Pit Stop(Arrow Video)
Director - Jack Hill
Cast - Richard Davalos, Sid Haig
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 1
Distributor - Arrow Films
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 07/21/14, 6/14/15
The Film: 4/5
Before The Fast and the Furious, before Days of Thunder, before the Republican Party created NASCAR in order to help them successfully capture the white Southerner vote, exploitation cinema man god Jack Hill made the gritty, downbeat racing drama Pit Stop for legendary producer Roger "King of the B's" Corman. His first full film as a director since his delightfully macabre 1964 horror comedy Spider Baby (in between he shot scenes for two low-budget Mexican horror flicks starring Boris Karloff to supplement their U.S. release), Pit Stop found the genre chameleon Hill venturing into new and interesting territory as a cinematic storyteller. He had wanted to make a more somber and artistic film than he had done up until that point in his career and Corman had the idea to make an exciting racing feature to please the drive-in audiences across the country. Hill was game as long as he could make it his way, and Corman didn't care what tone the final film was just as long as it contained lots of races, crashes, and woman looking gorgeous....the perfect example of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking curriculum in practice.
Despite being one of the best films Hill ever made it doesn't seem to rank high on any list of his greatest accomplishments as a director. As much as I love Switchblade Sisters and his movies that catapulted Pam Grier to stardom, Pit Stop is one of the few entries in Hill's filmography that succeeds as being both wildly entertaining trash and genuinely enthralling cinema.
The hero of the film is Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos, Cool Hand Luke), a troubled loner who spends his evenings competing in illegal drag races. One particular race brings him to the attention of racing promoter Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy, Kiss of Death). Always on the lookout for promising new talent, Willard recruits Rick to join his team of professional drivers on the figure eight racing circuit. After reluctantly agreeing to Willard's offer Rick almost immediately develops a friendly rivalry with the seasoned promoter's top driver, the arrogant but talented Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig). Their mutual competitive streak intensifies as they go head-to-head in a series of races and eventually escalates into violence when Rick and Hawk's girlfriend Jolene (Beverly Washburn) begin a romantic relationship. Complicating matters even further, Rich's wandering eye (and gonads) lead him into another affair, this time with comely mechanic Ellen McCleod (Ellen Burstyn, credited here as "Ellen McRae", in one of her earliest film roles), while his big race track showdown with Hawk approaches and inevitable tragedy looms large over the lives of all involved.
Hill got his wish and Corman got his exploitable racing picture. Pit Stop, shot in brilliantly moody black & white at the tail end of the 1960's when color had long become the industry standard, is a classy film complete with a brain and a tender soul to provide the intellectual horsepower this sleek machine couldn't be anything without. The race sequences are vividly shot by Austin McKinney (The Love Butcher) on actual tracks with real cars peeling out and cracking up and edited with timing and precision by the director himself. Interior shots of the actors behind the wheel were obviously achieved by placing them in mock-ups of the cars positioned in front of real projection screens, but those fleeting moments are too short to detract from the stunning realism of the races.
Between races the character-driven scenes are well-written (Hill also wrote the screenplay) and performed by a cast of capable professionals. Middle age was a sudden sharp turn around the corner for Davalos at the time he signed onto Pit Stop so it appears pretty silly at first to see the pudgy-faced actor trying to play a youthful rebel. Despite being at least a decade too old for the part Davalos gives a fine performance with limited dialogue and is at his best when he's reacting off of his more established cast-mates. The great Sid Haig, a veteran of nearly every noteworthy Jack Hill film among many others, is the acting MVP of Pit Stop as the flamboyant egomaniac Hawk Sidney. Though he is clearly the film's chief antagonist Hawk never becomes an outright evil bastard due in no small part to Haig's sympathetic portrayal and Hill's three-dimensional writing. In his final film role veteran actor Brian Donlevy brings a hard head and a soft heart to his nuanced performance as the storied race promoter Willard, while both Beverly Washburn and future Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn provide Pit Stop with its tender feminine side but never at the cost of being sidelined as characters. West Coast folk rock/psychedelic garage band the Daily Flash provides the bluesy epic soundtrack.
Previously available on a Region 1 DVD edition released by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2000, Pit Stop has been fully restored by Arrow Films for its Region A Blu-ray premiere. According to liner notes included with this release, the original lab elements for the film have been lost so director Hill's personal 35mm answer print was used as the source of this new high-definition transfer. Restored in 1080p, the MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer compresses the widescreen picture from its original 1.85:1 theatrical exhibition aspect ratio to 1.78:1, which is still wider than the 1.66:1 framing on the earlier Anchor Bay DVD. Extensive work was done to remove as many instances of dirt, grain, and other signs of visible print damage as possible. The resulting picture quality is possibly the best Pit Stop has looked since its original theatrical release. A moderate amount of grain was kept to maintain the integrity of the print but the immaculate work done on cleaning up each frame of film is quite in evidence here. The images are very clean and the brightness level of the B&W cinematography has been increased slightly to allow for any confusion over what happens in the darker scenes to be cleared.
The 24-bit English uncompressed PCM 1.0 audio track is a hearty remaster of the original mono sound. The overall mix is occasionally busy with dialogue, music, and the sounds of revving engines and crashing cars threatening to overwhelm each other. Thankfully that never comes to pass as each component of the mix is pitched at a solid volume and nothing ever gets drowned out or distorted in the process. English subtitles have also been provided.
The Anchor Bay DVD had several bonus features produced for its release, including a Johnny Legend-moderated audio commentary with Jack Hill, a making-of featurette, and more. With the exception of the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) every supplement on this Blu-ray was produced by Arrow Video. It starts off with a new commentary with Hill, this one moderated by Calum Waddell. The track has a pleasant conversational tone and the director is a fountain of stories and insight, peppered by the moderator's well-chosen questions. Some of the info shared by Hill overlaps with "Crash and Burn" (15 minutes), the first of a trio of new in-depth video interviews that also includes brief but illuminating talks with actor Sid Haig (17 minutes) and producer Roger Corman (12 minutes). The last of the disc-based extras is a short demonstration video focusing on the restoration of Pit Stop (4 minutes).
Included with this release is a collector's booklet featuring a new essay about the film written by American critic Glenn Kenny and one about the history of the Daily Flash written by musicologist Gray Newell, both illustrated with original film stills. Arrow's customary reversible cover art features the vintage poster image and new artwork created by Jay Shaw. A bonus Region 2 DVD copy with a standard-definition presentation of the film in 1.0 mono audio and all of the accompanying bonus features has also been included.
Real cars, real actors, real action, and no CGI. Pit Stop is the real deal for thoughtful B-cinema made with intelligence and craft. One of Jack Hill's finest films, it's an exciting flick that delivers on all fronts and never comes close to overstaying its welcome. If anything, I wish it had been a little bit longer (though I doubt Roger Corman would have felt the same way). The film's Blu-ray debut is an absolute winner with a first class restoration standing tall alongside a serving of newly-produced bonus features. Arrow Video does it again. Now let's race.