Just two weeks after "Wet Saturday" came the next episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a John Collier story; "De Mortuis" was broadcast on October 14, 1956. The story upon which it was based, with the same title, had been published first in The New Yorker's issue dated July 18, 1942. The title, "De Mortuis," is taken from the Latin phrase, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum; roughly translated, it means "speak no ill of the dead." Ironically, no one in the story is actually dead, at least not physically.
As the story begins, Dr. Rankin has just finished cementing over a patch on his cellar floor. He hears his friends Buck and Bud enter the house upstairs, looking for him to go fishing. They find him in the cellar and he explains that his wife Irene is out visiting and he has repaired the cellar floor where water was coming up. As the three men chat, the visitors begin to suspect that Dr. Rankin has murdered his promiscuous wife and buried her body in the basement. He angrily denies it but they admit that her behavior must have provoked him--they considered telling him the truth about her prior to their marriage five years before but chose to remain quiet.
|Cara Williams as Irene|
"De Mortuis" is another example of Collier's subtlety, in which he inverts the story of "Back for Christmas," where an unhappy husband murders his wife and buries her body in the basement. This time, the husband is happy because he does not know his wife's true nature; when he finds out, he plans to do exactly that which was suspected of him by his overly imaginative friends. A simple explanation of the story's title is that Buck and Bud speak ill of Irene, whom they think is dead, and by doing so inadvertently cause her death. A more shaded explanation might suggest that each of the story's characters is already dead in some way: Dr. Rankin, whose eyes are dead to Irene's deception; Bud and Buck, whose emotions are dead to the sensitivity of their friend; Irene, whose heart is dead to the harm caused by her behavior.
"De Mortuis" was adapted for television by Francis Cockrell, who had also adapted "Back for Christmas" and whose wife Marion adapted "Wet Saturday." Unlike the two earlier episodes, which followed the stories closely, the televised version of "De Mortuis" takes a rather different approach to its source material. The show begins as Dr. Rankin struggles with a heavy bag of concrete and takes it down to his cellar to begin mixing, all set to ominous music. His two friends arrive and make themselves at home, reading his newspaper and drinking his coffee. The kitchen is a mess, and one of the men comments that "Irene isn't much of a housekeeper." They agree that Dr. Rankin will find out about her sometime but they doubt he will do anything, because he is "innocent . . . a nice guy." As he fills the hole below, unaware that they are in his home, they discuss his wife's adulterous behavior and we see two flashback sequences, one narrated by each man.
|Robert Emhardt as Prof. Rankin|
|Henry Jones as Wally|
Perhaps due to the changes in the story, "De Mortuis" is not as successful as the two Collier adaptations that had come before it. The show seems forced and drags in spots. Director Robert Stevens tells the story in a straightforward manner, with two noteworthy shots. There is a nice camera move near the end of the show where Bud and Wally step aside and the camera dollies in on Rankin's face, and there is a menacing low angle shot of Rankin framed in the cellar door as he challenges his friends.
|Philip Coolidge as Bud|
Cara Williams (1925- ) is suitably voluptuous as Irene; she was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress for her role in the Defiant Ones (1958) and appeared four times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents--her role in Robert Bloch's "The Cure" was similar to her role in "De Mortuis."
|Haim Wynant as the truck|
driver lights Irene's fire
Finally, making a brief appearance as the truck driver who picks up Irene is Haim Wynant (1927- ). He later changed his stage name to H.M. Wynant and is remembered for his role in The Twilight Zone episode, "The Howling Man."
Like "Back for Christmas" and "Wet Saturday," "De Mortuis" was adapted for radio and television both before and after it appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was seen on the TV show Lights Out on September 1, 1946, but this episode seems to have been lost. It was adapted for the radio show Suspense and broadcast on February 10, 1949, starring Charles Laughton. This episode can be heard here. Back on television, it was broadcast as part of the Suspense series on June 12, 1951; this episode has also been lost. On radio again, it was broadcast on the Short Story series on May 26, 1952; this episode may be heard here. On television, it appeared as the February 17, 1955 episode of Star Tonight under the title "Concerning Death"--I have not been able to find a copy of this available for viewing, but since it was shown in 1955 it may be in an archive somewhere. Finally, decades after the Hitchcock show, "De Mortuis" was remade as "Never Speak Ill of the Dead" and broadcast as the May 24, 1981 episode of Tales of the Unexpected. It may be viewed here.