Friday, September 25, 2015

DVD / Blu-Ray Review: Jack Hill's Pit Stop

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

Pit Stop
Directed by Jack Hill
Arrow Video
MVD Visual
92 minutes, filmed in 1967, released in 1969 / this release is 2015

I know I saw this film in the theater when I was a kid but all I remember is the race car driving. While I was never into car culture, such as NASCAR or whatever it was called back then, seeing all the crashes was fun. I don’t recall any part of the actual story, so here was my opportunity to revisit this classic B-film.

Car racing has been both a mainstream and indie genre for quite a while, sometimes goofy like The Great Race (1965) or Viva Las Vegas (1964), to the more gritty and serious films such as Gran Prix (1966), Winning (1969; the reason why the name of this film was changed from The Winner), Le Mans (1971) or Little Fauss and Big Halsey (1970). Of course, this would lead to the likes of off road chases like one of Ron Howard’s early directorial efforts, Grand Theft Auto (1977), or even Smoky and the Bandit (1977). And don’t get me started on The Blues Brothers (1980). The latest interpretations could be seen as The Fast and the Furious and Transporter franchises, which are essentially races to the death.

Brian Dunlevy, Beverly Washburn,
 Sid Haig, Dick Davalos
With this early indie low-budget classic, we are introduced to Rick Bowman (Dick Davalos, whose Bronx accent occasionally comes through), a tough-as-nails street racer in California who is taken under wing by eye-on-the-buck industrialist and different kind of rat, Grant Willard (the last film of character actor Brian Dunlevy, d. 1972). Willard owns racing cars and a majority share of the local track where stock car drivers race the “Figure 8,” a stupid and dangerous trial by smash-up, and he brings Rick into the fold by psychologically squaring him off against the ridiculously named Hawk Sidney (Jack Hill regular, Sid Haig), who is the one to beat.
Two of the main characters are wholly driven by ego, in two different ways: Rick is a sullen, burning fire of anger, and Hawk is an extroverted loudmouth with a streak towards violence and revenge. Both of them dream of the big time, in the pro races (not a sport I follow, so please excuse the ignorance; for me, while I occasionally drive too fast – or too slow – cars are something for someone I pay to fix). Representing that level is professional race driver and ally Ed McLeod (George Washburn) and the “other side” is Sonny Simpson (Ted Duncan). Stragedy (as Bugs Bunny would say) plays a key part in the roles each character takes in the rise to the top or vice versa in this story of multiple double-crosses, the result of them, and what it takes to go all the way.

Ellen McRae (Burstyn) and George Washburn
With his sullen good looks and bad-boy demeanor (not to mention hair that is so greased it literally reflects light), Rick is a heartthrob to the ladies. There are two here (and the only two significant female roles in the entire film, as race car is a man’s sport; where’s Danica Patrick when ya need her?). The first love interest is Jolene (Beverly Washburn, sister of co-star George; she was also powerful in Hill’s 1967 Spider Baby). She sports short hair, drinks and chews a lot of gum, and while gruff is extremely sympathetic. The other is Ed’s wife and car expert, Ellen McCloud (Ellen McRae, who would soon change her last name to Burstyn and win an Academy Award in in 1974 as the title character in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; though my favorite film of hers is 1980’s Resurrection). When we meet Ellen, she is wearing a similar hair style and one-piece jumpsuit as Raquel Welsh in Fantastic Voyage (1966). There is an immediate attraction between the two, which is obvious.
This black and white release is a pretty dark story (some use the word “gritty”), with the Rick character sort of being the race car version Stephen Boyd’s Frank Fane in The Oscar (1966). Davalos does a good job as the sullen and hungry Rick, in an overaged JD sort of way. He doesn’t talk often, but when he does, his words boomerang rather than hang. If you can picture a yin and yang symbol with both sides being the same color, that would be Hawk. One is a quiet, smoldering time bomb at 11:58 o’clock; the other is a bombastic ass who thrives on attention. As usual, Haig does an excellent job at both manic and depressive, and as always, his eyes tell you he’s in the moment; a great and underrated actor who famously uses the method acting style.

Among the cast are quite a few contemporary racing stars from the circuit playing themselves, which certainly must have helped the box office the Deep South, where race cars are king. There are quite a few then-new technologies shown as the torques is checked, wheels are reinforced, and engines are often revving. Oh, and lots and lots of cars in motion, filmed during six live races. Of course, what we see is mostly the crashes more than the actual events.

The look of the film is dark and, yes, gritty, but thanks to restoration from one of the original prints (aka minus-1 generation from the negative), the contrasts are pretty sharp, which is explained in one of the many extras (such as the original trailer) included on this new edition, the 4-minute “Restoring Pit Stop.” They show before and after images, and well as side-by-side, and it’s quite the difference for the better. It’s still a bit muddy here and there, but much cleaner than it was.

In an 11-1/2 minute featurette, “Roger Corman and the Genesis of Pit Stop,” Corman explains how he was involved with the production, but of course, it’s more about Corman than Pit Stop, but I really don’t have a problem with that. The man is just interesting, and he knows how to tell a story.

“Drive Hard: Sid Haig Remembers Pit Stop” is a 17-minute short interspersed with clips of the film. Haig is a well-spoken man who plays dangerous characters. He talks about motivation, the crew, and a bit about Tarantino. It went by quick and remained entertaining. He’s also a good storyteller. Director Jack Hill gets his own shot with the 15-1/2 minute “Crash and Burn: Jack Hill on the Making of Pit Stop,” with some tales of Pit Stop, though lots of his memories are also in the commentary.

For the full-length commentary, Hill discusses the picture and his entire career in the ‘60s and ‘70s with British film historian Calum Waddell, who literally wrote the book about him, Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film (2008); Calum also directed much of the extras here, which explains the British uses of spelling in the captions (such as replacing the “z” with “s”). While some of the same material is re-discussed as in the Jack Hill interview short, as I said above, there is so much more here that gets covered, and Hill comes across as a very honest and affable guy, who is willing to talk about anything about his filmmaking, from successes to failures; an example he gives of the latter is his Me, a Groupie, from 1970.

Now, here is a weird point: oddly enough we do not see a single pit stop in the film. But of course, taking in a writ large way, Figure 8 racing could be seen as a pit stop in Rick’s career. Or am I over-analyzing? Either way, this was an enjoyable ride, but you may want to wear a helmet when viewing.


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