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Italy's Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival in 1963 previewed a number of international films, including Ikarie XB 1 from Czechoslovakia, Omicron from Italy, La Jetée from France and The Amphibian Man from the Soviet Union. America's little entry, Roger Corman's "X" was possibly the least sophisticated production of the bunch but perhaps the most meaningful. It's been likened to a semi-religious parable hiding in Sci-Fi clothing. Its use of human vision as the analog for human curiosity has been imitated and elaborated in later science Fiction epics like Bertrand Tavernier's Deathwatch and Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World.
Known commonly as "X", The Man with The X-Ray Eyes, "X" is Roger Corman's best and most mature Science Fiction film. After a series of cheap and erratic exploitation titles Corman surprised the industry by becoming a quality interpreter of Edgar Allan Poe. Those films gave him some stature but this mystical Science Fiction movie proved him a director who could juggle high-powered ideas.
Shot economically (but not self-destructively cheaply, as with so many Corman films) and well acted by its small cast, "X" fully realizes every eerie chill and conceptual horror in Robert Dillon and Ray Russell's clever screenplay. The movie has a brisk pace (a factor Corman mastered early on) and the direction is clever but simple. Time jumps and scene transitions are never predictable and carry a strange sense of displacement. Feet tumbling down a staircase cut directly to a whirling Ferris Wheel point of view in a carnival. Xavier stares off-screen, and we cut not to what he's looking at but the detail of another room weeks or months later.
"X" exploits a fully realized sense of weirdness. It starts with a 60-second shot of a gory, staring eyeball backed by unsettling, wailing music. The science is interesting and Ray Milland's commitment to the role is total. (Savant is a big fan of Milland's other early AIP films The Premature Burial and Panic In Year Zero!, which he directed himself). At the film's climax Corman exploits the expressive power of the human face when the film settles into a genuinely frightening close-up of Xavier's anguished countenance. Blood runs from his temple and the obsidian orbs that his eyes have become stare blindly at us as Xavier gnashes his teeth in pain. Savant has a favorite group of films with extended shots of human faces "evolving" with emotion: The Nights of Cabiria and The Glenn Miller Story end on these magical faces. A Matter of Life and Death begins with one; Dreyer's The Trial of Joan of Arc is one long, barely interrupted image of a human face.
The film is obviously concerned with senses and "seeing" but is not the essay on voyeurism that is Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Dr. Xavier's journey is that of the surreal hero into the unknown, having no idea where his obsession will take him.
The idea of relative forms of vision is very neatly worked out in the screenplay. Xavier's doctor friend worries that the X formula might be affecting other parts of his brain and that many of his experiences are really hallucinations. Xavier knows better. The moment he extends his perceptions further than his fellow humans he becomes more than human -- superior, perhaps, but definitely alien to them. Like a prophet, he finds that trying to bring anything new or challenging to people is difficult. His wisdom is rejected and he finds himself threatened every step of the way.
"X" has been likened to a critique of LSD research, where mind-altering drugs supposedly make possible the perception of greater truths by unlocking mental doors to hidden resources within the human brain. But for his every advance in "vision," Xavier becomes more blind to the real world around him. He sees people only as "living, breathing dissections" and buildings as skeletons of steel "dissolved in the acid of light." When people no longer have faces, it's difficult to relate to them. When your vision sees to the center of the universe, how do you concentrate on petty obligations and concerns in your immediate reality?
There's also a hint here of H.G. Wells' novel Food of the Gods, which wasn't about big animals and people as much as it tried to make a statement about human evolution. Any improvement on the race would be taken as a threat by the rest of us left behind. Surely Timothy Leary felt that he was persecuted for being the prophet of a "new kind of man." But Wells' story could also be seen as an allegory for any kind of progress. New ideas like evolution made their adherents "bigger" people intellectually but they were immediately considered a threat to the status quo around them. Ayn Rand's superman-architect in The Fountainhead attains a kind of God-hood, curiously with a final image not unlike the ending of the Wells novel, a giant silhouette of confidence and courage set off against the sky.
Ayn Rand was unconcerned with any problems her Howard Roarke might have with the "ant-people" whose function was merely to appreciate the gift of her hero's talents. But Russell and Corman see it quite differently. They were acutely aware of the 1950s non-conformists pilloried and vilified by the culture as a whole. The '50s had plenty of idealist adventurers, political and otherwise who either lived in isolation from society or were brought down by it. Lenny Bruce's visionary contribution was merely to openly state things that society denied, and for that he was more or less crucified.
