March 19, 2013 § 3 Comments
The backstory of “The Hitch-Hiker” (viewable online at Vimeo): it begins as a short story by Lucille Fletcher, who then adapted it as a radio play in the early 1940s (available for your listening pleasure here). Serling, nearly twenty years later, adapts it for TZ. The major difference? Serling made the main character a woman. The role was made famous by Orson Welles on the radio, and it was also a man in the original short story. (As a weird aside: the famous radio thriller series in which the radio play appeared, Suspense, featured music by Bernard Herrmann, who also wrote the TZ theme and so many other thriller scores. And Herrmann was Fletcher’s husband for ten years.)
Serling opens by telling us that Nan Adams is driving cross-country on vacation. She’s a buyer for a department store. She has a flat tire. SPOILER ALERT (though I mean, come on, it’s fifty years old): she’s already dead, though she doesn’t know it yet. As the mechanic fixing her tire says, in a great dual meaning, she “must be on the side of the angels.” As she drives away, she spots for the first time a mysterious hitchhiker who she’ll see all across the country, begging a ride just from her.
Nan, the independent working woman driving across country for nothing more than fun, is given no backstory, no man she’s chasing down or fleeing from, no tortured or angelic past. She shares her name with one of Serling’s daughters, and maybe this has something to do with the refreshing absence of the typical moralistic or misogynistic structure of a story of a woman alone on the road. Nan’s internal monologue, in the voiceover of actress Inger Stevens, carries the episode along, as it would in a radio play. However, this is accompanied by abundant shots from within the car of America flying by — unusual at a time when so many driving scenes were done in studios with stock footage playing in the background — and Nan’s face registering her anxiety about the hitch-hiker’s reappearances.
The episode, overall, has a wonderful lightness and gentleness, especially within the parameters of the “thriller.” Nan describes her sense of “disquiet” (not even fear) and the hitchhiker himself as “vague”; it’s not a bad term for the feel of the episode. The director, Alvin Ganzer, and Serling knew that they had a fine, natural actress in Stevens, and Ganzer uses a great deal of natural light, also unusual for the period; this, too, adds to the vague or hard-to-define tone of the episode. There are a number of terrific closeups of Steven’s face that exhibit the kind of subtlety that was never the trademark of TZ overall, ranging from perplexity to an occasional, unexpected, eerie calm and peace.
The episode is almost perfectly divided between sunlight (natural light!) and darkness. The turn to darkness is accompanied by a return of flickering lights — neon, this time, but still reminiscent of the strobe of the projector in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.”
Nan, out of gas after midnight, runs through the dark to a gas station. It’s closed, of course, and the proprietor is in no mood to get out of bed and pump. At this point Nan is startled by a sailor: after he’s grabbed her shoulder and she’s recovered a bit from the shock, he asks, “Lady?”
She delivers the following reply: “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”
The blend of relief, simple recognition, despair, and desire here is breathtaking.
Desperate, she begs the sailor to ride along with her, and he accepts, persuading the station owner to sell them some gas. While the sailor makes some mild comments about her looks and, after she veers wildly in an attempt to hit the hitchhiker, she tries to get him to stay with intimations that she wanted him to “take her out,” the encounter is of a piece with the gentle, humane tone of the entire episode: there’s the threat of sexual violence that comes with the fictional presentation of any encounter between a woman and a stranger at night, but in the end, it’s the sailor that flees, scared off by Nan’s intensity and confusion.
Nan learns, via cross-country call in a phone booth by the flickering neon light, that her mother has had a breakdown due to Nan’s death. So yes: women going mad, women dying who dare to live and travel unaccompanied. But that’s not what one takes away from a viewing. This was such a popular story at the time that many viewers would have known that it originally featured a man. And the ending makes clear that Nan’s death is not a punishment; it’s just the way of us all, a fact that must be accepted eventually.
The final appearance of the hitchhiker is in Nan’s rear-view mirror. Mirrors will come up again in the next post. Here, the counterpoint of Nan’s look of exhausted acceptance and the hitchhiker’s wry smile is exquisite. Stevens’s performance in this episode is likely my favorite of the entire first season, especially that look into the rear-view mirror.