at the slot machines is when you can see their internal workings...) and a Pentecostal tent revival out in the Nevada desert, where he at last hits upon an idea that will reign in his out-of-control eyes-- which have begun showing him things that suggest H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional cosmology may well have some parallels in the real world. Jesus, you may remember, had some advice for people whose eyes were getting them into trouble; check it out-- the book of Matthew, chapter five, verse 29. It’s one of those nasty, gory biblical passages I love almost as much as the pornographic ones, and while it clearly wasn’t meant to be taken literally, it’s probably not a bad suggestion for people whose vision is so acute as to reveal to them the evil at the center of the universe.
X! is arguably the culmination of all the clunky sci-fi and monster movies Roger Corman had directed in the 1950’s. It is light years ahead of It Conquered the World or The Day the World Ended, and it demonstrates not only that Corman had some real talent as a director, but that he was able to take the things he was learning on the sets of the relatively big-budget, Poe-inspired gothics he was then making and apply them to projects of a very different sort. X! is a bit hard to track down these days, but keep your eyes open. I caught it on cable, and if The Giant Leeches is available on videotape, this has to be. If you think you can handle a sci-fi/horror movie in which only one person dies, and which contains not a single explosion, X! is definitely worth your while.