S01E16 – The Hitch Hiker
“A young woman driving cross-country keeps seeing the same hitchhiker on the roadside and, unaware she has bigger worries, fears he wants to kill her.”
In a twist worthy of the series, while the Twilight Zone generally stuck to science fiction and fantasy, some of its more memorable episodes were actually the ones that cranked up the creep factor. Take The Hitch Hiker for example, which consistently ranks among the top ten episodes of all time in just about every poll you can pull up. Adapted from a radio play (the only episode to bear that distinction) originally starring Orson Wells, The Hitch Hiker is a terror tale perfectly suited for the Halloween season.
It seems almost a modern miracle in this age of CGI, but director Alvin Ganzer manages to squeeze every ounce of tension possible out of nothing more than a few well placed cameras. The titular hitch hiker, played mostly silent by dependable character actor Leonard Strong, is always sliding into frame, showing up over Nan’s shoulder or in the reflection of the car’s mirrors. He never makes a menacing move or utters a threatening word, but the fact that you never quite know where he is going to appear is enough to keep things on edge.
Ganzer’s clever camera placement almost led to disaster though, at least according to Marc Scott Ziree’s Twilight Zone Companion. For the scene in which Nan’s car stalls on the railroad tracks, the budget didn’t allow for the show to actually rent a train. Instead, they simply set up the shot and waited for one to come along, not realizing just how fast the local locomotives passed through this particular crossing. Go back and rewatch the episode and decide for yourself whether it looks like the car barely makes it off the tracks or not before the train comes barreling through. Ah well, nobody was hurt, and the scene definitely adds to the growing sense of peril for poor Nan as the episode progresses.
Most of what I could say about The Hitch Hiker’s twist ending I have already discussed in my review of Carnival of Souls, a movie I adore, but one which blatantly rips off this episode for everything it can. One big difference in the stories denouements, however, is the way in which the two women confront their final fates. In Carnival of Souls, Mary goes down kicking and screaming, whereas in The Hitch Hiker, once Nan realizes what is happening, their is almost a sense of relief on her face. Nan is ready for death, while Mary is not.
Perhaps this is because in Carnival of Souls, Mary is shown to be something of a wild child at the beginning of the film, getting plastered with her girlfriends and engaging in dangerous drag races. Nan, on the other hand, is just a hard worker enjoying a well deserved vacation before her tire blows out. At the risk of over-simplifying, the narratives give us enough clues to suggest Nan is a good girl, while Mary, if not necessarily bad, is at least living in some grey areas. This is important because, as the old Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “spiritual writers are as one in declaring that ordinarily the only adequate preparation for death is a righteous life.”
Nobody in their right mind is in any rush to die, but a Christian with a clear conscience doesn’t shy away from the experience when they know the time is nigh. Heck, we even have a prayer ready for the occasion…
O Lord, my God, from this moment on I accept with a good will, as something coming from your hand, whatever kind of death you want to send me, with all its anguish, pain, and sorrow. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, may I sleep and take my rest in peace with you.
It’s a good prayer. May it be a long time before you ever have to use it.
Twilight Tidbits: When Nan goes to the gas station, the pumps are branded with the name of the Magnum Oil Company. This is the same name which appears on the gas truck in the biplane attack sequence in North by Northwest. While probably a coincidence (Magnum was a real company after all), one can’t help but wonder if this was a subtle dig at Alfred Hitchcock, who had been trying to buy the rights to The Hitch Hiker for his own show before Serling snapped them up.