BR: Pit Stop (1969)

October 1, 2015 | By


PitStop1967Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Near-Perfect

Label:  Arrow Video / MVD Visual

Region: A, B

Released:  June 2, 2015

Genre:  Drama / Action / Stock Car Racing

Synopsis: A drag racer develops a ruthless hunger to become a top driver in a deadly figure-8 stock car circuit.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with writer-diretor Jack Hill and moderator  biographer Calum Waddell / Making-of & Interview Featurettes: “Crash and Burn!” with Jack Hill (16 mins.) + “Drive Hard” with actor Sid Haig (17 mins.) + “Life in the Fast Lane” with producer Roger Corman (12 mins.) / Restoration Demonstration with Technical Supervisor James White (4 mins.) / Theatrical Trailer / 30 page booklet with liner notes by critic Glenn Kenny and musicologist Gray Newell / Reversible sleeve art by Jay Shaw / DVD version (NTSC Region 1 + 2).





Although Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (shot in 1964, released in 1967) should’ve been the calling card for another feature-length gig, that film’s delayed release had the director bouncing around, working on a racing film as a contract writer for Universal for a blip before going back to the indie world, directing what he thought was going to be material for a proposed 4-picture deal with a Mexican producer starring Boris Karloff.

Hill’s luck ran sour again, with the producer taking over the films and Hill being credited for just the English Karloff scenes, but the director’s UCLA short The Host (1960) proved sufficiently enticing to producer Roger Corman, himself plotting an exit from the yolk of American International Pictures.

AIP had pretty much given Corman the security to make a steady stream of film, but the need to impress shareholders mandated meddling with the director’s work, and after the re-editing of The Trip (1967) and Gas! (1970), Corman went indie again, setting up his own company and offering a new slate of directors the kind of deal he’d want himself: make whatever you want, but within a set budget with specific elements.

Hill’s gestating racing film went from an art concept to a hybrid filmed in 1967, and what emerged in 1969 (once again, another delayed release for Hill) was a docu-drama which for $35,000 should’ve been a hit, except one can argue it was a) a B&W film in an age of widescreen colour; b) it didn’t have an ending where the hero, after becoming an anti-hero, is morally (and professionally) wounded; and c) it was kind of eclipsed by Universal’s own racing film, the widescreen, all-colour, Paul Newman starring Winning (1969), which in the Blu-ray’s commentary track, Hill asserts as having more than passing similarities to his own film.

Pit Stop (ironically released in the U.K. as The Winner), like Spider Baby, is yet another cult film that’s aged much better than equivalent bigger budgeted studio product, largely because Hill’s instincts as a writer-director often takes scenes and characters in unconventional directions. The story of Pit Stop isn’t unique today, but it probably had a certain freshness in its day, following drag racer Bowman (Richard Davalos) as he’s lured by stock car promoter Willard (Brian Donlevy) into driving and ultimately competing against a reckless sonofabitch egotist named Hawk (Sid Haig) in an insane track carved into a figure 8: a mass of beat-up vehicles that must repeatedly drive through an unregulated intersection.

Few cars survive, drivers get bashed up, and yet Bowman finds the circuit energizing, eventually molding him into a conqueror at any cost. He wins Hawk’s girl, beats Hawk and eventually gains his respect, and then comes his biggest challenge: to escape the figure 8 for a real track, and start a career in formula racing.

Woven into this tale of a hungry soul are lover Jolene (Beverly Washburn, fresh from Spider Baby in a more mature role), egotist Hawk (Spider Baby alumnus Haig), and Bowman’s ephemeral ally Ed (George Washburn) and wife Ellen McLeod (Ellen Burstyn, billed as Ellen McRae).

There’s also an exquisite dune buggy interlude that pure  poetry, and a punchy score by The Daily Flash (with the buggy sequence scored with a Herbie Hancock soundalike track).

Austin McKinney’s nighttime cinematography is stark and moody, and any day scenes feel harsh, if not blindingly intrusive to characters that come alive at night or under the sheltering roofs of dank garages.

Just as vital are the racing scenes which Hill shot at a real track and later interpolated footage of the actors to create convincing sequences that trace Bowman’s unexpected ascent to an up-and-coming name, having scorned and shrugged off Willard’s initial offer to drive upon first watching with horror his first figure 8 race.

Whereas Winning (and MGM’s Grand Prix) focused on formula racing, Hill’s decision to stick with stock cars may have dampened the film’s chances at international success, but Pit Stop is now a time capsule of an era, anchored by compelling characters and performances often rooted in Method acting. (Davalos had co-starred with James Dean as ‘good brother’ Aaron in Elia Kazan’s 1955 version of East of Eden.)

There a rawness to the film that marries a variety of genres, if not the aesthetic of documentary, B-level exploitation, and indie drama where actors could inhabit their characters and deepen material with the approval of an open-minded director. Pit Stop also benefits from a great performance by Donlevy (hired for 3 days, he delivers a memorable, manipulative slimeball in a career swansong), and cameos by real circuit and car culture figures including custom car designer George Barris, whose sleek sedan Donlevy drives in the film’s opening scenes.

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray features a striking HD transfer from surviving elements that look great – the restoration featurette explains the label’s own aesthetic in avoiding full digital cleansing that would remove both grain, a bit of grit, and the feel of a period film – and sounds fine (although pity there’s no surviving music stems to provide an isolated score track).

Extras include a dense, deeply engaging commentary between Hill and biographer / film historian Calum Waddell that delves into much of Hill’s pre-Pit Stop years, offering meaty discussions on the crazy 1966 Corman production Blood Bath / Track of the Vampire (which exists in at least 3 versions) as well as the Karloff quartet. There’s also talk of Me, a Groupie (1970), the German sexploitation quickie with which Hill was involved, starring Ingrid Steeger, future headliner of Die Stewardessen / Naked Stewardesses (1971) and Liebe in drei Dimensionen / Love in 3-D (1973).

Hill covers every aspect of Pit Stop’s making, while a separate interview offers slightly more material. Corman also appears in an interview to contextualize his professional relationship and respect for Hill, having been responsible for The Big Doll House (1971) that launched Corman’s New World Pictures with an indie blockbuster, and Haig discusses his take on the character of Hawk. A fat booklet features a solid essay by Glenn Kenny, and an excellent contextual overview of the fleeting psychedelic band The Daily Flash by Gray Newell (who infers some archival recordings, perhaps including the score, might one day materialize).

A first-rate release, and certainly one of Hill’s best films among his C.V. of classics that include The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Switchblade Sisters (1975).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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