“Pit Stop” is something of a rarity in the ‘60s film career of legendary exploitation king Jack Hill, in so much as it’s practically the only project he was involved with from that era for which he was given complete control from the beginning -- as writer, director and editor -- that actually managed to make it on to theatre screens un-tampered with, and in exactly the form that had always been envisioned for it when it was originally conceived. Practically everything Hill made before that (and quite a lot that came after it) which wasn’t merely second unit work on one of Roger Corman’s ‘special assignments’ -- for which Hill was often hired to shoot extra pick up footage for the canny producer’s numerous film-salvaging exercises for his New World Pictures organisation -- often ended up falling foul of circumstance in one way or another. Even his marvellous 1964 indie cult item “Spider Baby” went unseen for many years after its producers went bankrupt, and was only recently restored to its former glories after building its reputation on years of underground circulation, mainly via VHS copies sourced from extremely poor quality 16mm prints.
It wasn’t until his better known 1970s exploitation movies starring Pam Grier – such as“The Big Bird Cage” (1972) and “Foxy Brown”(1974) -- that Hill’s talent as a writing and directing auteur managed to prevail on screen relatively intact once again, although it was also this period that helped ghettoise him as a director of exploitation – an unfortunate circumstance which eventually led to his leaving the industry in the 1980s when he could no longer find adequate funding for even this outlet for his skills. Hill’s work went practically unsung for many years until Quentin Tarantino began critically championing his previously ignored back catalogue in the mid-1990s, helping to popularise the notion that artistry and vision could still co-exist alongside the requirements of low budget exploitation material demanded of filmmakers such as Hill by their backers, as assuredly as it had done in the mainstream thrillers and melodramas of A list filmmakers such as Hitchcock or Douglas Sirk. It is typical of this self-effacing artist’s luck, though, that despite being one of his most accomplished films, “Pit Stop” is still probably also one of Jack Hill’s lesser known and least remembered efforts.
The film came about as a result of Roger Corman’s desire to cash in on the popularity of the domestic stock car racing scene in the mid-1960s. Impressed with the efficiency of his work on a range of other projects, Corman offered to back Hill to do whatever he wanted with this as his subject matter, so long as fast cars were involved somehow and the hero won at the end! Hill had no interest in the scene, but became fascinated during his researches, while scouting the Ascot Speedway track in Southern California that was eventually to play a crucial role in the film, by the insanity of figure-eight speedway racing. Here, young drivers hoping to use the circuit as a stepping stone to greater things, were enticed to risk life and limb taking part in crazy night time race meetings where the built-in intersection of a criss-crossing track practically guaranteed a nasty crash at regular intervals as part of the spectator entertainment. He considered the rapaciousness of the sponsors, the win-at-all-costs ambition of the competitors, and the voyeuristic bloodlust of the public a perfect metaphor for 60s America, cast in the image of popular spectator sport at its most deranged; and he set out, with Corman’s full approval, to make an art film that could still play to drive-in audiences as a genre-geared piece of Americana.
Indeed, “Pit Stop” quietly subverts its apparently generic roughneck-underdog-wins-the-girl-and-the-glory storyline by ending on a note of chilling emotional disassociation that feels as existentially bleak in its own way as anything Bergman or Antonioni might’ve produced around 1967. Unfortunately, the film’s strengths were also in some ways its undoing at the time: the film had to be shot in gritty black & white, since this was the only film stock sensitive enough to be used at night for the speedway sequences, in the absence of the extra lighting that colour film would have required and that would have taken the movie beyond its budget range. But the drive-ins that would have made an ideal venue for such a movie had just switched to a ‘colour only’ policy, so the film ended up, two years after it was originally shot, playing only briefly as the lower half of a double-bill with motorbike flick “Naked Angels”, only to disappear into near oblivion after just a few weeks, having never even reached Los Angeles.
Arrow Video now seek to remedy the semi-lost status of this little seen but expertly crafted little low budgeter, by giving the film a luxurious dual-disc Blu-ray/DVD release, and having it fully restored and the disc crammed with plenty of extras thanks to the participation of Hill, Corman and Hill’s regular repertory player during the period, Sid Haig. There has been just as much attention paid to the packaging and the content of this release as the company now routinely lavishes on better known works by the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci -- and “Pit Stop” soon proves itself more than worthy of the same level of respect.
