'X' (The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, 1963) dir. Roger Corman writ. Robert Dillon and Ray Russell (from the story by Ray Russell) cine. Floyd Crosby (effects filmed in Spectorama) music Les Baxter star. Ray Milland (Dr. James Xavier), Diana van der Vlis (Dr. Diane Fairfax), Don Rickles (Crane) et. al.
There's always a raw integrity in a Roger Corman film where parody and melodrama slip into moments of realism, an aesthetic contradiction of crude production values, outlaw characters and surrealist solutions. The Man With The X-Ray Eyes is just such a film, at times as bad and ludicrous as anything in the thrill genre, at others as brilliant and expressionist as an Antonioni of the same period. It's pop art, the Pathecolor tonality and Spectorama effects anticipating the psychedelic genre, just like the renegade doctor and his quest for a higher level of consciousness.
"Only the Gods see everything...."
Ray Milland is perfect as Dr. James Xavier, the Los Angeles surgeon and eye-specialist who ends up in a carnival as a mind-reader. In the tradition of a long line of medical scientists (from Bacon to the Hunter brothers) who use themselves as the first human test subject, Milland's rhetorical acting persona has the necessary arrogance to be the single-minded altruist whose obsession drives him into exile and crime. His role as Xavier is really a reprise of his performance as the glossy alcoholic in The Lost Weekend, but with the usual seediness associated with Hollywood's leading men when they fall from grace.
Diane Fairfax: Dr. Xavier, I've read your report...
Xavier: Yes, but do you understand it? Have you any idea what I'm trying to accomplish here? I'm developing a way to sensitize the human eye so that it sees radiation up to and including the gamma rays....
So Xavier's quest is to break out of the narrow spectral band that forms the current visual reality and expand his consciousness to the atomic limits of light. The first half of the movie shows his conflict with the hospital and contains the tacky drama and crude humor that relegates Corman's work to the youth market and the late-night substance abuse crowd, best represented in 'X' by the party scene (Xavier, wired on his eye-compound, sees the interns dancing naked). When he accidentally kills a colleague by knocking him through an upper-story window during a dispute, the real film begins.
"If the man was real, he wouldn't be here"
Cut To: the Carnival on the pier, where Xavier has gone underground and is performing as a clairvoyant under the handle 'Mentalo', his act managed by a predacious hustler called Crane (Rickles). The incarnation is pure born-again American culture, where show business and the religious fringe merge.
Seated on a stage dressed in a yellow satin dressing gown decorated with symbols of the zodiac, his burned eyes concealed behind a blind with a decal of a single all-seeing eye, Xavier/Mentalo runs the gamut of wise guys and the mystically handicapped. Used to con-men and tricksters, even Crane is impressed by Mentalo's unflinching clairvoyance and accurate appraisals. Obsessed with discovering Xavier's secret, he spies on X as he records his Experiment on the Self on a small portable tape recorder. When a woman falls from a carnival ride and X performs an immediate diagnosis, the cunning Crane confronts his act:
Crane: Mr. Mentalo... you ain't no mind-reader. I know what you are....
X: What am I?
Crane: A Healer.
Now Xavier reincarnates as a minor Christ-figure, operating a "clinic" from a basement in the old part of the city, performing diagnoses on the sick and the aged, his X-vision bringing in money and renown. With his thick black shades and professional grooming, he looks like a hipster musician from a piano lounge... or a media evangelist whose mystique is both sexual and dangerous. Diane Fairfax hears of this 'healer', seeks him out. Already in conflict with his greedy manager and distracted from his experiment, Xavier walks out on Crane and drives off with the svelte Diane. Here we're treated to a Spectorama montage of the city-scape as seen through the altered consciousness of X.
Diane: What do you see?
X: The city... as if it were unborn, rising into the sky with fingers of metal... limbs without flesh, girders without stone... signs hanging without supports, wires dipping and swaying without poles... the city unborn, flesh dissolved in an acid of light... a City of the Dead.
The montage is an off-focus selection of grids, lights, neon spreads and cellular blots similar to the oil and transparency imagery of a hippy light show. Psychologically, the sequence is similar to an acid trip, perhaps inspired by the mescaline writings of Huxley (The Doors of Perception) and/or Sartre (La Nausee).
"In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King" (H.G. Wells)
Cut To: an aerial shot of a highway in the desert. Like all drug fables, X requires requires increasing amounts of the X compound to sustain his altered state... and where better to get his hands on the money he needs than Las Vegas? Here the universal fantasy of easy money by beating the odds overwhelms his altruism. Mistaking his obsessive behaviour and fantastic luck as pure criminal deviousness, the casino authorities challenge Xavier when he breaks the Black Jack table. Cornered, he throws large handfuls of his winnings at the crowd and escapes during the ensuing stampede, highjacks a Lincoln at the door, embarks on a crazy drive into the Mojave pursued by a helicopter, his eyes sheathed in white, the demon blinds that have now become a cliche in occult thrill movies.
He rolls the car but survives to stagger into a revivalist service in a tent on the outskirts of a small railway town. This is a fated rendezvous between the action and the sub-text. The scene, with its curious blend of comic strip aesthetics and New Age mysticism, reveals the familiar split between American fundamentalism and science. Here the urgent edge of Milland's performance as the doomed idealist reaches its brilliant zenith:
Preacher: Are you a sinner? Do you wish to be saved?
X: Saved? No. I've come to tell you what I see.... There are great darknesses, farther than Time itself... and beyond the darkness, a light that glows, changes... and in the centre of the universe... an eye that sees us all....
Here his eyes seem to blow a fuse and he staggers, raises his hands protectively.
Preacher: No! You see the sin of the Devil, and the Lord has told us what to do about it... said Mathew in Chapter 5, 'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out!'
The congregation chants "pluck it out" as the camera pulls back on the scene, X's eyes now black holes as if his consciousness has expanded too far and collapsed, leaving him an isolated shell within a world of superstition and conformity. The police are at the door with Diane, but we're not concerned with crime and retribution, rather sin and contrition.
Anticipating the New Age techno-mysticism of science and eastern philosophy, drugs and inner-space, The Man With The X-Ray Eyes is pure American sub-culture, primitivist, historically significant, subversive in the classic Corman manner.
© LR 3/98
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