The Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)
Alice Guy, through her Solax company, mostly produced shorts. In her later years, she did release one feature-length film, The Ocean Waif (1916), but in the Solax heyday, one-reelers were the rule. That makes this 1913 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum all the more remarkable, because it was three reels long. Stress on the “was”. Most of the film is now lost. What survives is around half of the first reel, which unfortunately ends just before Poe’s story begins.
Unlike Poe’s work – a sort of Kafka-before-Kafka tale in which the unnamed protagonist doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know why he’s there, doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, and is only certain that the men who arrested and convicted him are entirely unconcerned with his ever finding out – Guy’s adaptation is quite definite when it comes to what’s going on and why:
Alonzo (Darwin Karr) and Pedro (Fraunie Fraunholz) are both in love with the same woman (Blanche Cornwall). Things come to a head when a knife fight breaks out between them. Alonzo wins and he and the woman marry. Some time passes. Alonzo becomes an herbalist doctor to “treat the poor of Toledo”. “The revengeful Pedro” joins the Spanish Inquisition and begins to plot Alonzo’s downfall. He steals a jewel-encrusted reliquary from the monastery and hides it in Alonzo’s house. When it’s discovered missing, he intimates to the abbot that Alonzo might be a witch (what with all his strange herbs and practices) and that maybe he used sorcery to steal the reliquary. Pedro leads a number of men to Alonzo house, where they discover the missing reliquary and wait to apprehend Alonzo on his return.
The surviving fragment ends just as Alonzo enters the room. A couple production stills from the more exciting parts – Alonzo strapped to a table as the pendulum swings closer, the walls closing in and threatening to force him into the pit – can be seen in period advertisements. The concept of “spoilers” being a very recent one, we can also turn to turn to contemporary reviews to learn how the film ends:
Alonzo and the girl escape from Pedro’s men and a chase ensues. They board a boat and nearly make it out of a Spain, but Pedro waylays them in a boat of his own. They’re taken before the Inquisition and Alonzo is tortured, but only after Pedro threatens to torture the girl will he confess to the theft. After that, Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum is retold fairly faithfully, right up to the point that Alonzo is in danger of falling into the pit.
In her imprisonment, a British soldier learns from the girl what happened to Alonzo. He frees her and sets out in search of her husband. After being misled by the monks several times, he finds the torture chamber and saves Alonzo from the pit. Also, unlike Poe’s story, where whatever the protagonist saw at the bottom was too horrible to record, Alonzo saw a pile of bones with snakes crawling in and out of human skulls.
The film is very careful to distance the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, which requires some mental gymnastics but probably put it in a much more favorable light at the Church-dominated New York board of censorship. It’s unusual that French-born Alice Guy changed the nationality of the rescuers from French to British. I can’t think of anything going on at the time that would have made that change expedient.
When it comes to Poe adaptations, it’s par for the course to greatly elaborate on the story to pad-out the film and make it more visually interesting. It seldom works. What I love about Pit and the Pendulum is how nothing is explained. The protagonist is simply caught up in machinations beyond his grasp or appeal. Who he is is incidental, why he’s there is incidental. Even his rescue is incidental – the French army just happened to invade Toledo that day, Napoleon surely no more knew of the protagonist’s existence than the reader knows his name. Films never seem comfortable letting so much go undefined or letting the plot progress without reason. I’m not sure why. Meaningless torture and death is infinitely more frightening than a jilted lover’s revenge.
My rating: Meh.