Despite its limited budget, "X" The Man with X-ray Eyes is more of an A film than a B film. X is also one of Roger Corman's best films. American International Pictures gave Corman more rein than usual on this project. Though with only a $300,000 budget and 15 days to shoot, it was still B level project. The results, however, were far above the usual B. A well-meaning doctor thinks mankind would benefit from being able to see much more than the visible spectrum of light. He finds the power helpful, but nearly impossible to control. Plus, he often as not, does not like what he sees.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Xavier tells his friend, Dr. Brandt, about his research to help man's eyes to see far more than the visible spectrum. The blonde and lovely Dr. Fairfax tells Xavier that the hospital is going to cut off his research funding. This pushes Xavier to use the drug on himself to provide instant proof. The board cuts his funding anyway. Xavier "sees" that a patient's heart trouble is misdiagnosed by chief surgeon, Dr. Benson. Xavier cuts Benson's hand to stop the surgery. Even though his vision was correct, and the girl will live, Xavier is made a professional outcast. At a party, Xavier can see through the people's clothes, providing some juvenile amusement. Diane Fairfax likes Xavier. Later, while arguing about what to do, Xavier accidentally causes the death of Brandt. Now a fugitive and an outcast, Xavier flees. We find him performing as Mr. Metalo, a midway in a carnival. With his x-ray vision, he is able to "see" hidden info in the crowd. This creeps out the other carny folks. When a woman is thrown from a ride, Xavier can see her broken bones. His hawker, Crane, schemes to make money off Xavier's healing "gift." Crane sets up shop in a seedy basement flat and brings in people to be diagnosed. Diane finds him. Crane, knowing who Xavier is, threatens to turn him in, so Xavier and Diane flee. They go to Las Vegas to raise money for research and a cure. Xavier uses his x-ray vision to cheat and wins over 20,000 dollars. The casino accuses him of cheating. Xavier steals a car and drives into the desert. Pursued by a highway patrol helicopter and unable to see well enough to drive, Xavier crashes. He staggers into a tent revival meeting. He tells the preacher that he's seen the vast darkness and at the center of the universe is a great eye that sees all. The preacher says he's seen the devil and should pluck out his offending eyes. Xavier plucks out his eyes. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
The story has great depth. The acting is good. Corman does a good job keeping the story moving. There is much to muse over, long after the film is done.
Cold War Angle
X is more of a spin on the traditional Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll themes. There is little in the way of Cold War theming.
Alternate Ending? -- Steven King wrote of X having an alternate ending in which Xavier says, after plucking out his eyes, "I can still see!" The released version has nothing after the quick flash of Xavier's empty eye sockets. Corman was not as sure that such an ending was ever shot, but thought he might have, on a whim. It was not in the script. No such footage has surfaced.
Eye on Drugs -- Corman started out wanting to use a jazz musician as the protagonist. The story would then be more of an analogy for the growing drug culture. LSD, etc, were imagined to bring transcendental insights, etc. The musician character presented too many problems, so Corman switched to a medical doctor. This opened up the story, adding much-needed credibility and philosophical depth. Yet, some of the original drug-culture theme remains, as Xavier becomes addicted to his x-ray powers, taking more and more of his drug until it ultimately destroys him.
Frankenstein Resumed -- The trope of the well-meaning, but misguided scientist is as old as Frankenstein and used many times. The customary moral of those stories is science is dangerous. Corman thought the Cold War had made the evil-scientist dominant. Yet, the various doctors are usually painted in a somewhat sympathetic light. They meant well, for mankind, but things go wrong, usually destroying the doctor (and others). Dr. Xavier follows the traditional pattern. Like Dr. Jekyll, he himself, becomes the monster.
Juvenile Dreams -- Recognizing that the drive-in crowd might not necessarily identify with Xavier's lofty ambition to use X-ray vision for the good of mankind, Corman inserts two scenes for the less altruistic. He has Xavier attend a party with lots of beautiful young adults. Of course, he can see through their clothes. Corman shows no more than naked knees and bare shoulders, but the implication is clear. Naked Women! The second is that strain of avarice to cheat at gambling. Corman has Xavier use his gift (intended to benefit mankind) in order to beat a casino at blackjack. Neither satisfy.
Glimpsing the Dark Side -- In a twist rather deep for a drive-in movie, Corman's story shifts from the philosophical (should a man use special power for good or for self-gain?), to the metaphysical. Xavier sees the vast darkness of the universe. We know this is not merely outer space, but being surrounded by the darkness of men's souls, because he's telling a preacher at a religious meeting. The script gave us plenty of examples of dark souls -- Crane, the schemer, only thinking of profit and naked women, the other carny who would use such power to hurt those who disagree with him, the chief surgeon who was more concerned about his status than his patient's life, the hospital board who was more worried about money than miracles, the smug young man who deserted his girlfriend, the Vegas crowds grubbing for tossed money, etc. etc. Corman makes a bit of social commentary.
Seeing The Light -- Corman and Russell didn't stop with a depressing commentary on mankind's darkness. They had Xavier see past the surrounding darkness to a great light at the center of the universe. "And in the center of the universe, the Eye. It sees us all." Seeing this great light is terrible, making Xavier scream whenever he saw it. Pop spirituality liked the idea of an all-happy grandpa god -- a warm, fuzzy, comforting "light." Corman's light is surprisingly biblical. When Isaiah, Ezekiel and John each "saw" God, they thought they were doomed.
Star Gazing -- Ray Milland stars, and is excellent, but comedian Don Rickles does a great job as the scheming Crane. John Hoyt, who plays Dr. Benson, was the misguided Mr. Franz in Attack of the Puppet People ('58). Harold J. Stone, who played Dr. Brandt, had a long career in television. He also played General Swayne in The Invisible Boy ('57). Look for Morris Ankrum in the uncredited role as the hospital board chairman.
Bottom line? X is a great movie on many levels, and one of Corman's best (if not the best). It has something for viewers who aren't sci-fi fans. It has some depth and pathos for the Frankenstein theme, for those who are sci-fi fans.