Blu-ray Review: Pit Stop

Starring: Dick Davalos, Brian Donlevy, Sid Haig
Director: Jack Hill
Rating: 8/10

A movie about stock car racing, produced by Roger Corman, and directed by Jack Hill of Foxy Brown fame? You’d be forgiven for expecting Death Race 2000 on steroids, a high octane, comic booky extravaganza, noisy, brash and lurid.

In fact, Pit Stop is quieter, more thoughtful and, in the end, far more telling that its exploitation pedigree would suggest. Hill’s preferred title for the movie was The Winner, and it’s apropos, because what we have here is a cynical look at what it takes to be a winner in the race of life. “Everybody in the race is out to win,” Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy) points out. He’s a shady entrepreneur who runs a “figure eight” stock car race track, i.e., one with an intersection in the middle where cars hurtle at each other from two different directions – a recipe for automotive mayhem.

He recruits talented but naïve drag racer Rick Bowman (Dick Davalos) to provide some competition for his regular race winner, the hatefully uncouth Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig), pitting the two against each other to stoke audience interest. Getting the bit between his teeth, Rick becomes determined to unseat the odious Hawk from his pole position, and not only that, he has his eye on the next rung up, personified by the coolly professional ace racer McLeod (George Washburn). The question is, does Rick have what it takes to make it to the top, and if so, what will he lose in the process?

As befits a film which is all about getting from A to B by the shortest route possible, it’s a starkly simple tale, which Hill imbues with brooding gravitas. The scenes have a gritty, near-documentary feel at times, with footage shot on the Ascot Park stadium in LA and other real-life locations that would have been familiar to the stock car racing fraternity. But this is counterbalanced with a sense of tortured, noirish melodrama, underscored by Austin McKinney’s bold high key cinematography. Occasionally this achieves a real beauty, as in a sequence where everyone goes out in stripped-down dune buggies for a meet in the desert, and a pensive pillow talk moment between Rick and his girlfriend Jolene (Beverly Washburn from Spider Baby with a pudding bowl haircut), which feels like classic cinema even when you’re watching it for the very first time.

At the centre of it all is a fascinating lead performance from the Greek godly Dick Davalos. With his sharp quiff, jutting jaw and petulant pout, exuding wounded vanity and neurotic pride, Davalos is, on this evidence, a cult figure just waiting to be rediscovered (you can see why his face made it onto the cover of a Smiths’ album.) Rounded out with Link Wray-style rockabilly theme music by the Daily Flash, Pit Stop is a polished, highly considered and deeply serious film that has nary a whiff of exploitation cheapie about it; it certainly has to one of the most aesthetically pleasing movies that Corman was ever involved in. The only real letdown is Hill regular Sid Haig, who blusters and rages but can’t muster the intensity to nail his third-billed role.

For all its virtues, however, it’s not hard to see why Pit Stop stalled at the box office. Released in 1969, it reads like a document from a decade earlier. With his greaser hairdo and leather jacket, Davalos is a throwback to the ’50s (he co-starred with James Dean in East of Eden), and the movie itself feels like a companion piece to the highly wrought, black-and-white lensed melodramas of the very early ’60s such as The Hustler and Hud. But it’s still a very fine film, and a no-brainer for petrol heads.

If you were impressed by the HD transfer of Spider Baby, you’ll be equally delighted by this. The restoration, under Hill’s supervision, from the original negative is immaculate, with just the very occasional artefact remaining, the tones silky and the contrast deep and sharp-edged. A dry but interesting featurette goes into the challenges and potential pitfalls of the restoration process. Other extras including a fascinating audio commentary from Jack Hill and Sid Haig, and various talking head interviews. Hill himself appears in very chatty form, fascinating on the working methods that he had to employ to cobble together something worthwhile on a minuscule budget (for instance, making the most of well-known character actor Brian Donlevy by shooting him for only three days and then sprinkling the footage of him thinly across the film). Sid Haig, who never seems to tire of talking about Jack Hill, describes how they got free locations by giving the owners bit parts in the movie. Lastly, a pleasantly urbane Roger Corman supplies some background on his relationship with Jack Hill and explains what makes a good exploitation movie (nudity helps).

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