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 Hitchhiker
                After her vehicle suffers a tire 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, the mechanic puts a spare tire on 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 journey. 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 first sight, it is clear that his presence disturbs Nan.
                Back 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 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 vanished. Nan shrugs this off and drives away from the gas station.
                Nan's panic concerning the hitch-hiker increases as she continues her journey. She sees him more and more often, always standing on the side of the road, holding his thumb out for a ride. Nan drives faster, panicked by the fact that it is impossible for the hitch-hiker to stay ahead of her and yet he does. The hitch-hiker never does anything outright threatening but Nan still fears him. When she is stopped by a highway flagman at a construction site, the hitch-hiker appears at her back passenger window, asking if she is headed west. Nan cries out and hits the gas, swerving around the construction site, to the dismay of the flagman.
                Nan's next encounter with the hitch-hiker proves to be the most terrifying. Stopping at railroad tracks to allow an oncoming train to pass, Nan sees the hitch-hiker on the opposite side of the tracks. Once again feeling the pressure of panic, Nan decides to quickly cross the railroad tracks before the train arrives only to have her car stall on the tracks. With the train bearing down on her, Nan manages to get the car moving again at the last second and backs off of the tracks to the safety of the roadway. Nan believes the hitch-hiker compelled her onto the railroad tracks in an attempt to kill her.
                Night falls and Nan attempts to lose the hitch-hiker by getting off the main highway. She runs out of gas on a back road. She runs down the road, frightened and jumping at every shadow, until she reaches a gas station after closing hours. Nan pounds on the door in desperation, waking up the proprietor, a surly man who 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 threatening her. From out of the darkness comes a hand on Nan's shoulder. She turns around, sure that it will be the hitch-hiker only to find a sailor standing there. The young man is on leave and has been hitching his way back to San Diego to meet up 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. 
                Nan sees 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 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.
                Nan stops to use a payphone to call her mother and hear a familiar voice. The call 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 never to end. She drops the phone and returns to her car. She sees the hitch-hiker sitting in the back seat. He smiles and 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."


"Outside it is night - the vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies - desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me. Somewhere I shall know who he is, and who . . . I . . . am." 
     -"The Hitchhiker" by Lucille Fletcher 

"Going my way?"
                 "The Hitch-Hiker" is an excellent stand-out thriller 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 formed a template for Rod Serling and the other core writers on the series to create a number of episodes involving a single, isolated character menaced by a supernatural device. Serling recreated the structure of "The Hitch-Hiker" for later episodes such as "The After Hours," "Mirror Image," and "Nightmare as a Child."
              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 thirties and forties, no coincidence since the source material is one of the more famous radio thrillers of the forties. The voice-over narration and unadorned directing style give the episode a feeling of quaintness, but render 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 largely benign, yet manages to be menacing due to some well designed scenes by director Alvin Ganzer. The use of a mirror became a primary symbolic device for the series ("Mirror Image," "Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room," "The Mirror," "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You," a dozen more) and is put to excellent and effective use in this episode with the rear-view mirror and the mirror in the makeup case.
               Rod Serling displays his skill in adapting another's work with "The Hitch-Hiker." His major innovation in adapting Lucille Fletcher's radio play for television was to change the gender of the main character from male to female, which perhaps further worked at the sympathies of the audience. Serling recognized the excellence of his source material and wisely changed little else, as it is Fletcher's original radio play which truly deserves the credit for story excellence.

