While clicking on a link-bait headline promising a list of best science fiction movies from the year you were born, I discovered that the best film of my birth year was one I had never seen before and seeing that my birthday is coming up, I decided to give it a go.
The film was Roger Corman’s X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes and while others might argue that La Jetée, King Kong vs. Godzilla or Lord of the Flies were better genre films from 1963, I figured I’d watch it anyways just to see what the fuss was. After all, the movie did win the Golden Asteroid in the Trieste festival of Science Fiction films that year.
The general premise of the movie is about a doctor who is experimenting on his own vision to see beyond the visible spectrum with the belief that it could revolutionize medicine if we could see directly inside bodies. The X of the title is Doctor X, or Doctor Xavier, who is ably portrayed by Oscar-winner Ray Milland. His love interest is Toronto-born actress Diana Van der Vlis who plays the part of another doctor who is originally sent to spy on him by the foundation funding his research. Think of her as the Dana Scully to Milland’s Fox Mulder. One of the best scenes portraying their budding romance is when he lights a cigarette in the lab with a Bunsen burner and shares it with the lovely lady.
Doctor X continues to experiment with eye drops in both eyes to sensitize them to X-ray and meson rays, whatever they are. As a scientist, you’d think he would put the drops in only one eye at a time in case, you know, he were to accidentally blind himself through his experimentation, but he’s somewhat strong-willed.
The experiments continue and the audience sees some weird views to illustrate his new powers that let him see through papers and into pockets. He takes more drops to push things, but there are bad side effects that leave him unconscious.
We see his X-ray powers growing at a groovy party where everyone’s dancing the Watusi, or maybe the Twist, when a comely blonde approaches him because she likes men who look “urgent.” That’s when we get a point-of-view shot and realize he can see everyone dancing in the nude. He admits to her that he can see the birthmark above her third rib and says her backbone is a delight.
“Remember, I’m a doctor,” he says.
You remember, I’m a woman,” she replies.
“I can hardly forget it.”
Eventually, the foundation pulls the plug and he gets into a fight with another doctor. Push comes to shove, literally, when he defenestrates his colleague through a hospital window to his death on the steps below.
Doctor X goes on the lam and that’s where we encounter Don Rickles who delivers one of the highlight performances of the movie as a side-show carny who shelters Doctor X who now performs as Mr. Mento. In his side-show act, Milland reads people’s minds while dressed up in a ridiculous Oriental get-up with an eye-mask with a single eye painted on it. Offstage, he wears dark Ray-Bans to protect his sensitive eyes.
One evening as the carnies wonder if his power is real and what they would do if they had it, Rickles says he would use it to look at “all the undressed women my poor eyes could stand.”
Eventually, Rickles the carny sets up Milland’s Doctor X as a sort of healer and they start pocketing lots of money. Doctor X continues his research, but his health is failing along with his eyesight. Eventually the love-interest doctor starts seeing patients who tell her stories of the miraculous Mr. Mento and she connects the dots then locates him.
The story brings them to Las Vegas where Milland is going to use his powers to win some money at gambling to fund his research and their escape to Mexico (he is still wanted for murder and on the lam, after all).
I’ll stop summarizing the story here so as not to completely spoil it for anyone interested in seeing this interesting artifact from that era of film other than to say the ending is suitably Biblical and appropriate.
While Corman might have a long filmography of schlocky titles to his credit, this one is one of his better efforts. The story is strong, the performances are good and the underlying message that we shouldn’t be messing with what God wrought certainly comes across. The added bonus is that the soundtrack is by the incomparable Les Baxter.
In the end, this movie felt like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, which is a good thing. I’d definitely recommend it to fans of either of those shows and anyone else who enjoys sixties-era science fiction.