August 16, 2013

X Marks the Spot: A Thinking Person's B Sci-Fi Treasure

Poster - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)
Now Playing: X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)

Pros: Unique and disturbing premise; Wonderfully thoughtful and philosophical for a B sci-fi movie
Cons: Several plot elements are forced and implausible, seemingly designed simply to get the action going

For as long as there have been tales of heroes with extraordinary powers, storytellers have had their protagonists grapple not just with monsters and other external evils, but with the consequences of their own powers, and the hidden evil within themselves. For example Hercules, the son of a god and super-powerful hero, could also be undone by his overweening ego and terrible temper (a temper so bad, it cost his wife and children their lives). Overconfident heroes with no flaws are boring -- kids' stuff. Early on, I gravitated to heroes with tragic flaws and antiheroes -- I've always preferred the dark, moody Batman to invincible Superman, and neurotic Spider-Man to brash Captain America.

It seems to me, obvious and cliched as it may sound, that what we do with power (and in the mythological universe, superpower), is the ultimate test of our character. We can do unto others in extra-special ways, or we can use our power to make others conform to our wishes (or even punish them for bringing inconvenient truths to light -- Washington, D.C.-types, take note!). Kids don't care about any of that stuff. Superpowers are self-evidently good-- who wouldn't want them? Along with that youthful sense of immortality, they're absolutely sure that they could easily handle any superpower, and use it to do good and enrich themselves at the same time.

Comic book ad for X-Ray vision glasses
X-ray vision for only a buck! Man, those were good times!
Comic book advertisers of the '50s and '60s brilliantly took advantage of that youthful exuberance. We'd read about the exploits of our favorite superheroes and then, thumbing to the end of the book, we saw that for just a buck here or a couple of bucks there, we could have a little slice of those wild, wonderful universes shipped direct to our homes: Sea monkeys, real monkeys (I wonder how many moms actually let their kids order squirrel monkeys out of the back of a comic book?), wrist-radios, hypno-coins,  diet regimes to bulk us up into muscle men, and of course, the ever popular X-ray glasses! ("See through fingers, see through skin, see yolk of egg, see lead in pencil!…") Wow, if the mailman -- and the admen -- could actually deliver on that stuff, the world wasn't such a boring, tedious place after all!

(Side note: I never ordered the X-ray glasses or saw how they worked, suspecting, even at that young age, that the claims were perhaps, maybe, somehow overstated. But the concept did inspire my friend Jerry and me way back in junior high. We took the red taillight cover from an old junked car, got some foam rubber and duct tape, and made a pair of goggles out it. The patterns stamped into the plastic refracted light in all sorts of crazy ways. We borrowed black lights and posters from our older brothers, decorated his garage, and then charged the neighbor kids 25 cents a pop to take a hippy, dippy "LSD trip" -- with the goggles, sans the drug itself. What can I say, it was a different time -- today kids stupid enough to pull something like that would probably be hauled away to juvie court, if the cops didn't shoot 'em first. True entrepreneurship is dead, I tell ya!  … Okay, okay, so it was all Jerry's idea. But I did help put up posters and take money. I think. It was a long time ago…)

Now where was I? Oh yeah, pre-teens (and national politicians) have absolutely no problem with fantastic, unlimited superpowers. But we adults, we know better. We know that there's a price to pay for everything. Just like those Powerball winners who have to go into hiding after their normal lives fall apart, acquirers of superpowers walk a tightrope, and one false step can send them falling into the abyss. I talked a little bit about the fine line between a superhero and monster in my earlier post on the obscure B sci-fi thriller Hand of Death (1962). In that film, scientist-protagonist Alex Marsh (John Agar) accidentally exposes himself to experimental chemicals, acquires a very unique superpower, and then proceeds to make every boneheaded decision in the book, thereby turning himself into a monster.

