THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (Alexandre Astruc, 1964)

As much as it has confounded critical readers with its phantasmagoria anticipatory of surrealism, subjective confusions and historical inaccuracies, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” originally published in 1842, is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most compelling stories. After an ordeal of intense, unremitting fear following the death sentence handed him during the Spanish Inquisition, the anonymous Frenchman who recounts his horrific misadventure of captivity and sadistic torture, which were meant to slowly kill him, experiences a rush of hope, rescue and freedom. With what was the prisoner charged, for which he was condemned? Poe doesn’t say; for the reader to ask the question may indeed be to approach the story too literally. While Poe’s familiar fear of being buried alive partially launches the tale (the narrator even speculates that such premature entombment is his precise punishment), the narrator is a more generalized surrogate for the author than this suggests, and Poe is taking wider aim at the condition of injustice in the world. Poe’s narrator is an Everyman confronting incomprehensible unfairness and cruelty from those with authority and in power.

The very best of the film adaptations of Poe’s story debuted on French television in 1964. “Le puits et le pendule,” the austere, gripping black-and-white short written and directed by Alexandre Astruc, adds no plot to what Poe wrote but straightens out Poe’s flamboyant ending to help fill a much more realistic atmosphere; the narrator is no longer snatched from his descent into the pit in the middle of his cell by his conquering French rescuers. They simply arrive (we hear their liberating arrival), and the narrator is free. This freedom is represented by the sustained shot, of ordinary daylight outside a large window down a corridor, with which the movie ends. This shot, though, introduces a note of ambiguity through its association with the closing image of an earlier film: Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950), from Bernanos, which ends with a Cross, a problematic post-mortem, that may signify either the priest’s soul’s entrance into Heaven or the eternal barrier to its entrance. How “free” of his ordeal is the narrator of Astruc’s film if he feels compelled to relate it? Does he hope that recounting it will finally free his tortured mind?

Indeed, Astruc draws upon something else by Bresson. As in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), the prisoner is spied-upon in his cell, which has the effect of associating the anonymous narrator with Jeanne d’Arc, a hero to the French. Astruc’s allusions count; at the same time his use of the rats in his cell to gnaw through the ropes binding him to the table below the gradually descending scythe or, because marking his time, pendulum inspires admiration for his cunning under pressure, it also reflects badly on him. Both Poe’s story and Astruc’s film suggest the influence of Byron’s marvelous 1816 poem The Prisoner of Chillon; but the French prisoner there, based on an actual person (Bonivard), befriends the animals in his cell who mitigate his sense of isolation. Not Poe/Astruc’s prisoner, who manipulates their hunger to his own end. This man hates his confinement but prefers isolation; he is bereft of the spirit of comradery, of fraternity. This pulls against his association with Jeanne—at least to our minds.

Astruc is very patient with his material and achieves a very full forty minutes of film. Its centerpiece is the outstanding performance of its star, Maurice Ronet, in what is essentially a one-character piece. There is such a pall distributed throughout the frames, which Nicolas Hayer evocatively lensed (he is the amazing black-and-white cinematographer of Cocteau’s Orpheus, 1950, and Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan, 1958, and Le doulos, 1962), that the possibility arises that the narrator is already dead, and reliving the circumstances of his death, and capped by the mocking illusion of rescue and freedom, constitute his eternal punishment.

Astruc came to Poe through Charles Baudelaire’s translations.

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