“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|
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|
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|
|Valentin DeVargas as Ricardo|
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|
“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.
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!
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.