Through an assured use of Neo-Realist, seat-of-the-pants, guerrilla-style shooting tactics -- an approach largely necessitated by the sheer paucity of the budget being worked with -- Hill captures a street level sense of authenticity that turns the film into a snapshot of the 1960s Sothern California beat scene: set adrift in its own little bubble, sandwiched somewhere between the golden age innocence of the traditional ‘50s Diner and the crowded, ‘60s era go-go clubs it portrays teeming with an odd mixture of old-school rocker types (still with their brilliantined quiffs intact in 1967) and lose-limbed beatniks, it’s a grungy, sweat drenched world documented in a rough-shod, yet attractively direct style by the writer-director through his utilisation of hand-held camerawork conducted often in real-life locations.
Through a series of scene-setting vignettes and montages scored to an contemporary bump n’ grind soundtrack of wailing electric psyche-rock garage band blues, Hill aligns the film’s particular racing milieu to a period slightly before that of the laid-back countercultural drifter vibe that was later to be documented in Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop”; but it also acts as a signpost of sorts to how the win-at-all-costs attitude of many of the characters we meet in “Pit Stop” eventually devolved into that variety of aimless, existential sun-baked ennui encapsulated so evocatively by the drag-racing James Taylor and Dennis Wilson characters seen in the Hellman film.
Richard Davalos plays Rick Bowman -- a thick-set, bequiffed semi-delinquent whose street racing escapades come to the attention of aging impresario-manager type Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy), a custom car manufacturer who needs a supply of reckless young upstarts to choose from as potential back up for his number one driver Ed McLeod (George Washburn), whose about to take the wheel of one of Willard’s vehicles in the forthcoming speedway championship. Only if they are able to first survive the wreckage of the nocturnal dog eat dog world of the figure-eight stock car racing circuit -- where the smell of petrol and the squeal of tyres on dirt regularly presage the thud of metal crunching metal -- will these ambitious kids stand any chance of making the grade. After being bailed out of jail by Willard when the youth is arrested for causing an accident that results in the car he’s been street racing against ploughing into the front of somebody’s house, Bowman is at first reluctant to enter this even crazier world at his rescuer’s behest; but an encounter with Willard’s currently anointed king of this figure-eight free-for-all – an aggressive, perpetually wired big mouth called Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig), who rules the roost through gobby intimidation – causes Bowman’s completive juices to start flowing, and he sets about acquiring his own race car with the intention ultimately of taking Hawk down and ending his reign as the scene’s number one big shot.
Sid Haig, along with Beverly Washburn who plays Hawk Sidney’s gum-chewing speedway groupie of a girlfriend Jolene, were both pretty much the backbone of Jack Hill’s unofficial repertory company by this point, although they were previously called upon to play far more obviously outlandish and unrealistic characters in the form of the genetically regressive Merrye siblings of Hill’s “Spider Baby”. Here the couple at first appear to be almost as off the chart crazy: for a start both have equally distinctive appearances and personalities – Haig, wild-eyed and lanky, is ostentatious in his use of swaggering braggadocio as part of his track-way showmanship when entertaining the crowds … exuding an air of jittery, wreckless unpredictability with it; while the strikingly pretty Washburn is somehow both elfin-delicate and boyishly wild -- her toothy grin and large eyes suggesting an irrepressibly ebullient spirit desperately looking for some outlet for its enthusiasms, but finding only the misdirected excitement that’s born out of hanging around unhinged deadbeats of the speedway like Hawk all her young life.
Certainly, the first half of the movie adumbrates a pretty traditional adolescent hero-centred narrative arc, that starts with Bowman’s humiliation when he’s edged off the track by Hawk in his first race, and then proceeds with him gradually working his way up the pecking order (under the wisdom and guidance of a folksy racing old timer) while working in a junk yard to pay for the vehicle he wrecked during his first race; until he’s finally fit and able enough to take his revenge on Hawk, writing off his ruthless rival’s flashy new pair of wheels in a return match, earning himself the romantic interest of Jolene, to boot. This development allows Haig to demonstrate what he can do when playing up to a more menacing persona than the cookie, offbeat weirdo look he’d got down to a tee by this point, especially during an edgy sequence in which a jealous Hawk follows Bowman and Jolene on their post-race date, and out of sheer rage and frustration, literally beats the couple’s vehicle into a piece of battered junk using an axe, with Jolene still inside it!
