After the cult obscurity of Spider Baby (1968), and the even weirder art-house porno trip film Mondo Keyhole (1966), director Jack Hill’s career was sufficiently vegetative to make a drag racing movie offer from Roger Corman look good, and Hill hated drag racing. But inspired by the theme of a man who wins the race but loses his soul, he set out to make an art movie in exploitation guise (again), and succeeded admirably.
The plot is simple: moody racer Dick Davalos succeeds through sheer ruthlessness, wrecking or discarding everyone around him. This morality tale unfolds against the background of figure 8 racing, a stock car race with a lethal intersection in the track. Hill filmed the collisions and, even more scarily, the near-misses, for six weekends and then staged action with his leads to blend in with the most exciting footage, capturing a weird subculture of American sport.
As an action movie, Pit Stop is imperfect, or at any rate highly individual: the dodgem-car violence is abstracted into a series of smashes, interspersed with intense close-ups of drivers. There’s no way to follow who is where, except when a face rotates upside down and we cut to a car rolling belly-up. This is montage as percussion, anticipating the New Incoherence of Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass, in which the violence is not in front of the camera, it is produced by the camera and Moviola bashing fenders.
Hill keeps the energy up between collisions with zestful performances from his rogue’s gallery of cheap players. Davalos was a second-string method guy best known for having played James Dean’s brother. He invests totally in his unsympathetic role, astonishing with his callousness rather than trying to steal our respect. From Spider Baby, Hill borrows two of his beautiful freaks. Her eyes sparkling with a pixilated innocence, Beverley Washburn chews gum nonstop with her huge, smushy lips wriggling all over her face. When she grins, her mouth threatens to separate the top of her head from her body altogether, like a South Park Canadian – for an instant, the cranium seems to dangle upwards on a thread of gristle like a helium balloon on a string.
Sid Haig essays the role of Hawk Sidney, Davalos’s arch-rival and ‘the dingiest driver’ of them all. It’s a role for which the eccentric player is well equipped. Another huge grinner, his crescent moonful of mouth seeming to extend beyond the edges of his face as if he had back teeth made of vacuum, Haig has a vast, long visage made of wet clay, with jagged pores and pockmarks apparently put in with an awl. His lanky body proves unexpectedly adept at quasi-obscene dancing, and surprising subtleties of performance writhe out between his bouts of furious grimacing. He is an original.
Hill also drafted in Hollywood legend Brian Donlevy, or as I call him, Quatermass McGinty, for his last role. Aged, in trouble with the taxman, and at times visibly struggling to get his lines out, Donlevy seems to be either drunk much of the time or else very tired, which is possible since all his scenes were concentrated into three days of shooting. It could have been a sorry swan song, but as with Lon Chaney Jnr’s memorable turn in Spider Baby, the broken-down old relic is afforded respect as a broken-down old relic. The movie doesn’t try to pretend he’s young, a star, or particularly appealing. He’s just happy to be working, and just about able to pull it off. Donlevy was always best as a loud-mouthed jerk, strapped into a corset, teetering on elevator shoes and wrapped in a hairpiece. The corset seems to be gone, and the expanded waistband relaxes him. He’s playing the embodiment of capitalist evil, but we kind of like having him around. We just hope he doesn’t keel over in mid-take.
These pictures are where talent on the way down brushes shoulders with that on the way up, and Donlevy shares screen time with Ellen McRae, a TV actress with a couple movies to her credit, soon to find fame under a new name, Ellen Burstyn. She’s alert, pert and winning: only in a couple of shots does she seem uncertain what to do, when the script has her stand around while the men try to impress each other, and Hill evidently hasn’t had time to either supply her with motivation or frame her out. But when she’s properly on, you can tell she’s the one in this cast who’s going places: the other actors are great, but too bizarre for mainstream success.
Arrow’s disc captures the source material’s sometimes shaky, sometimes graceful cinematography: the blackness of night appears alternately crushed and milky, or pulses between the two in a single shot; there are occasional scratches and variable grain. But the white desert sands, the imperfect skin textures and the flaring lights are sensually beautiful.
Pit Stop has the modest virtues you’d want from a Corman production: pace and aggression. It also has a point, which most racing movies don’t bother with: it takes a political view, and demonstrates the dangerous allure of winning, without getting preachy or po-faced. It makes its points by showing you rottenness and letting you vicariously enjoy it and then retract from it as if from a rattlesnake. Its impact is testimony to Hill’s smart approach, one too few exploitation filmmakers (or filmmakers generally), have taken: ask the question, ‘how can this junkyard thing become the best version of itself possible?’
Watch an interview with Jack Hill on the new restoration of Pit Stop: