X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES **** USA 1963 Dir: Roger Corman. 79 mins
Far from the gimmicky shocker suggested by the title, this stand-out Corman picture has a terrific performance by Ray Milland as a modern spin on the doomed Poe protagonists that dominated the filmmaker’s work at the time (including THE PREMATURE BURIAL with Milland). Frustrated at the limitations of humanism and X-Rays, Milland’s ambitious scientist struggles for funding to take human vision to a revolutionary new level. Testing his work on himself, he starts to lose grip on sanity after an initial, thrilling period of discovery. It’s fun to watch X in the knowledge that, had Corman made this film just a few years later, it would have amped up the nudity and gore. There’s a fabulous sequence at a jiving 60’s cocktail bar where a blonde hits on Milland (“I like a man who looks urgent!”) and he awkwardly indulges in a sluggish kind of Dad dance before realising he can see everyone naked. The scene is played for cheeky humour (“That’s a most interesting birth mark you have!”) but, because it’s 1963, we just get to see bare backs and legs, depriving us the wonders of the Naked Receptionist while wittily recalling all of our unfulfilled schoolboy hopes for the powers of joke shop X-Ray specs.
The story moves at a typical Corman clip as Milland moves on from spotting undiagnosed tumours to inadvertent murder and becoming a fairground attraction for opportunistic Don Rickles (terrific in a riff on his insult-heavy Vegas act). The great Dick Miller steals the show as a wise guy heckler stooping to mother in law jokes as he makes the mistake of belittling Milland’s “gift”. The tone gets darker before we can comprehend the implications of the hero’s plight. Milland is empathetic portraying a well-intentioned man’s decline as his breakthrough invites blackmail and starts to cause extreme discomfort: how do you sleep when you can see through your own eyelids? The narrative traverses a helicopter / car chase, a studio-based trip to Vegas and an unforgettable climax unravelling the story as a grim religious allegory in which Milland gets to see what no one should – the darkness at the heart of the universe. The punchline, one of the most downbeat of all 1960’s genre films, is still shocking after all these years: “Pluck it out!”
Review by Steven West