Thursday, December 27, 2012

John Collier on TV Part Three-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "De Mortuis"

by Jack Seabrook

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
To the doctor, Irene is "innocent. Like a child," but Bud calls her "the town floozy"; no one has said anything to her husband, but she has lately been seen with more men, even "truck drivers." Buck and Bud assure Dr. Rankin that everyone will be on his side and that they will pretend that they were never there in order to bolster his alibi. After they leave, the doctor sits alone in the cellar, dejected; Irene comes home and he invites her downstairs to show her his work, telling her: "I'm afraid I'll have to take it all up again."

"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
In the first flashback, Bud tells Wally (not Buck) about an incident when he witnessed Irene being picked up in a diner in the middle of the day by a truck driver. In the second flashback, Wally tells Bud about a time when he was on a group camping trip and he thought Irene was flirting with him. These scenes establish Irene as an attractive woman who dallied with many men; it also demonstrates that Wally and Bud seem to enjoy her antics, gossiping and hanging on each other's every word. Once they discover Rankin (a professor now, rather than a doctor) in the cellar, the story briefly follows Collier's original, until it takes another detour as Rankin shows his friends cages with rats that are the subject of his experiments. When he tells them that one group of rodents has responded by becoming aggressive and attacking each other, Bud instantly jumps to the conclusion that Rankin has murdered his wife and buried her in the cellar.

Henry Jones as Wally
The story continues as the three men move their discussion upstairs and Rankin realizes what his friends think he has done. He yells at them, asking "what are you talking about?" and challenges them to "dig up the cement . . . call the sheriff!" After they leave, he returns to the cellar, where he sits alone and dejected. Irene arrives home and he summons her downstairs. Much as in the conclusions to "Back for Christmas" and Wet Saturday," the teleplay spells out what the story only implies; Rankin lifts a pickax and we see his wife's legs descending the stairs; she asks, "Well, what is it?" and the picture fades out with a musical sting.

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
The casting is very good. As Professor Rankin, Robert Emhardt (1913-1994) is overweight and sweaty, able to seem both innocent and dangerous at the same time. Emhardt was a founding member of the Actors Studio and his career on TV and in film stretched from about 1950 to the early 1980s. In addition to seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, he was seen in a Twilight Zone and an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

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
Bud, the tall, thin friend, is played by Philip Coolidge (1908-1967), who appeared in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, as well as an episode of The Twilight Zone and Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959). Wally, the shorter friend, is played by Henry Jones (1912-1999), an instantly recognizable character actor who had a 50-year career on television and in the movies. In addition to six episodes of the Hitchcock series, he appeared in episodes of seemingly every TV series, including The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Night Gallery and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He also appeared in Hitchcock's 1958 classic, Vertigo.

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.


Collier, John. "De Mortuis." Fancies and Goodnights. New York: Bantam, 1961. 9-15. Print.
"De Mortuis." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 14 Oct. 1956. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2012.
"My Old Radio - The Best OTR Ressource on the Web." My Old Radio - The Best OTR Ressource on the Web. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2012.
"The New Yorker." The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2012.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 Dec. 2012.


Grant said...

And of course Henry Jones was Leroy the handyman in "The Bad Seed."

Harvey Chartrand said...

Henry Jones appears briefly in Claude Chabrol's THE CHAMPAGNE MURDERS/LE SCANDALE (1967) with Anthony Perkins and Maurice Ronet.
Your wonderful e-zine has introduced me to some great old character actors like Philip Coolidge, who had a thriving career (INHERIT THE WIND, THE TINGLER, etc.) but somehow slipped under my radar. Too bad Coolidge turns up in NIGHT OF THE OWL, one of the worst episodes of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. Also too bad he died so young (well, young-ish).
And was there ever a greater "fat man you love to hate" than Robert Emhardt? I still remember the extreme close-ups of a sweaty Emhardt (jowls all a-quiver) in RETURN OF VERGE LIKENS, one of the better episodes of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR. Emhardt was also great as the sinister big pharmaceutical executive in Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant and Harvey, thanks for reading! I have always been happy to see Henry Jones in episodes of old TV shows. It's fun to see these great character actors and to try to give them some exposure--there have been a number of books over the years focusing on character actors in movies, but classic TV character actors have not received enough attention.

John said...

Along with Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Ray Russell, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Henry Slesar and Shirley Jackson, John Collier was among the top short story writers of this period, IMHO. "Fancies and Goodnights" is a marvelous collection of his work and should be studied by anyone interested in the craft of short fiction. Hitch and his staff had an eye for talent, didn't they? Happy New Year! Keep up the fantastic work on this blog, guys!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! I just read an article from the early 1960s that referred to Matheson and Beaumont (among others) as the "baby Bradburys." An interesting perspective, eh?

mikeandraph87 said...

Is that Malcom Tucker who once drove through Mayberry and learned the comforts of small town life? It looks like the same actor.

Harvey Chartrand said...

That's Malcolm Tucker all right! Check out

Jack Seabrook said...

Robert Emhardt was a terrific actor. I can imagine him sweating and huffing and puffing through sleepy Mayberry on a Sunday!

Nequam said...

Philip Coolidge is probably more recognizable these days for his role in The Tingler...

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't seen The Tingler in many years but recall it fondly. Thanks for stopping by!