Pit Stop (1969)
When producer Roger Corman asked director Jack Hill to throw a race car flick together, we’re the real winners riding shotgun with Brando like Richard Davalos, the unpredictable Sid Haig and a win at all costs promoter, Brian Donlevy. Hill wanted to make an art film so Roger suggested he make an art race car film. I believe he did just that.
About two minutes into this feature the first thing that crosses my mind is what has Quentin Tarantino borrowed from it cause it’s got that vibe to it and I know he’s a fan of Hill’s work. From the theme music that inspires this feeling of “cool” to rebel without a cause Davalos being introduced with ‘The Winner” splashed across the screen it’s hard not to think it has somehow inspired the cult filmmaker of the future. Got me thinking I need to revisit the story of Stuntman Mike to see if I can spot anything he lifted from Hill’s flick.
Davalos is drag racing illegally and being scouted by Donlevy who will eventually bail him out of jail and offer him a chance at stock racing on a figure eight race track. It’s here we’ll meet Sid Haig who rules the track with aggression, intimidation and a no fear policy when it comes to the high speed crossing on the figure eight track. Talk about a death trap! Davalos and Haig are quickly going to become rivals on the track and maybe even when it comes to local town girl Beverly Washburn.
Promoter Donlevy is heard to say, “There’s a suicide born every minute.” in response to where he finds these youthful car jockeys who care little about personal injury versus raising a trophy at the end of a race. There’s some truly great stock car racing footage included and spliced into the film that injects Davalos and Haig into the drivers seats of their death machines. Davalos will of course begin to steal Haig’s thunder on the track but this is where the film may surprise you. Haig’s character isn’t as clichéd as one might expect.
Both Davalos and Haig want to get into a higher grade of racing. One that Donlevy holds the key to. It’s at this point that we’ll meet a pro driver played by George Washburn and his wife played by a young Ellen Burstyn billed as Ellen McRae. According to director Hill, he approached actor Jeff Corey who also taught acting classes for a recommendation for the role of the racing wife and Corey put him onto Burstyn. The Exorcist and an Oscar winning career was soon to follow.
Pit Stop is a far more “adult” feature than the typical drive in fare that Corman was looking for. It’s very well written and performed with a maturity to it that stands above so many other “B” films of the era playing double bills. “A” films as well I should add. I’m doing my best not to spoil anything here because it’s not a by the numbers portrait of Davalos on the track. There’s far more going on here than you’ll expect and while Davalos is cast in the James Dean role, a loner with a chip on his shoulder, he may not be the hero you want him to be.
Supposedly Donlevy worked three days on the film but you’d never know it. He nails his performance of the money man who continually stokes the fires of winning in his drivers and pushes them hard with no worries about the outcome. He’s mentally prepared to drop one driver and move on to another when they’ve nothing left to give. Sid Haig had already worked with Hill in Spider Baby and Blood Bath. Hill would continue to include Haig in his Pam Grier flicks like The Big Doll House, Coffy and Foxy Brown. Also coming on board from Spider Baby is Beverly Washburn who got her start as a child actress in movies like Shane and Old Yeller. I had the good fortune to see Beverly and her director recall stories on this film and Spider Baby a couple years back at a film festival near Pittsburgh.
Pit Stop is worthy of your attention and it’s been released on blu ray by Arrow Video with plenty of extras and interviews to satisfy the film buffs out there. Which of course means me and that’s why it’s now on the shelf here at Mike’s Take.