Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pit Stop

Raw Guts For Glory!  Flesh Against Steel!

Jack Hill's 1969 auto-racing exploitation movie Pit Stop (filmed in 1967, produced by Roger Corman) is full of real race car action and plenty of fender crunching crashes and even features a couple memorable performances from its cast (one of who would be a future Oscar winner), not to mention the cool blues-rock soundtrack, groovy laid-back 60s vibe, and, hey!, lots of squealing tires on dirt. . . basically what I'm getting at is that this is another winner from exploitation writer/director extraordinaire Jack Hill.

Fun fact:  the original title for this film was The Winner.

Pit Stop follows tough-guy, drag racing loner Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) who gets bailed out of jail by an unscrupulous promoter and car sponsor named Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy) and pulled into the world of figure-8 racing, which is exactly what the name implies: a looped-track race with an intersection.  It's crazy, but apparently exists in the real world.

Rick goes up against the hotshot local, wild driver Hawk Sidney (frequent Hill collaborator Sid Haig) and they develop a rivalry on the racetrack and off, some of it involving Jolene (Beverly Washburn), Hawk's dark-haired, wide-eyed groupie girlfriend (but as she says to Rick, she's "nobody's girl.")

Eventually Rick proves to be the better driver and Grant gets him into bigger races, real races, as a backup for Grant's ace driver, Ed McLeod (George Washburn), but Rick gets himself into further romantic trouble with Ellen McLeod (Ellen Burstyn, credited under her surname McRae), Ed's wife.
On paper, all of that seems pretty routine stuff for this kind of movie.  In practice, you got a whole different machine.
Here, let me give you 10 Reasons you should roll on over to the PIT STOP.

1.  Jack Hill, exploitation luminary.

In an interview once, Quentin Tarantino called Jack Hill the "Howard Hawks of exploitation movies," and the label has stuck over the years and that is because it's true and accurate.  Just like Hawks, Hill was adept at working in many different genres, all of them confidently.

While Hawks made A-list-type films in the war, drama, comedy, and western genres, Hill of course would make B-pictures (but stellar B-pictures) in genres as varied as horror (Spider Baby [1967]), blaxploitation (Coffy [1973]Foxy Brown [1974]), fantasy (Sorceress [1982]), women-in-prison movies (The Big Doll House [1971], The Big Bird Cage [1972]), girl gang action-dramas (Switchblade Sisters [1975]), and cheerleader flicks (The Swinging Cheerleaders [1974]).

Whatever material he worked with, Hill was able to elevate it.  He often wrote his own movies (as he did with Pit Stop), imbuing them with realistic and snappy dialogue and giving the film a specific rhythm (also with the editing, which Hill happened to do on this movie as well) that keeps things lively with a forward momentum.  It kept his movies from becoming run-of-the-mill drive-in fare and is part of the reason why his films are still enjoyable today and continue to be influential.

2.  The cinéma vérité style shooting, the realism, clever editing, & montage.
The first half of the movie features plenty of figure-8 racing and car crashes, all of which is exciting to watch.  The races were filmed at a real racetrack during actual races, documentary style with five cameras, led by director of photography Austin McKinney.  This guerrilla-style of shooting adds to the authenticness that runs throughout the film, a realism that is accentuated by the use of handheld cameras during the action scenes.

The real race footage is cleverly and seamlessly spliced into the scenes of the actors, most of which was filmed on sets and in non-race locations.  The editing is so superb that it is hardly noticeable and not nearly as jarring as similar tactics usually are on low budget pictures like this one.
The junkyard location, where Rick fixes up his cars and whatnot, usually in groovy montages, is also very cool and is definitely another highlight.  Hill and his crew really maximize the location for production value, with piles and piles of junked out classic cars, ruined from recklessness, that not only look cool onscreen but also perfectly echo the possibilities of living in the fast lane of race car driving.

3 & 4.  Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn.

Sure, Rick is the star of the movie and the main character (and actor Richard Davalos did play James Dean's brother in East of Eden [1955]...), but these two steal the show!  Haig, playing Hawk, is a wild man, with crazed eyes and facial expressions and an almost manic way about him.  He's a lively fella.

