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William J. Norris
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (TV) (Alexandre Astruc , 1964) ***1/2
Director Astruc was originally a film theorist; though best-known for the short THE CRIMSON CURTAIN (1952) which, alas, is available only in an unsubtitled version with Russian voice-over to boot! he also turned out a few features, among them, the superb melodrama adapted from an Emile Zola novel UNE VIE (1958). Another author whose work he tackled, surprisingly enough, was Edgar Allan Poe: this was the first such effort, followed several years later by the similarly made-for-TV production of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1981; which, again, has yet to be rendered in English-friendly form).
The film under review is only the second work of his that I have checked out and, so far, Astruc has demonstrated himself to have an unerring eye for detail but, by choosing actors who can be relied upon to extract the essence of any given tale, at the same time he makes certain to give characterization its due. This was perhaps never more evident than here, in which a perplexed and subsequently distraught Maurice Ronet (usually a purveyor of decadent bourgeois types) is virtually the whole show (even if it only lasts for 37 minutes). For the record, I had watched the 1961 Roger Corman and 1990 Stuart Gordon versions of the Poe source, both of which bowdlerize the text virtually beyond recognition; this, however, remains scrupulously faithful to it and, while the result may seem set-bound, uneventful and even pretentious (since the only dialogue relates to the protagonist's externalization of his thoughts) to horror purists, the film ought to elicit a more encouraging response from all-round movie-buffs (if it were deemed of a greater exposure, that is!) and would have undoubtedly made the author himself proud.
Ronet is a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition and, when we first see him, he is being escorted toward his place of confinement, a darkened room within the dungeon of a castle and where he is tied to a slab. Slowly, a giant pendulum begins to fall gradually, swaying from side to side, from the ceiling directly above him: if it were to reach the captive, this would invariably slice his torso open and he would bleed to death. Sharing the cell with its inmate him are a number of rats, nonchalantly going through the food carelessly left for him on the floor. However, he gets an idea: by smearing the contents of the platter onto his straps, he hopes the rats will climb on top of him to gnaw at the ropes, thus setting him free! As the relentless blade draws ever nearer, one of the rats is unflinchingly tossed to the side by a blow of the contraption, but Ronet manages to break free of his reins in time only for the room to start closing in on itself soon after, so that the hero realizes he is being watched and that, having escaped the death his captors had planned for him, this merely led to a second and even more sadistic option for execution the sole space left for him in which to move is that near an open hole in the ground, with the deep drop into the pit giving way to a well bearing foul water and snakes!
Just as he is about to give up, having even lost consciousness at the futility of his endeavor and the dim prospects ahead, the French army is heard breaking into the building with Ronet's concluding narration pertaining to the downfall of the singularly harsh system that condemned him. To a large extent, the film's success depends on the overpowering atmosphere of claustrophobia and desperation it manages to evoke throughout and, thanks in equal parts to stark monochrome photography (courtesy of ORPHEE's lenser Nicolas Hayer) and authentic Gothic locations, this element is certainly not to be faulted here.
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