               Lucille Fletcher (1912-2000) was best-known for writing the 30-minute radio play "Sorry, Wrong Number," which was originally produced for the Suspense radio series, broadcast on May 25, 1943, starring Agnes Moorehead (star of the second season Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders"). The radio play was later adapted by Fletcher into the 1948 film from Paramount starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. The screenplay was adapted into a novel that same year by Allan Ullman, who also provided the novelization of Fletcher's screenplay, "Night Man" (1951)* Three years earlier, in 1941, Fletcher wrote "The Hitch-Hiker" as a vehicle for Orson Welles. 
               Orson Welles first starred as the doomed motorist 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. An additional performance from Welles was heard on October 16, 1942 for The Philip Morris Playhouse. Welles's final performance in "The Hitch-Hiker" was for The Mercury Summer Theater on the Air on June 21, 1946. 
                The radio play was scored by Fletcher's then-husband Bernard Herrmann (they divorced in 1948), a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone who did much to establish the musical identity of the series. Herrmann composed the first season's main title theme music, created original scores for several notable episodes, and his music was used in more than seventy episodes. Despite the lack of an original composition for The Twilight Zone episode of "The Hitch-Hiker," Herrmann's score from the 1946 broadcast of the radio play was used liberally. Lucille Fletcher told author Marc Scott Zicree, in The Twilight Zone Companion (1982), that 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, giving the appearance that the hitchhiker was moving forward in some preternatural way. "The Hitch-Hiker" was the only episode of The Twilight Zone 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 by what Rod Serling transposed and transfigured from Fletcher's original radio play. The first noticeable thing is Serling's incorporation of the tropes of a radio play into the television film, most notably with the ongoing use of the lead character's voice-over narration. The only other time Serling prominently used this device during the first season was for "Mirror Image," a very similar episode to "The Hitch-Hiker" in which a woman, played by Vera Miles, is stalked by her doppelganger in the waiting area of a bus station. The similarity between these two episodes is profound and it is evident that Fletcher's story creatively energized Serling and inspired him again when shaping the teleplays for several thematically related episodes. 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 folklore as well as in several works in the popular culture. The most well-known folktale of a hitchhiking ghost concerns a person who picks up a hitch-hiker who is revealed to have been a ghost some time after their encounter when the driver attempts to return a belonging the ghost left behind in the vehicle. Of the many films and television plays with elements similar to "The Hitch-Hiker," perhaps the most notable is director Herk Harvey's 1962 cult 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 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 dead, having not survived the car accident, when she joins in with a group of spectral figures for a dance of death at some abandoned seaside carnival grounds. The film is an effectively moody chiller and sure to please any fan of The Twilight Zone in general and especially those viewers who enjoy "The Hitch-Hiker."
                 Another tale worth mentioning is Stephen King's novella "Riding the Bullet," which had the distinction of being the first mass-market e-book when it was released in 2000. The story concerns a college student who hitches a ride with a dangerous, and very dead, driver who forces the young man who face his fears and insecurities. The story was collected in King's 2002 collection Everything's Eventual and adapted for film in 2004 by writer/director Mick Garris. 

                 "The Hitch-Hiker" is an easy episode to enjoy, with its steady pacing, compelling lead performance, and pleasingly menacing atmosphere. The final, revelatory scene 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.

Grade: A

*The Ullman novelization of "Sorry, Wrong Number" 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 adapted for Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

Lucille Fletcher snippet biography
from Volume Two (Spring, 1963) of Reader's Digest Condensed Books

Illustration by Douglas Snow
for a 1985 reprint of
Lucille Fletcher's radio play
- Alfred Hitchcock attempted to purchase the rights to "The Hitch-Hiker" from Lucille Fletcher for Alfred Hitchcock Presents prior to its appearance on The Twilight Zone, but Fletcher turned down the $2,000 offered. $2,000 was the price for which the story was later purchased for The Twilight Zone. 
- According to a press release during the week of the episode's original airing, Rod Serling completed the adaptation of the radio play into a television script in just six hours. 
- Rod Serling named the lead character, Nan, after his daughter Anne. Nan was her family nickname. The character was named Ronald Adams in the radio play. 
- "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 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.
-Adam Williams also appeared in the second season episode "A Most Unusual Camera." 
-Lew Gallo also appeared in the second season episode "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" and the fourth season episode "On Thursday We Leave for Home." 
-George Mitchell also appeared in the first season episode "Execution," the fourth season episode "Jess-Belle," and the fifth season episode "Ring-A-Ding Girl." 
-Russ Bender also appeared in the third season episode "The Fugitive" and the fourth season episode "On Thursday We Leave for Home." 
-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 written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Bernard Krigstein. The story can be found in the 2013 volume Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. Krigstein, edited by Gred Sadowski (Fantagraphics). 

--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.

  3. The made for Tv movie "Duel" I believe may have been inspired by The Hitch-Hiker. Again, we deal with a cat-and-mouse story where our terrified protagonist is unerringly stalked by a potentially deadly source, this one a petroleum tanker driven by a road-rage happy psychopath, on the trail of a terrified cross-country motorist.

  4. I realize that rational analysis of a fantasy may not be the most productive of activities; but I simply can't help myself. Who are all the people Nan meets from the time of her death onwards? (I'm assuming that she has just died at the beginning, when the mechanic changes her tire.) If she's a ghost, then she's one who can bang on windows, make phone calls, and transport a hitchhiker of her own -- the sailor -- for some miles. Could all of these people be dead too, in some sort of a limbo in which they too are denying the reality of their own deaths, just as Nan is? (The sudden appearance of the sailor, alone in the middle of the desert, might support that idea.)