But Hill’s forte as a storyteller is taking rather common or garden material, such as the teen drive-in genre suggested by the above synopsis, and giving it an interesting twist, allowing him-self the luxury of opening up areas of social commentary without it necessarily being obvious that that was the original intention. At the centre of what becomes the film’s subtextual dissertation on America’s quasi Darwinian business culture, in which winning always justifies the means (the film’s original and more sensible title was “The Winner”, and appears on the early answer print owned by Hill that has been used for this Arrow restoration), there stands the deceptively benign-looking figure of Grant Willard, as portrayed by the veteran ‘40s film star Brian Donlevy. Best known to most of us today for his role as the rather inappropriately bombastic incarnation of Bernard Quatermass seen in Hammer’s 1954 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s BBC sci-fi classic “The Quatermass Xperiment” and its 1956 sequel “Quatermass II”, Donlevy is a much altered figure here -- in what turned out to be his final screen role -- from that belligerent, corseted stuffed shirt we’ve grown so used to viewing him as in his Hammer Films incarnation. Hill cast Donlevy on the basis of the Roger Corman method of finding and casting actors who were still well known enough to provide a film with marquee value, but were otherwise on their way down Hollywood’s greasy pole, and could therefore be employed rather more cheaply than they would have been in their heyday. He plays a sort of charming, seemingly easy-going and mild-mannered Mephistopheles figure, who is nevertheless quietly sinister in the way he manages to seduce the film’s cast of youthful hopefuls into believing that risking their lives on the figure-eight circuit simply for the sake of promoting his custom cars is a worthwhile endeavour. Once he’s got them hooked on the competitive thrill and pumped up on ambition as surly as if it were heroin, Willard manipulatively plays them off against each other to find the best driver to be his entry in the stock car championships, using a heartless survival-of-the-fittest strategy in his process of elimination. In the film’s second half we even begin to see the vulnerable, human side of Hawk Sidney as we realise the game Willard is playing by deliberately engineering his rivalry with Bowman in order to see which of the two men will end up being best suited to providing the back-up to Willard’s main driver, Ed McLeod, in a coming championship race that should prove extremely profitable to Willard’s firm in terms of sponsorship deals if he can engineer a win.
McLeod himself comes across as a tough, non-nonsense competitor at first; but his fears and vulnerabilities are also gradually exposed through the tenderness that is expressed in his relationship with his wife Ellen -- played by the young Ellen Burstyn under her original surname of McRae. Burstyn’s role is a relatively thankless one on the face of it: that of the neglected wife -- devoted to her husband’s ambitions but suffering from the emotional pangs of physical want that are the price she has to pay for his dedication to his work; but she manages to make the most of the sketchily written part to deliver a restrained but affecting performance of understated dignity, that portrays her eventual attraction to Bowman as an understandable though misguided development.
Hill expertly employs montage at regular intervals in order to craft the movie’s undulating rhythmic flow, modulating and varying the speed and mood of the action as the sensibilities of the main characters and our perceptions of them continually change: the stock car footage, captured in the white heat and noise of the moment by Hill’s five man camera crew at a real figure-eight track, and cut with close-up shots of the actors as recorded in the studio, lends early proceedings a feeling of relentless urgency and a furious pace that is mainly down to Hill’s sharp use of editing; his depiction of Bowman’s assiduous work in the car yard, methodically assembling his track vehicle as he sets about edging up the racing ladder, provides the impression of a forward momentum in the film’s narrative trajectory, the gritty hand-held feel of the footage imbuing it with an aura of gravitas.
The range of real-life race-associated haunts Hill weaves into this fictional world, from the sights and sounds at the crowded track-side bars (where the racers go to let off steam after their performances) to the grease and noise in the mechanics’ workshops, or the attractive car displays to be found in Willard’s immaculately arranged motor showroom -- designed to embody the image of a racing enthusiasts’ idea of paradise in order to mask the relentless vying for the top that underlies it – ensure the world of “Pit Stop” feels real enough to convince us of its characters’ essential believability. Hill and cameraman Austin McKinney offset the earthy, low budget grittiness entailed by the harsher aspects of the story with moments of great romanticism and visual lyricism, too, most notably during a long sequence in which Bowman joins Ed and Ellen McLeod on a promotional buggy racing weekend in the desert which develops into a visually lush night-time sequence, shot day-for-night using a red filter on the lens to create the illusion of lengthening shadows emerging by moonlight and spreading across the dunes -- a perfect setting for the moment Ellen allows herself to be seduced by Bowman, who is by now looking to not just steal Hawk’s back-up driver status, but to usurp McLeod himself in the big race.
