Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Hitch-Hiker"

A haunted woman: Inger Stevens as Nan Adams

"The Hitch-Hiker"
Season One, Episode 16
Original Air Date: January 22, 1960

Nan Adams: Inger Stevens
Hitch-Hiker: Leonard Strong
Sailor: Adam Williams
Gas Station Owner: George Mitchell
Mechanic: Lew Gallo
Counterman: Russ Bender
Highway Worker: Dwight Townsend

Writer: Rod Serling (based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher)
Director: Alvin Ganzer
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
                "Next week we'll drive with Miss Inger Stevens, who starts out on what begins as a vacation and ends as a desperate flight. She begins her trip next week on The Twilight Zone. And you'll be with her when she meets . . . "The Hitch-Hiker." We hope you'll be alongside. Goodnight."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
                "Her name is Nan Adams. She's twenty-seven years old. Her occupation: buyer at a New York department store. At present on vacation, driving cross-country to Los Angeles, California, from Manhattan. Minor incident on Highway 11 in Pennsylvania, perhaps to be filed away under accidents you walk away from. But from this moment on, Nan Adam's companion on a trip to California will be terror, her route fear, her destination quite unknown."

Leonard Strong as the phantom hitch-hiker
                After her vehicle suffers a blowout, Nan Adams is assisted on the side of the highway by a mechanic from a nearby service station. After telling Nan that she's lucky to be alive after suffering a blowout at highway speeds, the mechanic fashions a spare onto her car and instructs her to follow him into town so that he can get a proper tire placed on her car. It is after climbing back into her car that Nan first sees the figure that will torment her for the remainder of her cross-country trip. He is a middle-aged man, shabbily dressed, standing on the side of the road, motioning, as a hitch-hiker does, for a ride. Even at this first sight, it is clear that his presence disturbs Nan.
                Once in town, the mechanic puts a new tire on Nan's car. While standing outside the gas station, Nan spies the shabby hitch-hiker in a mirror. He is standing on the shoulder of the highway behind her. She looks quickly away, unnerved by the sight of the man. The mechanic notices the change in Nan's behavior. When prompted, Nan tells the mechanic about the hitch-hiker. When the mechanic looks, he doesn't see a hitch-hiker. The man has inexplicably vanished. Nan manages to shrug this off and drives away from the gas station.
                Nan's panic about the hitch-hiker begins to reach a fever pitch as she continues on her trip. She begins to see him more and more often, always standing on the side of the road, holding his thumb out for a ride. Nan drives faster and faster, panicked by the fact that it is all but impossible for a hitch-hiker to stay ahead of her on the trip. The hitch-hiker is unassuming and never does anything outright threatening but Nan still feels fear at the sight of him. When she is stopped by a highway flag man at a portion of construction, the hitch-hiker appears at her back passenger window, asking if she is headed west. Nan is terrified. She cries out and hits the gas, swerving around the construction site, to the dismay of the flag man.
                Nan's next encounter with the hitch-hiker proves to be the most terrifying. Stopping at railroad tracks for a train to cross, Nan sees the hitch-hiker on the opposite side of the tracks. Once again feeling the pressure of panic rising within her, Nan decides to quickly cross the railroad tracks before the train arrives only to have her car stall halfway onto the tracks. With the train bearing down on her, Nan manages to get the car moving at the last second and backs off of the tracks to the safety of the roadway. It seems to have been the last straw and a terrible burden on Nan's increasingly fragile sanity. She believes the hitch-hiker beckoned her onto the railroad tracks in an attempt to kill her.
                Night falls and Nan attempts to lose the hitch-hiker by taking an out of the way path off the main highway. She runs out of gas on a back road. She runs down the road, frightened and jumping at every tree and shadow, until she reaches a gas station after closing hours. Nan pounds on the door in desperation, waking up the proprietor, a surly man that refuses to provide Nan with the gas she needs until regular hours the following morning. She tries to tell the gas station owner about the hitch-hiker but is unable to say in what way the hitch-hiker is actually harming her. From out of the darkness comes a hand on Nan's shoulder. She turns around, terrified, sure that it will be the hitch-hiker only to find a young sailor on leave. He has been hitching his way back to San Diego to meet with his shipmates. The sailor manages to get some gas for Nan's car and is eager to hitch a ride with her when Nan tells him that she will drive him all the way to San Diego. Once in the car with Nan, however, the sailor quickly changes his mind.
                Nan begins to see the hitch-hiker on the side of the road and this time she is determined to kill the man. She swerves dangerously onto the shoulder twice in an attempt to kill the hitch-hiker. The sailor, now terrified himself, manages to stop the car and tells Nan that there isn't any hitch-hiker on the road, that there wasn't anything there at all. The sailor decides it's safer to hitch his way than to stay in the car with Nan and, despite her frantic pleading, he takes off in the opposite direction, leaving Nan alone once again.
                In a final act of desperation, Nan stops and decides to use a payphone to call her mother in an attempt to hear the comfort of a familiar voice. The call, however, is answered by someone Nan doesn't know, a Mrs. Whitney. This woman informs her that Mrs. Adams, Nan's mother, has suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by the sudden death of her daughter, Nan, when Nan's car suffered a blowout days before on a Pennsylvania highway.      
                Suddenly, Nan understands everything, the panic, the detachment, the road trip that seems to never end. She drops the phone and returns to her car, where she sees the hitch-hiker sitting in the back seat. Nan knows now that she will go with him when he says, "I believe you're going my way."

