26 May 2011

A Penthouse Killing in Montreal

The Pyx
John Buell
New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1959
174 pages
This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

Related post:


  1. Another drugged-out femme splats the sidewalk. Wilson barely knows what he's talking about.
    Karen Black sings (not for the first or last time). And a recommendation! Oy, Canada, his post has it all, Brian.

  2. I tried to watch this movie last year. I managed to rent this from Netflix just before they pulled it from their rentals. It's now listed as "SAVE FOR FUTURE." This usually means you will never be able to rent it form them because they've removed it due to a high number of poor reviews and low ratings. Anyway, I just couldn't get into it at all. All I remember about it was the bleakness of the outdoor settings and a murky convoluted story line that made no sense at all. Plus the quality of the DVD transfer was horrid. A grainy scratchy film print was used. It's all a blur - literally and figuratively. I think I might have turned it off. I can't even remember. Must work better as a book. I think they ruined the story in adapting it to the screen. The occult element I was hoping for was practically absent and what was there was just dull and uninteresting. You have any comments on the difference between the film and the book? I'd like to read it since it seems like it's right up my alley - detective novel with other worldly aspects to the crime and all.

  3. Steve, the opening credits tell us that Ms Black not only performed by composed the songs featured in the film. Sadly, the YouTube post is of such poor quality that I can't even make out the words. Which brings me to...

    John, I wonder whether the old Netflix offering might have been sourced from the same crummy, muddy print as that posted on YouTube.

    I found the shots of 1973 Montreal interesting enough, but thought that the film didn't come close to capturing the look of the city. Curiously, it manages to capture the sound of the city, by which I mean the mix of French and English, with most characters switching from one language to the other. Fine for some viewers, but I wonder why no subtitles.

    You're right about the occult element being practically absent. In the novel, it doesn't really appear until page 157 (of 174) and is over in a flash. The film makes a much bigger deal out it... a death black cat stuck to the door with a knife, inverted crosses of smeared blood and, in one of the stronger scenes, a black mass. None of these things feature in the novel. It is, I think, interesting to note that until the last third, the film follows Buell's story quite closely. The deviations include a number of fights and an unintentionally funny, badly shot (no pun intended) bit of violence at the Old Port. All would seem to have been concocted with the box office in mind.

    It's hard to imagine anyone not preferring the book to the film. That said, I think anyone looking to read a detective novel will be disappointed... but not as much as horror fans.

  4. Michael Washburn17 August, 2011 09:23

    It is so unfortunate that the DVD available through Netflix has poor picture quality. If, by chance, you can obtain a videocassette of the film, your experience will be much better. The film really is an eerie, haunting, suspenseful masterpiece, enhanced immeasurably by Karen Black's songs, one of which derives some of its lyrics from the Song of Solomon.

    Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting or speaking with a number of people involved with the film, including Terry Haig, who plays Jimmy, the young homosexual who tries to help Plummer's Sgt. Henderson solve the mystery of the prostitute's death. On one of my trips to Montreal, John Buell, author of the novel, was kind enough to set aside time to meet with me in person. It was absolutely fascinating to speak with him about the Montreal of earlier decades, his teaching, and the film's director Harvey Hart.

    John Buell is the author of four other novels, all of them brilliant and all, unfortunately, out of print in the U.S. They are Playground, The Shrewsdale Exit, Four Days, and A Lot to Make Up For. I would never have found a copy of Playground, but on another visit to Montreal, I found a used bookstore near the McGill University campus which had a special section devoted to "strange and unusual Canadian literature."

    The other four novels might be worth a blog post. . . .

  5. My thanks for this. I must try to find a decent copy of the film - the one I viewed was so poor that it was impossible to make out Ms Black's lyrics. Song of Solomon? I had no idea.

    I'm planning to read - and write about - all of John Buell's novels. You'll find a post on the second, Four Days, here.

    A section devoted to "strange and unusual Canadian literature" sounds right up my alley. I'll have to hunt down that bookstore when I'm next in town.

  6. Michael Washburn17 August, 2011 10:23

    P.S. I'm sure you know that Jean-Louis Roux, who plays the mysterious Kierson, is one of French Canada's most famous actors and personalities. As Phil Hardy puts it in The Overlook Encyclopedia of The Horror Film, Roux is "a quietly understated figure of menace" in The Pyx. An astonishing performance.

    And yes, Black's lyrics do have a distinctly Old Testament ring. Listen to "I Sought Him But I Found Him Not," which plays over the opening credits and later in the film. "The watchmen who go about the city found me . . . To whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loved . . . I held him, and would not let him go . . . until I brought him into the chamber of her who had conceived me."

  7. Agreed. In a film with any very fine performances, Jean-Louis Roux stands out.

    If only there had been a soundtrack album.