Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
I do love good science fiction and I always have. I think we’re often guided by the things that are most formative to us. Both of my brothers loved science fiction and many of my earliest film loves were in this genre. There are, of course, plenty of truly great science fiction films with large budgets—the sort of summer tent pole films that are plenty popular. I love the ones from the ‘50s and ’60s, too. Of these, one of my favorites is X, more formally known as X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
The worst of science fiction takes a stupid premise and does what it can. The best of science fiction takes an interesting premise and offers a view of what might happen. With X, we’re more in the second category by way of the first. What would happen, the film asks, if a man could discover a way to see more than just the visible light spectrum? What horrors might await us with the ability to see below the surface?
In this case, the man is Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland!), a doctor and researcher. Xavier wants to determine if there is a way to open up the spectrum to us and his experiments with monkeys treated with a series of eye drops has tremendous potential. In fact, Xavier can demonstrate that one of his subjects does have the ability to see through solid objects. The joy is short-lived, though, when the subject dies, most likely from the shock of not being able to comprehend what it is seeing. Xavier’s funding, represented by Dr. Diane Fairfax (Diana Van der Vlis) is threatened. Seeing no other option, Xavier decides to test the serum on himself over the objections of his friend, Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone).
Of course, the serum works. Dr. Fairfax is duly impressed, but the rest of the board of the foundation she represents is somehow unmoved by Xavier’s ability to see through solid objects. Xavier has his funding pulled and tries to go back to being a regular doctor. However, he continues using the serum on his eyes and his ability to see via x-rays comes and goes, admittedly as the plot needs it. We get an entertaining scene at a party where suddenly Xavier has the ability to see through everyone’s clothing, for instance. More seriously, Xavier is called into assist a surgery that his x-ray vision has determined is misguided. During the surgery, he slashes the surgeon’s hand with a scalpel and conducts the surgery himself, performing the procedure that is actually needed. While the young girl on the table is saved, Xavier is threatened with malpractice and decides to run. Adding to the problem is his friend Sam. Wanting to protect his friend, Sam tries to get him to stop using the serum. In a panic, Xavier lashes out and Sam goes crashing out a window to his death.
What follows is almost a series of vignettes as Xavier tries to survive in a world that is hunting him. He simultaneously keeps up his treatments, requiring thicker and thicker black sunglasses, eventually settling on a pair that looks like Ray-Bans over welder’s goggles. During this time, he works as a carnival attraction under the tutelage of a man named Crane (Don Rickles!). This becomes a stint as a “healer” who can tell people their medical problems, followed by a trip to Las Vegas to scam casinos by literally reading the cards while playing blackjack. Since X is a cautionary tale, though, it’s all going to go to smash at the end. X ends with one of the great shock moments of its decade.
The reality of X is that it is kind of a gimmicky science fiction film. However, it transcends this in a number of ways. A good cast helps, and having Ray Milland at the center of the film is a massive head start. This is like getting Gregory Peck to star in The Omen in a lot of ways. Milland has gravitas and suddenly a cheap thriller takes on additional weight.
It also helps that the film doesn’t always go for the cheap thrill. Sure, it does at times like in the party where suddenly everyone is tastefully nude (nothing gets shown here but it’s more than a little implied). Really, though, X tries very hard to explore the existential questions at hand. There are certainly shock moments, but the film is much more concerned with how this all plays out in the mind of Dr. James Xavier. We’re given not a series of actions because the plot wants them to happen, but events that follow logically one from the other.
This is a surprisingly deep movie, one that doesn’t go for outright scares or gross outs (except at the end), but looks instead to fill the audience with a kind of deep horror at what Dr. Xavier is experiencing. There is a kind of hell in what the man puts himself through in his search for knowledge and to push the boundaries of science. That’s interesting, and it’s worth seeing.
I’m not objective about this film because I like it probably more than it deserves. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that I like it exactly as much as it deserves, which is quite a bit.
Why to watch X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes: This is really what a B-movie should be.
Why not to watch: Aside from it being a B-movie and thus silly, no reason at all.