Friday, November 2, 2012

Ray Bradbury on TV Part Seven-The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "The Life Work of Juan Diaz"


by Jack Seabrook

“The Life Work of Juan Diaz” was the seventh and last episode of the Hitchcock series either written by Ray Bradbury or based on one of his stories. The story was published in the September 1963 issue of Playboy and reprinted in Bradbury’s 1964 collection, The Machineries of Joy. It begins as Filomena, a Mexican woman, slams the door of her adobe home in the face of the gravedigger, who has just told her that he will dig up her husband’s mummified body and place it in the catacomb. Her eldest son, nine-year-old Felipe, objects, but she is resigned to fate. The hot sun and dry earth in her Mexican village turn corpses into mummies in just a year and the gravedigger exhibits them to American tourists.

Pina Pellicer as Maria

Filomena and Felipe walk to the Official Palace to visit her cousin Ricardo, the chief of police. It has been a year since Juan died and the rent on her husband’s grave is due, but Filomena cannot pay it. They walk to the graveyard, which stands on the highest hill overlooking the village. Ricardo pleads with the gravedigger but is rebuffed. The next day, children tease Felipe, whose father now stands against the catacomb wall, one mummy among many. Filomena recalls her husband’s last month; as he was dying, he promised to protect and care for her even after death. She watches as tourists pay the gravedigger to visit the catacombs.

That night, she and Felipe break into the catacombs and steal Juan’s mummified body. The next day, the gravedigger appears at her door with her cousin Ricardo, accusing her of stealing the mummy, but she explains that is only a “life-size toy” made of “paper and flour and wire and clay” (the list of materials recalls Thedy’s list of what was used to make the thing in “The Jar”). Ricardo agrees with his cousin and the men leave, the gravedigger angry but unwilling to spend years in court pressing his case. Filomena plans to charge tourists to see her new museum exhibit. In this way, Juan will provide for his family long after his death. She asks his forgiveness and thinks she sees him smile in the flickering candle light.

Jorge explores the catacombs

Bradbury adapted his story for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the show was broadcast at 10 PM on NBC on Monday, October 26, 1964, the fourth episode of the final season of the series, one week after the classic Robert Bloch episode, “Water’s Edge.” “The Life Work of Juan Diaz” starred Alejandro Rey as Juan Diaz, Pina Pellicer as his wife Maria, Larry Domasin as his son Jorge, Valentin DeVargas as Maria’s brother Ricardo, the police chief, and Frank Silvera as Alejandro, the grave digger. In adapting the story for television, Bradbury used the skeleton of the tale to expand and flesh out his story, creating an hour-long film that had at least one scene that ranks with the great moments of suspense on television.

Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score sets the scene right away as it blasts over the opening credits, using a four-note phrase reminiscent of Bizet’s Carmen to create an ominous theme. Unlike the story, in which the title character only appears alive in his wife's memory, the show begins with the living Juan Diaz collapsing on his way home, dropping and breaking a load of sugar skulls, upset more at the loss of profit than at his own illness. Death surrounds him and his family—a carpenter looks on as he pauses in his work of finishing a coffin, and the gravedigger escorts a group of American tourists out through the cemetery gates, after having toured the “kingdom of the dead.”

Frank Silvera as Alejandro

Diaz enters the cemetery and bargains with the gravedigger, paying rent in advance on his grave for a period of two years. The change from one year in the story to two years in the show is significant, since the gravedigger’s later act of deception justifies Maria’s theft. Alejandro the gravedigger shows Juan his catacombs, a passageway beneath the graveyard that is lined with the mummies of former local residents whose families failed to make rent payments on their graves. The catacombs are dark, the only light coming from a candle held by Alejandro; they are frightening at mid-day but will be even more terrifying at midnight. Alejandro calls the mummies “my friends,” and addresses them by name. The scenes in the catacomb are the highlight of “The Life Work of Juan Diaz,” and it is surprising to read the story on which it is based, only to discover that there are no scenes that take place in the catacombs at all!

Valentin DeVargas as Ricardo

At home in their small adobe house, Maria tends to the dying Juan as their three children look on. The performances are adequate but no better than that; Rey, Pellicer and the children do not represent the episode’s strong points. Other than Frank Silvera, who is a standout as the gravedigger, the best work in the show comes from behind the camera—writing, direction, camerawork and music are all excellent.

