I’ve heard it said about Roger Corman films that they are only as good as their premise or title. So it goes with X: The Man the X-Ray Eyes, every bit as excellent as its title suggests. It pretty much does what it says on the tin; there is a man, he has x-ray eyes. It is a film that passes by quickly and cheaply and remains an excellent science-fiction film with just the right mix of campiness and seriousness.
The film’s excellence relies on its realisation of its limitations; beyond the stock sets, simplistic art direction and supporting cast of largely workaday actors, there are two resounding qualities in the film; its excellently charismatic central performance by Welsh-born Ray Milland, and its exceptionally poetic script by Ray Russell and Robert Dillon, filling in the gaps left by the primitive, albeit kaleidoscopic and trippy, special effects. There are moments of utter silly B-movie logic followed by strangely lucid scenes wherein the picture is quite happy to pose difficult philosophical questions about the ethics of men and science approaching the realms of the Gods – a recurring theme throughout science-fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its subsequent film adaptations, to later body-horror work such as David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
The film’s B-movie silliness is quite apparent in some earlier scenes, especially during expository plot points designed to keep the film moving along. Most humorously, there is a scene where Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland), tests his experimental x-ray eyedrops on a monkey, and finds that it works! Unfortunately, it’s too much for the poor creature and it dies from an overdose. Through a feat of logic and reason which all scientists around the world would almost certainly agree with, Xavier’s next step is to test the serum on himself. Of course.
Yet contrast that with one particular moment that has stuck with me since seeing the film; after having taken too much of the x-ray drug and being more or less blind to the world that we see, Xavier describes his world to a sympathetic fellow doctor: “[I see] 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. A city of the dead.” There are more than a few moments like this throughout The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Such moments in Roger Corman’s film help it transcend its B-movie origins into something closer to the ‘hard’ sci-fi that would have more purchase towards the end of the 1960s the sort of science-fiction that dealt more in philosophical questions and ‘what-ifs’ rather than the whizzy effects and melodrama that would become prevalent in Star Wars and later science-fiction blockbusters. It stands as some sort of cross between the heavy moralism of say, The Planet of the Apes and the entertaining absurdities of William Castle’s work like The Tingler! and it’s this mixture of the serious and the silly that makes X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes so fun and so compelling.