In some of the later scenes though, you get the idea that his bravado might be a coverup for some feelings of insecurity.  Haig plays the role large and is great fun to watch.  In a fun bit of trivia, Haig didn't know how to drive a car when he took the role of the fearless-driving Hawk.

His lady friend, Jolene, as played by Washburn, is equally fun to watch in a completely different way.  She's a gum chewing, dark-haired dish who does most of her acting with her expressive eyes.  She's kind of a weirdo in early scenes where she's hanging on Hawk, but later on there's real empathy for the character and the situation that she finds herself in.
One of the best scenes is when Hawk, sore over losing a race AND Jolene to Rick, heads out and gleefully smashes Rick's car up with an axe. . . while Jolene is cowering inside!  It's an intense scene, made more so by the frantic in-your-face handheld camerawork.

At this point in 1967, when this movie was filmed, Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn were part of Jack Hill's acting repertory.  Haig would work on most of the films Hill made; he and Washburn both starred in the excellent Spider Baby, which was filmed in 1964 but not released until 1967.

Fun Fact: Haig and Washburn both had roles on Star Trek: TOS, in Season 1's "The Return of the Archons" and Season 2's "The Deadly Years," respectively.
And of course, there's Jolene's "Why Not?" t-shirt...

5.  future Oscar winner, Ellen Burstyn.
This is one of Burstyn's first film roles and she makes the most of what is basically a wire-thin part as the neglected wife who is nevertheless devoted to her husband's work (she helps with the welding and engine work).  She's very restrained in her performance, and with that she brings a certain dignity to the character, a dignity that informs her later misguided attraction to Rick.

It's a wonderfully understated performance, she's fantastic, making an impression with her limited screen time.
Ellen Burstyn would, just a couple years after Pit Stop, star in Peter Bogdanavich's The Last Picture Show (1971) and receive her first of six Oscar nominations.  She would win a few years later for Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and she would also star in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and, most famously, The Exorcist (1973).

I also have to mention she was a multi-episode guest star on season 4 of Louie, which was excellent.

6.  The cool blues-rock soundtrack.

The instrumental soundtrack is provided by a band called The Daily Flash, a psychedelic surf blues rock group.  Actually, it is just credited to them, as that band broke up before the movie came out and the soundtrack was recorded by some former members of The Daily Flash, as a group called Two Guitars, Bass, Drums, & Darryl.  Either way, the tunes are groovy and they really play well over the montage scenes.

Here's one of the tracks over a series of production stills.  Dig it:

7.  The dune buggy scene.

Dune buggies are cool.  These scenes were filmed at the Imperial Sand Dunes in Southern California, where dune buggy vehicles like the ones featured in Pit Stop are no longer legal to drive due to safety and environmental concerns.  Smaller and safer ROVs are allowed, but nothing like these hotrods here.  This short section of the movie is like a small peak into a bit of regional history.  Plus, you know, dune buggies..

8.  The car crashes - lots of em!
Crash, bang, smash.  If you like cars crashing into one another, this has got you covered.  The figure-8 racing is crazy and a lot of real crashes are captured in the movie.  Nobody was seriously injured while filming so you can enjoy the carnage guilt-free, which is good, because the mayhem is quite entertaining.

9.  The downbeat, somewhat existential, bummer ending.

I did not see that coming.  Sheesh.
Pit Stop ends with a downer of an ending, flipping the definition of a hero with Rick revealing his true character (and Grant, too), further defining his position as an outsider-loner whose selfishness is clearly self-evident (Grant just cements himself as the oily promoter).

I won't spoil the specifics of the ending of the movie, just know that it is decidedly downbeat and quite fitting for the era it comes from.  It brought to mind two wildly disparate things; the endings to both George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).  Make of that what you will.

10.  The cool Crash-o-Rama movie trailer!

And here is the trailer again, but with Jack Hill commentary, courtesy of Trailers From Hell:

Final Thought:  Pit Stop is a great little auto-racing, 60s rock n' roll, delinquent, exploitation, action-drama, rising above its low budget and generic genre premise.  If you see it on your travels, be sure to stop and check it out.
"Is there anywhere in the world there isn't old beer cans?"
Yeah, maybe there would be if you stopped throwing your empties everywhere, ya dink!

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