The name “Roger Corman” is more or less synonymous with B-movie trash, and that's understandable: Corman has spent the bulk of his career churning out cheap little exploitation flicks, some of which manage to stand out thanks to some enjoyably gimmicky ideas or to some standout direction from Corman himself or one of the many young talents he mentored (Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, etc.). X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is the rare Corman picture that almost feels as if it could have been made by a respectable A-list filmmaker. It's a thoughtful, well-acted, intelligently-crafted science-fiction movie that still manages to retain Corman's reckless energy and theatrical swagger. I won't claim to have seen every flick Corman has directed (much less every film he's produced), but this is certainly one of the best I've seen.
Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend) has been working on a groundbreaking new research project. He's developed eyedrops designed to substantially enhance human vision, and the tests he's been running on a lab monkey have been going well. Alas, before he's had time to fully explore the side effects of his eyedrops, he impulsively decides to go ahead and test them on himself.
The results are astonishing: Xavier isn't merely able to see better, but is able to see through things. He can read the papers inside a folder, he can see the pen inside his colleague's shirt, he can even see through walls. Later, when he goes to a party, he realizes that he can see right through the clothes of everyone in attendance (though given that the film was made in 1963, we only see him looking at shoulders and feet – this ain't The Man with the X-Rated Eyes). Xavier continues taking the drops, and his abilities only grow stronger. Unfortunately, he also begins losing the ability to effectively control what he sees, and soon begins to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information his brain is being asked to process.
The basic metaphor is a potent one: the more you see the world for what it really is, the more difficult it becomes to live with that awareness. In other words, knowledge can be a burden. Yes, it can help you achieve extraordinary things, as when Xavier manages to diagnose a medical problem that no ordinary doctor could possibly have solved. Even so, the stronger his vision becomes, the more it torments him. “I'm blind to all but a tenth of the universe,” he whispers... partially in wonder, but mostly in horror. There's no way to to “turn it off,” either: even when Xavier he sleeps at night, he sees right through his eyelids and into the vast depths of the galaxy.
This is a thoughtful movie, but there's a refreshing lack of self-seriousness about the way X delivers its themes. This isn't an earnest “message movie” ala The Day the Earth Stood Still (a genuinely moving flick loaded with undeniably heavy-handed, awkwardly-inserted speeches), but a bonkers mad scientist movie that works its ideas into the mix organically. Corman's direction is snappy and energetic, opening with the lurid image of a disembodied eyeball and frequently dipping into trippy, colorful imagery designed to convey Xavier's view of the world.
Milland also deserves a great deal of credit for playing this role completely straight. This isn't one of those cases where a struggling old pro is sheepishly collecting an easy paycheck, but a genuinely committed, nuanced performance that captures the full range of the character's curiosity, madness and agony. There's also a terrific supporting turn from Don Rickles (Casino), playing a lecherous carnival barker who attempts to use Xavier's powers to make a few quick bucks. While Xavier engages in deep soul-searching, the Rickles character appeals to our baser instincts: he insists that if he had access to that super-vision, he'd use it to ogle women and line his pockets.
Despite serving up a handful of memorably colorful sequences on a regular basis throughout the film, Corman saves his very best moment for last, as Xavier stumbles into a tent revival service. Here, the film's visual effects, philosophical ideas and bombastic tone collide in a whirlwind of religious fervor, as a memorable piece of scripture (you might be able to guess the one) gives the despairing Xavier a fit of inspiration. It's a killer finish, and you can almost picture Corman grinning from ear to ear. This is a terrific piece of '60s sci-fi, and not just by Corman standards. Recommended.
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 80 minutes
Release Year: 1963