In X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, our Xtra-special hero purposely exposes himself to experimental chemicals in the hopes of doing humanity a service -- then makes every bone-headed decision there is to make, turning himself into … not quite a monster, but certainly one of the more creepy antiheroes in B sci-fi movies. The film opens with Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland) getting his eyes checked out by a physician colleague, Dr. Sam Brant (Harold J. Stone). Since he'd had an eye checkup only months before, his friend, familiar with his research, guesses that he's getting ready to use himself as a guinea pig in his experiments with x-ray vision. Xavier protests that human beings are "virtually blind," and that he wants to tap into the 90% of the wave spectrum that humanity currently can't see.
"My dear friend, only the gods see everything," Sam lectures his friend.
"My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods!" an exuberant Xavier replies.
Ray Milland and Diana Van der Vlis in lab scene
This poor monkey is about to see
something that will stop his heart!
Back at the lab, Xavier gives a tour to another doctor, Diane Fairfax (Diana van dev Vlis), who's been sent by the sponsoring foundation to make sure they're getting their money's worth. He waxes ecstatic over the medical applications -- how a doctor with chemically-aided super-sight could diagnose patients with an accuracy and clarity that even X-rays couldn't match. He gives the skeptical doctor a demonstration with a monkey, who's been trained to turn on switches corresponding to various colored lights when he sees the colored panels that Xavier inserts in a slot in his cage. After being treated with the special eye drops, the monkey flips the lights in the correct sequence -- except, the colored panels are blocked by an opaque white one. Clearly (pun intended), the monkey is seeing through the white panel to the colored ones behind it! However, triumph turns to concern when the poor animal, his part in the experiment done, lays down in his cage and dies. A post-mortem examination reveals that the creature's heart simply gave out, as if he'd been frightened to death. "What did he see?" Fairfax wonders.

The obsessed Xavier isn't going to let a little set-back like the monkey's heart failure get in the way of progress, and begins treating his own eyes with the drops. The effects are almost immediate, but Xavier senses that his enhanced eyeballs have only scratched the surface of what's possible (ouch!). In spite of Xavier's success using himself as a guinea pig (or perhaps because of it), the cautious foundation board cuts off funding for the project. Disappointed but undaunted, Xavier returns to his hospital duties, where he quickly puts his new eyesight to good, but ultimately tragic, use. He makes the rounds with the hospital's senior surgeon, Dr. Benson (John Hoyt). They're to operate on a young girl in the morning, and Benson goes over the diagnosis and surgery plan with Xavier. Except, Xavier, with his new eyes, can see that the diagnosis is all wrong. Benson is surprised and irritated when Xavier insists that the diagnosis is off, yet refuses to provide a clear explanation.

In the operating room, Xavier pleads with the surgeon to let him do the procedure. Benson curtly cuts him off, then, as he begins, a desperate Xavier grabs a scalpel and nicks Benson's hand, declaring that he is taking over the operation. Before the stunned Benson and the other assisting physicians and nurses can react, Xavier is calmly saving the girls life with his skilled hands and x-ray vision. "She appears a perfect, breathing dissection!" he exclaims. After the successful operation, Benson, humiliated and perplexed, promises to bring Xavier up on charges. (Apparently in this hospital, no good deed goes unpunished.)

With the hospital buzzing about the Xavier's bizarre hijacking of the operation, Sam and Diane are concerned for his mental health. When Sam tries to give the agitated man a sedative, Xavier panics and pushes Sam away so hard that he careens through the office window and falls to his death. Xavier, convinced that the authorities will lock him up in an asylum, takes off as sirens wail in the distance.

Don Rickles as Crane, seen through Xavier's X-ray eyes
Some guys are just transparent, like the cheesy
carnival barker Crane (Don Rickles)
Cut to a cheap, rundown carnival, where the once proud doctor is using his powers to amaze the rubes as "the Great Mentalo." With the aid of sleazy carny barker Crane (Don Rickles in a role that seems to be tailor-made for him), Mentalo, wearing a blindfold with an eerie single eye painted on the front, tells the wide-eyed audience members things about themselves that he shouldn't be able to know. Mentalo/Xavier dispenses with one young heckler (Dick Miller) by reciting so many details about the man, that the punk gets spooked and practically runs for the exit. The street-wise Crane has seen acts like Mentalo's before, but this guy doesn't seem to employ the usual tricks. But if his powers are real, Crane wonders, what's he doing in a run-down carnival sideshow? When Xavier asks what he would like to see with x-ray vision, Crane smirks, "All the undressed women my poor eyes could stand!"

