Pit Stop (1969) – By Roger Carpenter

 

Few directors created an oeuvre as entertaining as low budget exploitation director Jack Hill. With bonafide cult classics which include Spider Baby, The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Foxy Brown, and Coffy, as well as other fun exploitation flicks such as The Terror, Switchblade Sisters, and The Swinging Cheerleaders, it’s hard to think of another director whose output was so varied but maintained a high quality that spanned his entire career. In a career cut short by frustration with the movie business, Hill worked in genres such as horror, action, sexploitation, women in prison, fantasy, and even blaxsploitation. Pit Stop represents yet another genre: the racing genre.

Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig) drives a car in the crazy world of figure eight racing, a type of race where cars travel on a figure eight track. As you might imagine, this creates some very real danger as cars cross the center of the figure eight. With cars crossing in opposite directions at high speed, it takes a particularly crazy racer to try this niche sport, and Hawk is the craziest and most successful. He attributes his success to the fact that all the other racers know he won’t back down for cross traffic, so most other racers try to avoid Hawk as best they can, which usually means Hawk will win the race.

Hawk drives for Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy), a sketchy businessman happy to make money by risking others’ lives. He owns the figure-eight track and sponsors drivers at several levels, including the more “legitimate” racing like stock car racing. His prize stock car driver is Ed McLeod (George Washburn), a careful, methodical driver more intent on the science of driving than he is his beautiful wife, Ellen McLeod (Ellen Burstyn, billed as Ellen McRae).

Grant also engages in illegal street racing where he meets young hotshot and daredevil Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos). Impressed by Rick’s driving, and even more impressed by his bravado, Grant decides to pit Rick and Hawk in a ploy to make even more money. Rick’s first couple of races end in disaster as he overextends himself and wrecks his car, allowing Hawk to win. But slowly Rick improves which threatens Hawk, who is hoping to break into the big league and race stock cars. The rivalry builds until one evening Rick is able to beat Hawk, wrecking him at the end of the race. As the balance shifts, Rick steals Hawk’s trophies, his thunder, his popularity, his self-worth, and even his girl, Jolene (Beverly Washburn). Hawk doesn’t take kindly to this and sets out to teach Rick a lesson. But even as he fights Rick and trashes his car, Rick continues his winning ways.

Eventually, Rick begins to tire of the racing life and turns away from Jolene. He has eyes only for Ellen McLeod and racing becomes secondary to winning her over. Tension builds between Rick, Hawk, and Ed McLeod as the big stock car race looms. Can Rick and Hawk bury the hatchet and work together to help Ed win the race? How does Ed feel about Rick trying to move in on his wife? Will the three racers work as a team or will it be a free-for-all during the race?

While racing movies have never been my choice of genre, Hill again hits one out of the park, writing and direction a highly entertaining and action-packed low budget drama. Hill filmed actual figure eight races over a period of six weekends to obtain enough edge-of-your-seat racing footage for the film, including several spectacular (and real!) crashes. There is also plenty of drama between racers as well as between love interests. Brian Donlevy, in his last film, plays a slimy, just-this-side-of-the-law, businessman adept at manipulating people to his advantage. He cares nothing for these men’s lives, only worrying about how much he can make at the next race. Sid Haig is simply stupendous as the bigger than life Hawk Sidney. He is colorful and boisterous, playing his character broadly and with monumental swagger. And while Hawk has a mean streak a mile long, he also is big enough to be able to admit defeat. Relegated to playing colorful—and oftentimes sleazy—characters in dozens of low budget films, Haig relished playing Hawk, especially once the character has a change of heart and becomes a good, even sensitive, guy.

Perhaps the true star of the film is Richard Davalos as Rick Bowman. He, too, is full of swagger and bravado, a real man among men in the wild world of figure eight racing. He single-mindedly pursues his goal of becoming Number One in the racing world and doesn’t mind leaving the detritus of others’ lives in his wake. He is a moody soul and cares nothing for the feelings of others, discarding his lover Jolene and pursuing a married woman, even though her husband belongs to the same racing team as Rick does. Ellen Burstyn, who was primarily a TV star throughout the late fifties and sixties, was poised for major stardom. Seeing her in Pit Stop, Peter Bogdonavich cast her in The Last Picture Show in 1971. She went on to many prestigious pictures including The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More, and Requiem for a Dream. Here playing the pretty love interest, she does a standout job. But the title of Sexiest Woman in the Film actually goes to Beverly Washburn. With a super-short bob and petite build, she is simply a knockout to look at as well as a very good actress.

Hill’s script is solid, the acting is superb, and the drama and action sequences are solid. The film moves at a brisk pace, interspersing actual racing scenes and car crashes with crazy 1960’s dancing, fights, and romantic intrigue, carefully building the tension and including a surprising and heart-wrenching end that cements Grant Willard as a total slime ball and turns the tables on Hawk and Rick. Hill once again proves why so many of his films are beloved by genre enthusiasts.

Not only has Arrow Video dug deep into the vaults to unearth this lesser-known Jack Hill gem, but they have seen fit to include some really fun special features which include a new audio commentary with Hill and moderated by Hill’s biographer Calum Waddell. Hill comes across as very humble and the commentary ranges far and wide, addressing many of Hill’s other films as well as plenty about Pit Stop. It is a fun and informative commentary track that is worth listening to more than once. There are also several featurettes including a discussion on the making of the film with Hill, an interview with Sid Haig, and even a short interview with Roger Corman who talks about the origin of the film, which Hill made for Corman. There is also a restoration feature as well as a theatrical trailer for the film.

The restoration is truly remarkable. Filmed at the tail-end of black-and-white photography, Hill maintains the choice was a cost-cutting measure but also states he thinks the film looks better in black-and-white than it would in color, and this reviewer agrees. This is a gritty little film, perfectly suited to black-and-white photography, and Arrow Video has done a great job restoring the film. It looks crisp and clear, especially in Blu-Ray.

This is another winning package from Arrow Video, who manage to continue to dig up lost treasures worthy of Arrow’s special treatment. Available now, you can order from Amazon or directly from Arrow at: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa