The Film: 4/5
Note: The following portion is taken from my review of the Region B Blu-ray released by Arrow Video last year. The A/V and extras have been updated accordingly.
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, Williard 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 castmates. 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.
Code Red's MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer is framed in the 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio and looks fantastic for a film of its age and budgetary origins. 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 DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio track packs a mighty punch, with roaring engines, a rockin' soundtrack, and pulpy dialogue that never drown each other out. No subtitles have been provided.
Past releases of Pit Stop on DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Arrow Video have included commentaries with Jack Hill and several fascinating interview featurettes. Code Red's Region A release only features a short interview with producer Corman (5 minutes) and one with co-star Haig (16 minutes) that looks to have been filmed during a horror convention. Thankfully both interviews are full of good info and fond memories. The final extra is an option to play Pit Stop in "Drive-In Theater Mode", in which an actress too poor to be considered an amateur regurgitates a bunch of trivia factoids likely dug up on Wikipedia in a dull introduction. That's it? No vintage drive-in theater ads? No scratchy trailers? Yeesh. Code Red didn't even include the original trailer for Pit Stop. Come on now.
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). Code Red brings this cool cult classic to U.S. Blu-ray in fine style. Now let's race.