The mechanical properties of mammalian ventricular cardiac muscle have been studied in the presence and in the absence of an intact endocardial surface. Isotonic and isometric twitch contractions were obtained from papillary muscles of the right ventricle of cat at 29 degrees and 37 degrees C, at different extracellular calcium concentrations ([Ca2+]o), and at different initial muscle lengths. The endocardial surface was damaged by gentle abrasion of the muscle surface with a plastic blade or by brief immersion for 1 second with 1% Triton X-100. Although there was no evidence of damage to myocardial cells, damaging the endocardial surface resulted in an immediate and irreversible abbreviation of the twitch contractions with, except at the highest ([Ca2+]o, a decrease in peak isometric twitch tension. These changes induced 1) an asymmetrical shift of the tension-[Ca2+]o relation towards increasing [Ca2+]o but with no effect at the highest [Ca2+]o, and 2) a rightward and downward shift of the length-tension relation. Both shifts were significantly more pronounced at 37 degrees C than at 29 degrees C; they were not accompanied by significant changes in Vmax. The asymmetrical shift of the tension-[Ca2+]o relation suggests that the endocardium-mediated chain of events may be mediated by changes in the sensitivity of the contractile proteins to Ca2+. This hypothesis is also supported by the similar pattern of changes (i.e., modulation of the onset of early tension decline) induced by decreasing length at each [Ca2+]o and by the removal of a functional endocardium. Accordingly, the endocardium may help to control the performance of the heart by modulating peak contractile performance and relaxation of the underlying myocardium.