09 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Hitch-Hiker

I believe you’re going my way. Heh-heh, follow me over to one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes.
Episode #16: The Hitch-Hiker
Directed by Alvin Ganzer. Written by Rod Serling from a radio play by Lucille Fletcher. Starring Inger Stevens, Adam Williams, Leonard Strong.

“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.”

She also gets to do her own voiceover, giving Mr. Serling some competition. Sometimes Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) goes a bit melodramatic with her external thoughts, but that’s the only complaint I can lodge against this, one of the finest Twilight Zone episodes of the first season. It’s certainly one of the scariest in the show’s history.

The “Phantom Hitch-Hiker” urban legend was already well-known when this episode, and the early 1940s radio-play on which Serling based his script, was released (hell, it predates the invention of the automobile) but I think this is the best examination of this peculiar piece of folklore. What makes the show interesting is how it manages to flip roles into a genuine surprise.

Our young Nan Adams, after having a roadside accident in Malibu Pennsylvania near the start of her cross-country trip, starts seeing a strange “gray man” (Leonard Strong) hitch-hiking on the side of the road. Hitch-hiking everywhere. Somehow staying ahead of her. Understandably, Nan begins to change into a paranoid mess which transfers to the audience as she tries to outrun the inevitable nature of this mystery man.

The episode contains almost continual tension, and the moment where Nan gets her car caught on the railroad tracks with a train bearing down on her is the equal of many sequences in Hitchcock films. Speaking of Hitchcock, Nan’s desperate run through empty landscapes (all Malibu, by the way; I’ve driven that road many times) feels similar to Psycho… but this can only be coincidence, as Psycho was days away from the completion of principle photography when “The Hitch-Hiker” was first broadcast on 22 January 1960.

The shock finale is perfect, even if astute viewers may have already guessed it from a few hints dropped along the way. It recalls the less-explicable events in “And When the Sky Was Opened” and the later Final Destination series. An episode filled with fear concludes on a note of peace… maybe not the peace most of us would like, but peace nonetheless.

A bleak coincidence about this episode: beautiful actress Inger Stevens, who co-starred with Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High, died in 1970 from a prescription drug overdose at the tragically young age of thirty-six .

Listen carefully to the voice on the other end of the fatalistic phone call: It’s Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Madame Leota from the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland! (a.k.a. voice-actress Eleanor Audley.)