THE HITCH-HIKER (Episode from The Twilight Zone)
Inger Stevens died when she was 35 years old. Stevens was beautiful but she suffered from depression. She also felt obliged to keep her marriage secret. Inger Stevens was white, her husband was black, and the two of them decided that if the marriage became public it would harm her career. Depression and secrets scarred the eyes inside her beautiful face but they also made her an interesting actress. The Hitchhiker first appeared as a radio play. Lucille Fletcher wrote The Hitchhiker and also Sorry Wrong Number another radio play. Both were big hits. Sorry Wrong Number was made into a classic noir movie. A woman lies sick on her bed and picks up the telephone. She overhears her husband plotting her murder. Watch Stevens in The Hitchhiker and Barbara Stanwick in Sorry Wrong Number and it is tempting to assume that Fletcher liked to write about persecuted and powerless women in distress. Inger Stevens and her anxiety dominate The Hitchhiker but in the radio play the car driver pursued by the mysterious hitchhiker is a man.
Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone series in the early 60s. He fought in the Second World War and never lost the taste for combat. Apart from battling with cigarettes that eventually killed him, he struggled for Civil Rights and produced The Twilight Zone to challenge the conventions of safety-first American television. For Serling heroism became a habit. He used various writers for the television series but he also wrote some episodes himself. The Hitchhiker was adapted for The Twilight Zone by Serling. Not Fletcher but Serling decided that the lead character would be female. Fletcher never forgave Serling for the change. Serling may have remembered the achievement of Sorry Wrong Number and wanted to recreate the damsel in distress. Perhaps his experience as a warrior made him overemphasise the fragile female in his mind, or maybe he read the script and thought that it suited the neurotic quality that Stevens possessed. Serling used Stevens in another episode of The Twilight Zone. In that episode paranoia about technology, and the performance of Stevens, redefined the plight of the abused daughter of the powerful father. Either way, man or woman, The Hitchhiker disturbs listeners and viewers. Serling used the name of his daughter for the female character that he created. His daughter realised that her father was special but she was not pleased by the use of her name.
The plot is simple, and the tale slight. Its spare theme gives The Hitchhiker a Victorian elegance and restraint that hints at something beyond an independent woman determined to drive her shiny American automobile across her country. Indeed The Hitchhiker could be regarded as a sequel to the classic Dickens ghost story The Signalman. This time, though, it is the independent traveller and not an oppressed worker that will succumb to the clash of horror and modernity.
This is the plot. On a long car journey a woman sees a middle-aged and poorly dressed hitchhiker. No matter how fast she drives or what route she takes the hitchhiker manages to always reappear. The woman driving in the car is unnerved and becomes obsessive. Desperate to escape the hitchhiker she nearly collides with a goods train. To protect herself from the hitchhiker the woman gives a lift to a sailor but, when she tries to explain the mystery of the hitchhiker, the sailor assumes that the woman is crazy and he leaves the car. Near the end of the film the woman phones her mother. What she hears on the phone explains the presence of the unshakeable hitchhiker. She climbs into the car and the hitchhiker climbs into the back seat. We see his reflection in the mirror. He is talking to the woman in the car but he could be talking to all of us.
Note that the spoiler has been almost avoided but even typing the narrative without the final twist sends a slight shiver down the spine. The Hitchhiker is not perfect horror drama but nothing on television has ever had the kick of this Twilight Zone episode. The Hitchhiker avoids ghosts, blood and violence but it is disturbing. Duel has a similar set-up. A menacing truck follows a lone driver on his journey. That film has the slick direction of Steven Spielberg and is fine but it does not unsettle and resonate like The Hitchhiker. The roots of the radio play are obvious because Serling includes an explanatory voiceover from Stevens. This is a mistake and it mars the episode. Most of the voiceover, though, occurs in the first half. It does not dilute the effect of that final kick. The voiceover would have been essential for the radio play but is unnecessary on TV. There is sufficient exposition in the scene with the sailor and the telephone conversation by Stevens to her mother. Today an audience would have settled for moody landscape photography and inexplicable shots of an unshakeable hitchhiker. Spielberg adopted this approach for Duel. In the early 60s audiences had different expectations from narrative. Serling, who had challenged his TV network in other ways, compromised. Nobody should complain.
Nan, the woman in the car, is twenty-seven years old. The mechanic who fixes her car at the beginning of the film says that she is on the side of the angels. At the end of the film we remember this remark. Nan is a journalist, an outsider who reports on the behaviour of others rather than participates. She is alone on her automobile holiday and will relax but she will continue to observe. Her large and luxurious car feels like a prison. ‘I hate that car,’ says Nan. She is disturbed by the never-ending presence of the hitchhiker but she also understands that modern America provides comfortable diversion but no explanation. Thanks to her affluence she has freedom and can see everything. None of it, though, has meaning. Nobody in the drama welcomes Nan. They make gestures but do not communicate anything important. They interrupt work with isolated remarks. Only at the end of the film do we realise that the thumb of the hitchhiker is not a request for help but a gesture of welcome. This clever ambiguity alone justifies the episode being afforded classic status. A sailor is happy to take a lift from Nan and he is talkative but he does not thumb a ride.
Adam Williams played the sailor. He was the actor who put his hand on the elbow of Cary Grant in North By Northwest. In that film Williams did not speak. In The Hitchhiker he had the chance to impress. Williams managed to be both coarse and sensitive. The sailor is an uncomplicated man who is easily distracted by others but he also has a sense of responsibility. Williams captured both elements. In movies he was used often as a lackey for gangsters. The quality in these performances is often missed by the audience. For violent lackeys to be convincing, though, gangster films require an actor who can demonstrate weakness and a need to belong but also sufficient honour for obedience. Often this has to be done in sly looks and a few words. The Hitchhiker had a character that provided a part that the skills of Williams deserved. At one point inside the car, he says that his feet are warm. This has no consequence for the narrative but it indicates a man who only relaxes when he establishes intimacy. Because he hates being serious, he removes his shoes. The dialogue between Nan and the sailor is good and a relief from the previous voiceover. The obsession of Nan disturbs the sailor, and he escapes from the car and heads into the night. He thinks that he has avoided a mad woman. Later, when presumably he will meet his own hitchhiker, the sailor may understand the odd encounter that happened the night he was hitching the journey back home from his ship.
Someone once said that a good novel starts with a question and ends with a bigger mystery. The Hitchhiker explains the identity of the man who waves his thumb but also obliges its audience to ponder about what will happen next. The telephone conversation before the meeting with the hitchhiker is odd because the other woman on the telephone line does not ask the question that anyone would if they received such a call. We expect Nan to be challenged by her assertion about her identity but, even though Nan makes the assertion more than once, it does not happen. This does not matter. The call still manages to be disturbing. We realise Nan is not crazy and that the sailor was wrong. The telephone call prepares us for the final chilling scene. And that is unbeatable.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.