Crane, who may be smarmy, but is no dummy, soon realizes that Mentalo is the real deal. We can almost see the wheels turning inside his bald head as he concocts a plan for Mentalo to use his special sight to diagnose people's pains and diseases while humbly taking "donations" from the grateful masses. Crane of course will act as front man and promoter, taking his cut. Soon, word gets out about Xavier's special powers, and his makeshift waiting room is practically overflowing with desperate, ill people. Crane, still a carnival barker at heart, tells everyone who will listen about his friend the great healer. Xavier, his eyes now encased in thick, dark wraparound glasses, responds icily, "I can't heal. I only look… and tell what I see."

Diane, who has been out of the picture since Xavier went on the lam, tracks him down to his new "clinic." In spite of the freak show he's become, it's obvious she has feelings for him. Crane overhears Diane pleading with Xavier to come away with her, and he threatens to turn him into the police if he cuts out. Diane and Xavier speed away in her car as Crane runs after them, yelling that he's a fraud and a murderer. Still thinking that he can redeem himself, Xavier decides to take a road trip to Las Vegas -- he's going to fleece the casinos to fund more research. Lovesick Diane decides to tag along.

James Xavier's psychedlic, x-ray view of the lights of Las Vegas
Even with super X-ray vision, the lights of
Las Vegas don't look that much different!
When Xavier wins a fortune at blackjack, the suspicious casino pit boss shuts down the table. The manic Xavier goes to another table, and when the bouncers descend on him, his glasses fly off. As Xavier whirls around, almost blinded -- yet seeing everything -- the pit boss, who doesn't seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box, hisses to his henchmen, "Something's not right here, call the cops!" In this case, what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas-- the now exhausted, demented Xavier flees into the desert with a police helicopter in hot pursuit.

The bizarre, surreal ending in a tent revival meeting is justifiably notorious. There were actually two endings filmed. In the early 2000s director Roger Corman confirmed that an alternate ending had been done, but that he'd been dissatisfied with it and kept the original. If you're curious, read all about it in the film's Wikipedia entry.

What interests me about X is its fidelity to Greek tragedy. All the elements are there: hubris, a special power that becomes a curse, and a horrific sacrifice. With the possible exception of The Masque of the Red Death (1964), this is Roger Corman's most adult, intelligent sci-fi/horror film. There's no bug-eyed monster, but there is a bug-eyed tragic hero. Like Cassandra, the gods reward Xavier with special sight, but instead of aiding humanity, he reaps fear, distrust and disbelief everywhere he goes (except of course for the loyal, lovesick Diane).

He also becomes a sort of tabula rasa upon which mortals project their deepest fears and desires. The sleazy Crane would use X's power to look at naked women and bilk gullible people out of their hard-earned cash. In a very effective scene, some of the carnival workers, acting as a sort of Greek chorus, are gossiping about Xavier/Mentalo on their break, wondering out loud if his powers are real or faked. Some kind souls are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Soon, the conversation turns to what each would do with Mentalo's power. They imagine themselves helping out their fellow human beings, but one of the carnies reveals his true face, bragging that he'd use his power to force others to be good, and punish them if they didn't. When Xavier overhears the conversation and gently takes issue with the man, he loudly denounces Mentalo as a fraud. Xavier wearily walks away.

Fantasy writer Ray Russell penned the original story, and is one of two credited screenwriters (Robert Dillon being the other). I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that many if not all of X's more poignant moments like the scene above are due to Russell (my apologies to Robert if this is not the case). Ray is most famous for his novella Sardonicus, which was originally published in Playboy in 1961, and which was filmed as Mr. Sardonicus by William Castle the same year. I remember in junior high school being bowled over the story, which I found in a paperback horror anthology collection. Despite being published in the early '60s (and in Playboy no less!), it was an unabashed, dark homage to Gothic horror stories of the 19th century. It was (is) beautifully crafted, with nicely developed characters and rich, almost flowery language. The description of how Sardonicus the monster came to be is especially poignant and horrifying.

