Now, I don’t want to spoil the ending of Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) for anybody who hasn’t seen it yet, so for those who think they’ve had better things to do over the last 50 years, please stop reading now and go watch it. It’s on Netflix streaming. I’ll wait. Go!
Welcome back! Was it worth 80 minutes of your time? I think so.
The Pit and the Pendulum has a wonderfully streamlined cast of characters. There’s Vincent Price as the grieving widower and don of an old Spanish castle. His household is made up of two servants, Maria and Maximillian, and his visiting sister, Catherine. I suppose we should also include the “ghost” of the don’s wife, Elizabeth, as another member of the household. A frequent visitor is Doctor Leon who is the don’s friend and family physician. Lastly, we have the character everyone expects should be the hero, Elizabeth’s brother, Francis Barnard, who has traveled all the way from a renfair in London to investigate his sister’s suspicious death.
So, let’s put these characters in their respective boxes, shall we?
THE HEAVY: Vincent Price’s Don Medina is a sympathetic character who, despite Barnard’s suspicions, is wholly innocent in the death of his wife. He only becomes the heavy after a psychotic snap brought on by the treachery of the two true villains.
THE VILLAINS: Doctor Leon and Elizabeth fake the latter’s death and attempt to drive Don Medina insane. They succeed at this to the point that it costs them their own lives.
THE INNOCENT BYSTANDERS: Catherine‘s role as the potential love interest of the hero is never really fulfilled and she joins the servants Maria and Maximillian as mere witnesses to the strange goings on at Castle Medina.
THE HERO THE DAMSEL IN DISTRESS: Elizabeth’s brother, Francis Barnard spends the first half of the film throwing suspicion upon the innocent Don Medina. His role is entirely to throw red herrings at the audience. Once he comes around to the reality that the don had nothing to do with Elizabeth’s “death” he merely becomes the freshly demented Medina’s victim; subjected to the title torture device. Does he devise a clever escape? Does he succeed in bringing Medina back to his senses? No. He cries to Catherine to come to his rescue! He’s not the hero; he’s Nell from Dudley Do-Right.
THE HERO: Looks like we have to reconsider the roles of a couple of the innocent bystanders. Catherine makes a valiant attempt to claim the honor of heroine, but, alas, she is a mere woman after all and must call on the assistance of the butler, Maximillian, who is the one who gains entry into the torture chamber, kills the demented don, and turns off the infernal machine about to bisect the entirely helpless Barnard.
Yes! Our hero is Maximillian! Not only didn’t the butler do it; but he was the man who saved the day! A character so far down in the credits that I can’t even find a picture of him from the movie. (You’ll have to settle for a picture of actor Patrick Westwood playing a taxi driver in an early episode of The Avengers.)
Maximillian is one of those unsung heroes in film that I find both baffling and charming. Don’t even get me started on the the Merry-Go-Round operator in Strangers on a Train.