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
                "Nan Adams, age twenty-seven. She was driving to California, to Los Angeles. She didn't make it. There was a detour. . . through the Twilight Zone."

                 "The Hitch-Hiker" is an excellent stand-out chiller during a first season in which the show was trying to find its niche by trying many different story types on for size. It is one of the show's earliest attempts at outright terror and would form a template for Rod Serling and the other core writers of the series to create a number of other episodes involving a single, isolated character menaced by a supernatural device, such as "The After Hours," "Mirror Image," and "Nightmare as a Child," all written by Serling for the first season and all of which resemble the basic story structure of "The Hitch-Hiker."
              As the setting moves from bright sunshine to dark and lonely night, "The Hitch-Hiker" manages to create a high level of tension very much in the style of classic radio and film thrillers of the 1930's and 1940's; no coincidence since the source material is one of the more famous suspense radio plays of the 1940's. The voice-over narration and unadorned directing style give the episode a feeling of quaintness, but which renders it no less effective. The cast and crew are superb in this one. Inger Stevens provides a highly credible and sympathetic performance as she emotionally unravels in the role of Nan Adams. Leonard Strong plays the Hitch-Hiker in a very unusual manner. He seems both threatening and benign, yet manages to be menacing due to some well designed scenes by director Alvin Ganzer. The use of a mirror would become a primary symbolic device for the series (think "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room," "The Mirror," and "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You") and is put to excellent and effective use in this episode with a rear-view mirror and the mirror in a makeup kit.
               Rod Serling displays his skill in the adaptation of another's work with "The Hitch-Hiker." His major innovation in adapting Lucille Fletcher's radio play to television was to change the main character from a male to a female, thus perhaps further working at the sympathies of the audience. Serling recognized the excellence of his source material and was wise to change little besides that, as it is Fletcher's original radio play that truly deserves the credit for story excellence.
               Lucille Fletcher (March 28, 1912-August 31, 2000) was most famous for writing the 30-minute radio play "Sorry, Wrong Number," which was originally produced for the Suspense radio show and broadcast on May 25, 1943, starring Agnes Moorehead (later the star of the second season Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders"). The radio play was later adapted by Fletcher into the notable 1948 film noir from Paramount starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The radio play was turned into a novel that same year by Allan Ullman.* Three years earlier, in 1941, she wrote "The Hitch-Hiker" as a vehicle for Orson Welles. 
               Orson Welles first starred as the protagonist Ronald Adams in the original radio play for The Mercury Theatre on the Air on November 17, 1941. Welles reprised his role for Suspense on September 2, 1942. Welles did an additional performance on October 16, 1942 for The Philip Morris Playhouse. The final performance was for The Mercury Summer Theater on the Air on June 21, 1946. Thanks to the excellent old time radio resource, The Digital Deli Too for information on the radio performances.
                The radio play was scored by Fletcher's then-husband Bernard Herrmann, a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone and to the musical identity of the series. Herrmann composed the first season's haunting main title theme music and his musical cues would be reused often in subsequent episodes. Despite the lack of an original composition for The Twilight Zone episode of "The Hitch-Hiker," Herrmann's music from the 1946 broadcast of the radio play is used liberally and effectively. According to Fletcher, as documented in author Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion (1982, 2nd revised ed. 1989), the idea for the story occurred to her while driving cross-country with Herrmann and twice seeing an odd-looking hitch-hiker in two different locations. "The Hitch-Hiker" was the only episode of The Twilight Zone to be adapted from a radio play. 
                The effectiveness of the episode is the result of many small nuances placed into the story by director Alvin Ganzer and also in what Rod Serling transposed and transfigured from Fletcher's original radio play. The first noticeable thing is the attempt by Serling to incorporate the standards of a radio play into the television film, most notably with the ongoing use of the lead character's voice-over narration. Only one other time does Serling prominently use this device in the first season, episode number 21, "Mirror Image." This later episode is very similar to "The Hitch-Hiker" as it involves a woman, played by Vera Miles, being tormented in a bus station waiting area by her doppelganger. The similarity between these two episodes is profound and it is than evident that Fletcher's story energized Serling creatively and  inspired him again when shaping the teleplay for "Mirror Image." Serling's script for "The Hitch-Hiker" also injects some morbid humor into the play by dropping some not-so-subtle clues as to the true nature of Nan's plight.  The conversation between Nan and the mechanic at the beginning of the episode features remarks that Nan "should have called for a hearse" instead of a mechanic, and that the new tire for Nan's car is "cheaper than a funeral."
                It is interesting to note that the tale of a hitch-hiking ghost has a long history in American folklore as well as in several works of popular entertainment. Of the popularly known tales that resemble the basic plot elements of "The Hitch-Hiker" is an urban legend that is usually told in the form of a man who picks up a female hitch-hiker not is not among the living. The man discovers this grisly truth some time after their encounter when he attempts to return a belonging the ghost left behind in his vehicle. Of the several film and television plays with strikingly similar elements, perhaps the most notable is director Herk Harvey's 1962 cult classic film Carnival of Souls. The film stars Candace Hilligoss as a young woman who seemingly survives a drag-racing accident only to find herself afterwards feeling emotionally detached from those around her. More disturbing is that she is perpetually terrorized by a dark-eyed, pale-faced figure (played by director Harvey). At the film's conclusion, the young woman discovers that she is actually a ghost when she joins in with a group of spectral figures for a dance of death at an abandoned seaside carnival. The film is certainly an effectively moody chiller and sure to please any fan of The Twilight Zone in general and especially those viewers that greatly enjoy "The Hitch-Hiker."
                 "The Hitch-Hiker" is an easy episode to enjoy, with its steady pacing, compelling lead performance, and pleasing atmosphere. The final scene of revelation which finds Nan standing in a phone booth on a stretch of desolate highway is a highlight of the entire series, as is Leonard Strong's placid face and "going my way?" persistence. In all, it's a classic and among the best the series has to offer. Highly recommended.

