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Redemption can be a hard ticket to punch, in real life let alone on film. An arc has to be convincing in a short space of time and make us believe our protagonist’s journey. Thanks to a brilliant performance by Karen Black and a meticulously unfurled plot, The Pyx (1973) offers sorrow and resolution in a gripping package.

Released in September by Cinepix Film Properties in our home and native land, Canada, and by Cinerama Releasing Corporation in the States the following month, The Pyx used Canadian shelter funds not to tell an exploitive tale, but rather a somber character study dressed up as a neo-noir with an occult twist. Not an easy sell to be sure, but does it really matter? At the end of the day, The Pyx is another noble attempt to infuse the genre with unusual strands regardless of the box office receipts. (I mean, my parents’ tax money paid for it, so you’re welcome.)

Our film opens on a crime scene where streetwalker Elizabeth Lucy (Black – Burnt Offerings) lies deceased on a Montreal sidewalk after taking a swan dive off the balcony of a penthouse apartment. Enter detectives Henderson (Christopher Plummer – The Silent Partner) and Paquette (Donald Pilon – City of Fire), who are quick to find an upside down cross and the titular object in Elizabeth’s possession. What is a pyx you say? Good question, as someone not well versed in Catholic iconography, I myself had to look it up. A pyx is a container used to carry the consecrated host to those who couldn’t make it to church, or whose mother wasn’t hard on them enough to drag them to the holy house. Through an ingenious mixture of flashback and forward narrative, we learn how Elizabeth ended up kissing concrete while our two sleuths press forward to solve the murder.

The satanic cult angle is one that is slow to unravel in The Pyx, so instead it has to rely on this dual narrative to pull us through, each worthwhile in its own way. Both offer mysteries to plummet, but the Black storyline is laced with a melancholia that plays beautifully against Plummer’s gumshoe activity without getting in each other’s way. And the strands do intertwine at the end, resolving Elizabeth’s tragedy while pulling into sharp focus Henderson’s own shortcomings.

The Pyx is based on the 1959 novel of the same name by John Buell, and credit to screenwriter Robert Schlitt, a TV vet (Matlock, anyone?), for providing Black with such a rich character in Elizabeth. A kind soul that life has passed by, a junkie goddess who seeks respite from her miserable life through a quiet moment, a hot spoon, and a cold, uncaring needle. Her warm smile masking bitter defeat, Black is in full possession of her considerable charms, and while the producers were banking on favourable comparisons to Klute (1971), she puts her own unique spin on the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ trope that all side by side evaluations are irrelevant. Elizabeth is a great role, period, and Black owns it.

Henderson is a much more stock character, but Plummer brings a dry wit (as he often does) to a role that would be desiccated without it. Until the end, that is; a final revelation from his past allows the character to open up with Plummer responding accordingly. The rest of the cast is very solid (with a special nod to Yvette Brind’amour as Elizabeth’s insidious madam, Meg), but the real fascination is watching Black and Plummer pass each other as perfect strangers in opposite directions towards the same destiny.

The sound design plays a vital role in the success of The Pyx; several haunting folk songs co-written and sung by Black float in and out of the soundtrack like a spectral siren call, offering unease and insight into Elizabeth’s journey, but little peace or comfort. Neither will you find it in the sped up, discombobulated Gregorian chants that loom over the climactic satanic ceremony, heightening the tension as Elizabeth’s fate is sealed. Atmosphere replaces action in The Pyx, and only becomes more doom laden as it progresses.

Director Harvey Hart (another mostly TV vet – Columbo, anyone?) wisely plays up that atmosphere and gets out of the way of the cast, a valuable television tool where time is short and money even less so. Unobtrusive would be an accurate description of his work here; and that’s not a dirty word when juggling two (eventually) converging storylines – that’s just smart.

The usual themes of Catholic belief, guilt, and contrition are woven throughout the film; Elizabeth is yearning for a way out of her life, but is reluctant to embrace a faith embedded but buried within. Salvation awaits her, either through the flesh of the wicked or the body of the Christ. Her choice may or may not surprise you, but Karen Black’s heartbreaking performance will make you care about that choice, and ultimately, The Pyx itself.

The Pyx is available on DVD from Scorpion Releasing.

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