The conclusion, when it comes, is uncompromisingly devastating, leading to a powerful revelation of character that exposes the cynicism and hollowness at the heart of the Willard credo and of all those willing to live by it. This downbeat arthouse movie ending completely upends our received notions of heroism in the movies, while cleverly fulfilling all of Corman’s stipulations about how a genre picture should end, in letter if not in spirit. With its well-chosen cast, concise writing and edgy black and white photography “Pit Stop” anticipates the revolution in American film that was being engineered at the time by the likes of George A. Romero, although Jack Hill has had to wait until the present day for that fact to be fully appreciated. Now, thanks to this intelligently restored edition, which has been cleaned up as much as is possible using Hill’s own copy as the source for Arrow’s digital master (the original lab materials had been lost) while preserving the movie’s original texture and grain, fans of genre cinema who may not necessarily be familiar with this work will have a chance to view it in the best possible version, and it is unlikely newcomers will be disappointed.
At the head of a fine collection of extra features created for this release by the team at High Rising Productions, is the director’s audio commentary, in which Calum Waddell, author of ‘Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film’ engages the filmmaker in a discussion not just of this particular work and the circumstances of its production, but of most other aspects of his career too -- including his collaboration with Mexican master of mayhem Luis Enrique Vergara, for whom he shot some material featuring Boris Karloff -- in some of the actor’s final screen work in the US -- for four low budget horror films produced in Mexico and released in the early-seventies. The easy-going atmosphere of the discussion, derived no doubt from the fact of Waddell having clearly already built up a rapport with Hill previous to the commentary during the writing of his book on the director’s career, belies the great wealth of information about the director’s experiences in the film industry which are the fruits of the stories and anecdotes he relates during the course of the ninety minute conversation. The three video featurettes (also directed by Waddell) are the icing on the cake, and feature Hill in “Crash and Burn: Jack Hill on the Making of Pit Stop” (15:00) talking more about how he came to agree to make this film about a subject he wasn’t initially very interested in; about how Brian Donlevy’s three days of work on the picture were made to look more substantial by seeding his scenes throughout the movie’s run time; and how the real-life stock car crash sequences were shot and woven into the finished film, among many other subjects related to the making of the movie.
Sid Haig in “Drive Hard: Sid Haig Remembers Pit Stop” (16:48) talks about the guerrilla methods of filmmaking necessitated by the project and about the development of his working relationship with Jack Hill, which started on early student projects and continued on into Hill’s ‘70s Blaxploitation phase. Finally, Roger Corman appears for “Life in the Fast Lane: Roger Corman on Jack Hill and the Genesis of Pit Stop”(11:36) to talk about the founding of New World Pictures and Hill’s involvement in many of Corman’s low budget films from the period, before he was eventually given this chance to show what he could do when allowed absolute freedom. A theatrical trailer is included and a quick mini-featurette, “Restoring Pit Stop” (3:53), turns out to be an extremely worthwhile little addition to the disc, featuring one of the best and most instructional introductions to what it is that a modern film restorer, working in the digital medium, actually does, and what technical considerations are involved in deciding how the work is carried out -- narrated by Arrow’s technical supervisor James White.
For this two-disc package, the film has been presented on high definition (1080p) Blu-ray and Standard Definition DVD featuring the original mono 1.0 audio track (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray). A reversible sleeve features the original artwork and newly commissioned work by Jay Shaw, while a Collector’s Booklet contains an appreciation piece, accompanied by many original production stills, by film critic Glenn Kenny; and a piece by music writer Gray Newell in which he expounds on the psych rock career of The Daily Flash – the band credited with writing the movie’s soundtrack, although the story turns out to be a great deal more complicated than that -- and its various offshoots.
“Pit Stop” will make an enjoyable addition to any cult collector’s Blu-ray shelf, and is well worth taking a punt on.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!