Grade: A

*The Fletcher and Ullman novel was later included in the 1965 anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories Not for the Nervous, ghost-edited by Robert Arthur. This volume is of interest to Zone fans as it also includes stories by Ray Bradbury ("To the Future"), Richard Matheson ("Lemmings"), and Margaret St. Clair, whose contribution "The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes" was later adapted for Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

- Alfred Hitchcock attempted to purchase the rights to "The Hitch-Hiker" from Lucille Fletcher previous to its appearance as an episode of The Twilight Zone but Fletcher turned down the $2,000 offered. $2,000 happens to be the price for which the story was later purchased for The Twilight Zone.
- According to a press release on the week of the episode's original airing, Rod Serling completed the adaptation of the radio play into television script form in just six hours. 
- Rod Serling named the lead character, Nan, after his daughter Anne. Nan was her family nickname.
- "The Hitch-Hiker" was remade as the 1997 short film "End of the Road" starring Nora Rickert as a college student terrorized by a menacing hitch-hiker played by Matthew Sutton.
-Director Alvin Ganzer also directed the first season episodes "What You Need," "Nightmare As a Child," and early sequences of the disastrous "The Mighty Casey."
-Actress Inger Stevens also starred in the second season episode "The Lateness of the Hour." The talented actress died at 35 years of age on April 30, 1970 from acute barbiturate poisoning.
-Listen to the original radio play, "The Hitch-Hiker," and other classic Suspense radio plays by clicking here: The Old Time Radio Network
-A 4-page unauthorized adaptation of Lucille Fletcher's radio play can be found in Atlas (now Marvel) Comics Marvel Tales #107 (June, 1952) under the title "Going My Way?" There is no mystery, however, as to the nature of the man pursuing the traveler in this adaptation. Death is illustrated as a grinning skeleton in a top hat. The story was adapted by Stan Lee and illustrated by the outstanding artist Bernard Krigstein. The story can be most easily accessed in the 2013 volume Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, edited by Gred Sadowski (Fantagraphics). Once horror comics became popular in the post-war era, publishers rushed to fill the dozens of horror comics demanded by readers. Since these comics contained anywhere from three to five stories each issue, writers and editors often borrowed from other sources such as radio and pulp fiction magazines to fill out issues. Other authors whose work was adapted without authorization or compensation included Henry Kuttner, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury, the latter of whom later saw excellent and authorized adaptations of his stories from EC Comics. 

--Jordan Prejean


  1. In spite of all her other roles, I always think of Inger Stevens as the last woman on earth in THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL. She, Mel Ferrer and Harry Belafonte are all great in it.

  2. I prefer the Twilight Zone Hitch-Hiker to the Suspense radio version of the play, which I feel was ruined by the casting of the way to grand, larger than life Orson Welles as the driver. Inger Stevens was perfect, and her presence was a sympathetic one as Welles never could have been. Well made as it is, and with all due respect to the competent Alvin Ganzer I think that an older hand, a senior and more seasoned director with a noir or horror background,--a John Brahm, a Jacques Tourneur,a Robert Florey,--might have elevated it from very good to great. I do like the episode but there's an underlying prosaicness (sic) to it that drags it down a notch or two for me.