After toiling on more Roger Corman-produced stitch jobs in which he directed additional footage that was subsequently pasted onto existing projects, writer/director Jack Hill set his sights on the exploitation-friendly world of stock car racing with the 1967-shot, 1969-released Pit Stop (originally titled The Winner). Dressed in juvenile delinquent clothing and featuring the delivered-on promise of insane figure-8 track racing, the film explores much deeper themes of competition, sportsmanship, greed, and disillusionment and contains what is probably Sid Haig’s greatest and most nuanced performance of his life. And in a brief career of highly entertaining and smart genre films, Pit Stop gives the rest of Jack Hill’s oeuvre a run for its money.
Any simpler and the plot of Pit Stop would unfold itself. Hot shot Palmdale drag racer Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) falls in with local L.A. car-enthusiast stakehorse Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy) who introduces him to the world of figure-8 racing where he tangles with charismatic Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig) and others as he climbs the professional ladder.
From that description, you couldn’t drag me to the theater to see Pit Stop even if you were paying and throwing in five pre-rolls in the bargain. When one’s favorite film regarding car culture is David Cronenberg’s Crash, you know that there is little interest to be had in checkered flags or intake manifolds. But the standard story of the novice who works his way up through the ranks is bejeweled by the attention to detail, the smart casting choices, the strongly drawn characters, and the punchy, no-nonsense dialogue all of which breathe such a life into the film and makes it all impossible to resist. I mean, “Is there any place left in this world where there aren’t any old beer cans?” is a line that is so poetic that it makes you forget you’re watching that was something that was supposed to play on a double bill in a drive-in.
In terms of the looks of the picture, Hill balances crisp and clean dramatic compositions with a great deal of documentary-style, on-the-ground footage of the figure-8 racing which is such a disorienting spectacle of twisted metal and dust that it becomes clear that keeping your bearings while racing on one of these tracks is of the most utmost importance. With the aid of cinematographer Austin McKinney, Hill is also able to pull off a lot of great filler moments like the montage of Rick working among the wrecks in the junkyard. What could be standard is elevated to high art in creative shots showing Rick scouring the yard for pieces while bouncing off hardtops and hoods as if he’s skipping over a bunch of crowded stones in a riverbed or when he climbs a mountain of junk silhouetted against a setting California sun. But magic is most especially generated in a sequence that documents an off-track gathering of dune buggies and ATV’s as they crawl through the high desert, defying gravity as they emerge from the natural, yawning divots in the sand-packed landscape all of which is set to a pulsating, rocking good score by The Daily Flash and John Fridge.
The performances by Brian Donlevy and Richard Davolos are both very good, but special mention has to be given to Sid Haig and Ellen Burstyn (here credited as Ellen McRae). Going from arrogant cock-of-the-walk to sympathetic minor-hero, Haig brings equal amount of swagger, energy, and heavy-lidded pathos to a role that could have been forgettable in a lesser actor’s hands. As Ellen McLeod, the wife, business partner, and assistant mechanic of racer Ed McLeod, Burstyn’s balance of frustrated spouse and professional functionary is done with deft, sympathetic execution that adds multiple dimensions to an otherwise rote and throwaway role. And Beverly Washburn, back from Jack Hill’s remarkable Spider Baby, is both soulful and bubbly as a button-cute, pixie-cut hanger-on.
As stated before, Pit Stop would hardly be memorable if it was all about the text. What makes it soar is the brooding and sobering subtext some of which is found early on in the junk man’s speech to Rick about how the racer makes the short money and generally ends up in a wrecked body while the lion’s share of the dough goes into the pocket of the promoter/manager. This is the kind of wisdom that can be extrapolated to virtually any vocation in which one’s body is used as a kind of currency for the wealthier folks pulling the strings above. And in fact Brian Donlevy’s Grant Willard is a true snake and one who makes no bones about it. He’s a man who has a piece of so much action on the race track that he can pit driver against driver in the hopes that one of his cars wins and that the crashes in the intersection on his track are gruesome enough to generate crowds. Racers like Rick and Hawk are just chattel.
It’s only at the end do we see that Rick understood that brutal truth all along and just didn’t care. For in Pit Stop, winning is an ugly thing that is awarded only when one gives up their soul and spirit just for the simple pleasure of being first. For every ten audience members that would gasp when this inevitability plays out in the film’s final two minutes, there is probably one who fully understands why the movie plays it this way and nods in agreement as Rick and Grant drive off from the wreckage they’ve left behind.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain