Of all realities, one's own mortality is the most exacting though equally inscrutable. "The Hitch-Hiker" tells the tale of an individual who dies in a car accident, the fact of which for some inexplicable reason goes unnoticed by the deceased. If ever there were a modern folktale; this is one of Twilight Zone's finest tales if but for the revelatory performance of Inger Stevens. The story is not some April Fool where one laughs at the end or where even irony has the last word. No, death has the last word and with no loose ends, except, the mystery of "a thousand miles of empty mesa" with the headlights on high beam.
As the episode begins, before we really see anything, we hear the sound of a tire iron. It is the closest thing we get to the sound of a church bell for Nan Adam's death. This rather feeble hint is then picked up by the innocent conjecture of the car mechanic: "Blow-out, skid marks, shoulders like a pudding and going 65 m.p.h.,... By right you shouldn't have called for a mechanic, someone should have called for a hearse." And then, of course, the hitch-hiker himself; the look of disappointment in his first appearance when he is not picked up by the deceased, -- as if to say, 'doesn't she know?' This version of Mr. Death appears at first to be quite a passive fellow but Nan Adam's soon finds out about his diligence if not devotion. Her trip to California becomes an unexpected and terrifying cul-de-sac.
After the fatal incident, Nan goes on in the real world encountering real people. The Twilight Zone situation here is not ultimately an escape but a sort of grace period enabling Nan Adams to come to the place of no-fear. One could very well say that fear caused the Twilight Zone situation in the first place (as the Intro says: "From the pit of Man's fears..."). For fear, even the most latent, distorts reality, giving way to self-deception and denial. This is the world most people live in - a world of fear - where Nan Adams cannot see her own death. A rather common problem among mortals, even when it hitches a ride along the side of the road. But this trip through 'the Zone' would have Nan Adams eventually left behind by the world, for no one can accompany her to face her own mortality. Driving with the sailor at night, Nan tries her hand at a rationale to explain the omnipresence of the hitch-hiker. It is an interesting and plausible theory, one that the mind can take refuge in. But this invention of thought, though a nice exercise in deductive reasoning, ultimately fails to satisfy. For the reality of life and death is not an invention. The spectacle refuses to be reduced to speculation. No, -- not even a good idea can keep her company. Nan then uses her sex-appeal to convince her living companion (the sailor) to stay with her, though the body is just as impotent as the mind in contriving defenses against the solitude of mortal frailty.
The unknowable, the twilight zone, not having all the answers..., -- all are names for the same thing. To weather the unknown was Nan Adams' fate. We cannot help but sympathize with her. The very universe is under this same mystery. But let us remember that to look at the unknown, (or better said; to look at the not yet fully known) in a very meaningful sense, is to trust life. And this is what Nan Adams does, leaving an expression on her face to rival Greta Garbo's in the last scene of 'Queen Christina'. It is an expression that cannot be diagnosed for it has no opposite; she sits in her car staring into empty space, her face unbiased, unconditional, unclouded by fear. Pathless, yet there is a way. Her expression is,... free! This is not merely some glorified poker face. Inger Stevens' acting here is wonderful, haunting and somehow hinting of a good mystery behind it all.
About this scene, a couple of points should be made: Nan Adams twice in the episode views the hitch-hiker in a mirror. First, at the gas station after the tire on her car is replaced and second, at the very end in the rear view mirror. The first time, she is startled ; and looking away, comes to an expression of complete bewilderment and foreboding. For a few moments, she looks,... well, in a sense turned off. Lights out! The second time, this same 'look' is there but with a composure and texture on her countenance of near imperceptible transcendence, -- Nan Adams says to herself; "The fear has left...". With that inner look, Inger Stevens inverts the story of "The Hitch-Hiker" into a kind of dark version of Jesus' parable of 'The Good Samaritan.' Nan gets back into the car after having phoned her mother only to discover that she (her mother) has been ill with the news of her daughter's death; her mother says: "A tire blew out and her car turned over."
Walking back to her car from the telephone booth with the flashing sign of the diner in the night (as if to indicate the lights of a wrecker at the scene of an accident), we hear music that has a vein of dissonance, the ominous notes of the trombones that seem to require resolution. When Nan looks into her rear-view mirror, after having gotten back into her car (to go who knows where) there is no reaction at all to the presence of a back seat driver. The camera takes an outside shot as Nan looks down from the mirror; she does not move her head but merely closes her eyes for a moment, then opens them; more looking in than looking out. 'Azrael', the hitch-hiker, the grim reaper has vanished in this terminative scene. His presence is still there in the back seat but transformed beyond any 'normal' recognition - no longer to be 'seen'. Just like his final appearance here in the back seat is strangely intimated by the insistent and somewhat disturbing camera angles of Nan Adams throughout the episode from this same position (from the back seat). The outside shot has Inger Stevens' face in half shadow, nevertheless we can perceive all of it. In that given moment of her expression, a small hint of a smile, as the camera moves toward the starry heavens, we catch a glimpse through her eyes beyond the wall of the World/Cosmos, or into the very Heart of It. Mortal impasse and existential dread ("A fear just about as vague as its object.") gives way to a faith in some yet unnamed universe and good mystery right here and now - where only fear dies - and where only fear dies there is no death in ....
...THE TWILIGHT ZONE."
"Mortal impasse and existential dread gives way to a faith in some yet unnamed universe and good mystery right here and now ....."
This same thing happens in the sci-fi classic movie Rocketship X-M at the 'end', except instead of Nan Adam's face to look at we have the last words of Dr. Lisa Van Horn. Check it out!
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