But Xavier's psychological isolation warps his view even more severely. He can see, but he can't "unsee." Once enlightenment is granted it can't be gotten rid of, only denied. Xavier seeks the real light while yearning for a moment of darkness; even Jesus may have envied the lesser state of enlightenment of those around him. Hoping at first to transform human existence with the truths that his discovery promises, Xavier becomes a lowly outcast and a dangerous wanted man. Unlike The Invisible Man he's a victim and not a tyrant, although his arrogance does get him into trouble. He never masters the first step of his journey and never gains control over his vision. That might have allowed him to discriminate his new revelations from what might be hallucinations from within.
Even Travis Bickle had the sense to realize that "morbid self-attention" is an unhealthy state of mind. Xavier may be seeing to the center of the universe or he may be seeing to the center of his own soul. All he finds there are frightening visions and harsh self-judgment.
Robert Dillon's original screenplay has many paragraphs of unused dialogue that make Xavier's experiences much more literal. When Xavier tells the congregation "what he sees," he elaborates further:
"There are great darknesses ... as far off as time itself - and they are coming ... coming to destroy all our world ... Larger than the stars -- than galaxies of stars, they're coming ..."
Corman instead chose the mystical route of hinting, teasing and suggesting the depths of Xavier's visions. The special effects, which combine prismatic color separation with the axial smearing of shooting through what still photographers call a diffraction grating, have often been criticized as inadequate. They're inadequate to a literal representation of X-Ray vision, perhaps, but perfect for this film. The colored iris effect with various shots of tissues and innards and even clumsy paintings of dissections are just place-holders to allow our imaginations to fill in the gaps. We saw perfect living X Ray images in The Hollow Man and they turned out to be so arresting that the balance of the show couldn't live up to them! In the script, the fiery vision of the center of the universe is revealed as a literal "shimmering eye of light" that "great darknesses threaten to blot out." What we see in Corman's movie is no more distinct than the effect we might get by squinting at a pulsing light bulb. But it works, simply by NOT being literal.
(Spoiler, next paragraph)
In the Dillon screenplay, Xavier responds to the cry to "pluck it out" with a scream, and the screen jumps to darkness. The screams of the congregation fade out as well. Corman added a stark and primitive freeze-frame optical that seeks, for a fraction of a second, to show Xavier with empty eye-sockets. The first dozen or so times I saw it on television, its jolt was unforgettable. There has persisted a rumor, perpetuated by Roger Corman on the commentary track of this disc, that Ray Milland once had a traumatized final line of dialogue heard in the final darkness: "But I can still SEE!"
This came from Stephen King in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, as his inspiration for a zinger that would have upped the horror quotient at the film's conclusion. Unfortunately, Corman has heard this so much that he's either convinced himself that he actually did shoot it, or he's decided to leave it all up in the air ... on the disc's commentary track he decides in mid-sentence, after saying no, that the line was recorded after all. As someone who has edited a lot of film-related testimony I have a sensitive radar to when people are telling myth as fact, repeating apocrypha they've told so often they now believe it, or are just plain fibbing. I believe Corman simply sees the benefit of pretending it is so. Discussion boards and film writers will now take his offhand account as gospel.
Frankly, it's such a good line, we all want it to be part of the movie!
Savant is very happy to report that MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of "X" is a knockout. The 16:9 image is clear, clean, sharp and shows much more accurate color than I've seen in this title before - and I didn't put any drops in my eyes. Orion's earlier VHS and laser incarnations not only were full-frame but some enterprising transfer dolt took it upon himself to augment the X-ray vision visuals by tweaking distortions into them (methinks it resembles "posterizing"). The original trailer is included, a good one that uses nice, old-fashioned dramatic text. It also identifies the film as simply "X", but it must be said that the original print advertising, including posters and the title provided for reviews, all added the "The Man With the X-Ray Eyes" sub-line. The disc also has what it calls an "original theatrical prologue" which is really an original TV prologue meant to pad the film for television airings. Whether or not it was ever used, the prologue is simply dreadful. Five minutes of lame narration covers what look like outtakes from educational films cut with some cuts of oil smears and beaches from The Pit and The Pendulum, and a few seconds of Ray Milland stumbling through the Indian Dunes location. The cover artwork is a compelling re-organization of ad images from the original campaign. My pal Todd Stribich has a perfect framed copy of the original poster ... that elicits chills of recognition every time I look at it.
Roger Corman's commentary track is okay, but not as exciting as his previous one on Pit and the Pendulum. He does explain the story a bit too much. For those of us who've been reading about him since the 60s there's little new, but newcomers interested in his relationship with AIP will find plenty to mull over. He does say that Robert Dillon and Ray Russell "were a team," which seems odd. The script I have, which is 90% the finished film, has only Dillon's name on it.
According to the IMDB, Dreamworks is preparing a new version of this movie ... I have a hard time believing it will be the same allegorical experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,