The story resumes a year later, as Alejandro speaks to the late Juan Diaz at his grave and declares his contract “done.” Alejandro visits Maria to tell her that “the year is up” and the rent is due. She argues that her husband paid for two years, but without a signed paper she has no recourse. So far, everything that has occurred in the show comes before the beginning of the story on which it is based. Maria then visits her brother (cousin, in the story) to ask for help in a scene that follows the story closely. She and Ricardo visit Alejandro at the cemetery, finding him in the act of excavating Juan’s grave. The scene is well-staged by director Norman Lloyd, with Maria, Ricardo and Jorge standing above the grave while Alejandro is six feet below them, down in the open hole. The contrast between the status of even the poorest members of society and that of the gravedigger could not be more evident, recalling a similar dichotomy in Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963). Alejandro makes an elegant case, calling Juan “a traveler in death’s kingdom who paused to rest awhile here in this little room.” The irony of this story is that the most eloquent character is the gravedigger, who occupies the lowest rung of society’s ladder; Frank Silvera’s performance in the role dwarfs the performances of the other actors in the show.

Larry Domasin as Jorge


The next day, the children tease Jorge, daring him to go down into the catacombs to see his father. Jorge bravely descends into the land of the dead, a flower in his hand. In the episode’s second trip into the underground passageway, Jorge finds himself among the dead, locates his father’s mummy and places the flower in his dried hand. The mummy, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the living actor Alejandro Rey, does not reply, but when Jorge leaves the mummy’s arm seems to move, and the flower drops from its hand. The music is evocative in this sequence, as a subdued version of the central four-note theme adds to the scene’s pathos.

That night, Jorge and Maria return to the cemetery, where Alejandro sits, drunk. A creaking gate begins to build tension. Jorge hides behind a large cross, his arms outstretched in a heavy-handed bit of Christian symbolism. He and his mother descend into the catacombs, followed by the drunken Alejandro. They hide among the mummies as the gravedigger talks to himself, edging ever closer to where the boy cowers. Alejandro speaks to the mummies in the dark and suspects he has a living visitor: “do my dead ones breathe?” he asks. This is the scene toward which the entire episode builds. Alejandro speaks to Juan Diaz, challenging him but getting no reply. He lights a match to look at the mummy more closely, but the child blows it out, leading Alejandro to fear that the puff of breath emanated from the mummy. This scene is brilliantly played by Silvera, with lighting and music creating the perfect mood of terror. Afraid, Alejandro leaves the catacombs, pursued by the mummy of Juan Diaz—the gravedigger, drunk and afraid, does not notice that it is by carried and propelled by Jorge, his mother following close behind. The somewhat fanciful nature of this scene is unimportant—it is frightening, exciting, and just—the cheater himself is cheated.

Alejandro Rey as Juan

Alejandro arises and realizes he has been robbed, his screams of anger echoing up from the catacombs. He takes Ricardo to the Diaz home, where he accuses Maria of theft, but she does not relent. Maria hangs a sign outside her house advertising The Juan Diaz Museum, and American tourists file past Juan’s mummy, depositing money in a bowl and ensuring the future of the little family that looks on from a corner of the room. Marie speaks to her husband’s mummy, much as Alejandro once did, and begs his forgiveness. The camera lingers on the mummy’s face, as a light of assent appears to shine in its eye.

“The Life Work of Juan Diaz” is an uneven episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Other than Frank Silvera, the acting is average at best. The script has moments of Bradbury’s trademark lyricism, but the program drags in spots, especially in early scenes involving Juan Diaz and his family. Norman Lloyd again directs, as he did in many of the Bradbury episodes, and he does a wonderful job of building and sustaining tension. The climax at night in the catacomb is staged brilliantly, with director of photography and Hitchcock regular John L. Russell providing just the right amount of light and shadow as the scene begins in darkness and is then briefly lit by the matches Alejandro strikes. Bernard Herrmann’s score is excellent from start to finish, though one wishes there were more of it to be heard in a few of the duller scenes in the Diaz home. This episode is not as solid from start to finish as “The Jar,” but the best scenes rival any scenes of classic television horror.


Alejandro Rey (1930-1987) was six years younger than the character he played (the grave marker reads 1924-1962) and was born in Argentina. He came to the U.S. in 1960 and acted in only one episode of the Hitchcock series, along with two episodes of Thriller. He was best known for his starring role in The Flying Nun from 1967 to 1970.