Ray Milland as James Xavier, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Xavier's special power soon becomes a terrible curse
when he begins to see cities of the dead and the eye
in the center of the universe "that sees us all."
Russell's poetic flair and old-school sensibilities come out strongly in the latter part of the film. As Xavier and Diane drive away from the makeshift clinic and the clutches of the greedy, cynical Crane, Xavier grimaces as he looks out the car window at the city skyscrapers. "What do you see?" Diane asks.
Xavier: "The city, as if it were unborn. Rising into the sky with fingers of metal… limbs without flesh… girders without stone… signs hanging without support… wires dipping and swaying without poles…  A city unborn! Flesh dissolved in an acid of light! The city of the dead!"
It would only take a few short years for Russell's/Xavier's vision to be realized in places like Watts and Detroit, where riots and the business establishment's "benign neglect" created actual cities of the dead. True visionaries rarely succeed, especially in decaying, corrupt societies like ours. Sometimes it takes someone steeped in the past, like Russell, to point out the pitfalls and tragic nature of the "progress" that the rest of us mindlessly embrace.

X is one of those rarities that manages to say a lot about the human condition while at the same time thrilling and entertaining in classic B movie style. At times it almost rises to the level of poetry. Ray Milland manages lines like the "city of the dead" monologue without making them seem forced or overwrought. And Don Rickles is an amazing, slimy wonder as Crane. The dialog, the acting and overall artfulness more than make up for the occasional clumsy moment, like Sam's implausible header out the window.

If you want out-and-out monsters and pure escapism, then X definitely does not mark the spot. But if you want to see one of the more unusual and intelligent low-budget sci-fi thrillers of the '60s (or any other decade for that matter), then put on your X-ray specs and look around for it -- thankfully it's not hard to find.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available on DVD

"A doctor with the power to see what others cannot believe!"


  1. Hi, Brian!
    Great post and it brought back memories of my own childhood.

    My brother had the X-Ray glasses and I fell for the sea monkey scam and got those. It did keep me occupied and out of my parents hair for a few days while I watched the fish bowl constantly. Ha Ha So I guess it was worth the money for my parents.

    Thanks for sharing the story about you and your friend Jerry. It gave me a good laugh.

    While I'm not much of a sci-fi fan I do get a kick out of these cheesy B-thrillers. Especially to snark on them with photo reviews.

    Fun stuff and great photo captions!

    1. Hi Page!
      The "LSD" glasses were a stroke of pure genius on Jerry's part. I forget exactly how much we made, but I remember feeling rich after we closed down. Probably spent my cut on an Aurora monster kit -- I had 'em all! :)

  2. Brian, an excellent review of an interesting sci fi film that shows a different side to having super-normal powers. Milland gives an effective performance (as he did in the same decade's PANIC IN YEAR ZERO) and the ending...well, it's one not easily forgotten. By the way, I never ordered the X-ray glasses either, but did fall for the seven-foot "fiberboard" model submarine--which turned out to be made of cardboard. Lesson learned.

    1. I saw Panic in the Year Zero a long, long time ago (it feels like BC instead of AD) on television and was amazed at how good (and disturbing) it was. I remember thinking, "how come I've never heard of this before?" (The subject matter was too adult for the monster magazines I was reading.) I see it's available on Amazon Instant, so I'm going to give it another look in the near future.

      Funny that you went for the fiberboard submarine. The only thing I remember ordering from the back of a comic was a set of those cheap, tiny plastic baking-soda powered submarines. Another big disappointment! :)

  3. The only thing worse to a kid in the sixties than the sea monkeys, cardboard submarines, and X-Ray glasses was the $1.98 "Color TV Converter" that you'd tape to your black and white TV screen, with the promise of having your own "color TV" just like that! Well yes, the picture was now color, with a band of green across the bottom, a band of red across the middle, and a band of blue across the top. Big whoop!

    I think some of us kids believed it'd somehow magically turn our old B&W TV sets to full color...when it was nothing more than a glorified "Winky Dink" screen...LOL!