Frank Silvera (1914-1970), who gives such a convincing performance as a Mexican gravedigger, was actually an African-American actor whose complexion allowed him to play numerous ethnic roles. He appeared in one other episode of the Hitchcock series, as well as in single episodes of Thriller and The Twilight Zone. He died when he was electrocuted at home while trying to repair his kitchen sink’s garbage disposal!


Pina Pellicer (1934-1964) had a brief career, lasting from 1960 to 1964, and appeared in five movies and three TV shows. She took her own life on December 4th, not long after this episode aired.

Valentin DeVargas (1934- ) played Ricardo, the police chief, and was in only this episode of the Hitchcock series. He has appeared in numerous TV episodes and is still acting.

Finally, Larry Domasin (1955- ) played the key role of Jorge, Maria’s son. He acted in movies and on TV from 1962-1967, appearing in just this episode of the Hitchcock series.

The paucity of roles for Hispanic actors at this point in Hollywood history likely explains why these actors and actresses were not seen in other shows of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, with the exception of Silvera, who made only one other appearance on the series.

“The Life Work of Juan Diaz” has never been remade for TV or film, yet Larry Rapchak, who has written for this blog, adapted it as a chamber opera; a CD may be purchased here and one may also listen to free samples online.

Watch "The Life Work of Juan Diaz" online.

Sources: 


Bradbury, Ray. "The Lifework of Juan Diaz." 1963. Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales. New York: William Morrow, 2003. 751-60. Print.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
"The Life Work of Juan Diaz." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 26 Oct. 1964. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

10 comments:

Matthew Bradley said...

Of special interest in Silvera's rich (if too brief) filmography are his prominent roles in Stanley Kubrick's first two feature films, KILLER'S KISS and the little-seen FEAR AND DESIRE. He also appeared in the Elmore Leonard adaptations HOMBRE and VALDEZ IS COMING, and in three films opposite Marlon Brando: VIVA ZAPATA!, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, and THE APPALOOSA.

Walker Martin said...

I've seen this episode several times over the years and have always been impressed. I remember reading the original story in PLAYBOY and finding the whole system of renting graves to be horrifying. Imagine digging up a corpse because the rent has not been paid!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Matthew! Silvera really is great in this episode.

Walker, I agree with you. I was not able to find any background on the story, but I'll bet Bradbury ran across something like this process in Mexico.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Jamaican-born Frank Silvera was great as Charlie Roman, an Italian-American mobster who wants to go legit in THE GUILTY MEN – probably the best crime entry in Boris Karloff's THRILLER. Silvera delivers an impassioned, almost theatrical performance as the gangster who objects to selling narcotics (a plot device later borrowed in THE GODFATHER). Valentin de Vargas achieved some kind of screen immortality as Pancho, a juvenile delinquent in Orson Welles' classic film-noir TOUCH OF EVIL.

Jack Seabrook said...

de Vargas has one of those faces that looks so familiar, yet nothing jumped out at me in his list of credits. I've seen Touch of Evil a few times but he did not stick in my mind. Kind of hard to overshadow Welles, Dietrich, Heston & Leigh!

John Scoleri said...

Finally! Someone who agrees with us on The Guilty Men! If you haven't seen our Thriller blog, Harvey - pop over and check it out:

http://athrilleraday.blogspot.com/2010/09/guilty-men-season-1-episode-6.html

Harvey Chartrand said...

Too bad Norman Lloyd wasn't able to direct Ray Bradbury's THE NEXT IN LINE for THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. Here is the Cliffs Notes plot summary of this suspenseful tale set in Mexico on the eve of the Day of the Dead: "Because of her obsession with death and dying, Marie protests when her husband Joseph takes her on a tour of the catacombs in Mexico. Joseph, however, is strangely insistent. As they view the line of standing mummies, Marie is aghast at this spectacle of death and begins to wonder what it would be like to be the next in line."

Jack Seabrook said...

Very interesting, Harvey! I wonder if Bradbury was thinking of that when he wrote this teleplay. It's odd that the story on which this show was based had no scenes down in the catacombs, since those scenes are the highlight of the TV show.

Todd Pence said...

Trivia note: A year previous to this episode, Pina Pellicer and Alejandro Rey also appeared together in an episode of The Fugitive called "Smoke Screen". The two also played husband and wife and Pellicer's character was also named "Maria."

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Todd! I have a feeling that the limited number of Hispanic actors on TV in those days meant that they ran into each other on a regular basis, and that many of the female characters were named Maria!