Monday, December 19, 2016

#2,274. Pit Stop (1969)

Directed By: Jack Hill

Starring: Brian Donlevy, Richard Davalos, Ellen Burstyn

Tag line: "Raw Guts For Glory!"

Trivia: This was Brian Donlevy's final film

Quentin Tarantino once called director Jack Hill “the Howard Hawks of exploitation”, because like Hawks, Hill worked in a variety of genres, from sex comedies (The Swinging Cheerleaders) and blaxploitation (Coffy) to horror (Spider Baby), and women in prison (The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage). With 1969’s Pit Stop Hill took a stab at car-racing flicks, and thanks to co-star Sid Haig and some bat-shit crazy race scenes, it’s one of the more memorable entries in this particular subgenre.

When Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos), a newcomer to the dragstrip circuit, wins his first race, promoter Gavin Willard (Brian Donlevy) offers him a chance to take part in a new style of racing: figure eight, in which cars travel at top-speed around a track shaped like the number 8, crisscrossing each other as they go. At first, Bowman balks at the idea, not willing to put his life on the line (the main draw of figure eight racing is the number of crashes that occur during each contest), but when he’s insulted by the sport’s current champ, Hawk Sidney (Haig), he decides to give it a whirl. 

Before long, Bowman is challenging Sidney’s status as top dog, and so impresses Willard that he invites the newcomer to participate in a legitimate race. Unfortunately, Willard’s best driver (and chief mechanic) Ed McLeod (George Washburn) isn’t too keen on bringing Bowman along, despite the fact that McLeod’s wife Ellen (Ellen Burstyn) has taken a fancy to him. But with the stakes high, McLeod agrees to let both Bowman and Sidney run interference for him in the big race. The question is: which of the three will cross the finish line first?

Richard Davalos (who played James Dean’s brother in 1955’s East of Eden) does a fine job as Rick Bowman, the hard-nosed, arrogant racer trying to make a name for himself; and Ellen Burstyn (billed here as Ellen McRae) is equally as good as the bored wife looking for a little romance. But it’s Sid Haig, charismatic as ever, who commands your attention. From his first appearance on-screen, when he wins a race and, ignoring the boos of the crowd, plants a kiss on the bikini-clad trophy presenter (an uncredited Denise Lynn), it’s obvious Hawk Sidney is a show-off, and has an ego twice as big as his car. Later on, we discover that Sidney is also a sore loser, yet even when he crosses the line and behaves like one of racing’s bad boys (he does something about 2/3’s of the way into the movie that will have you seeing red), you can’t help but like the guy.

In addition to Haig’s scene-stealing performance, Pit Stop features stock footage from actual figure eight races, complete with dozens of car crashes and other calamities (one vehicle bursts into flames), leaving us wondering why anyone would sign up for such a thing in the first place.

If you’re not familiar with Jack Hill’s work, you should definitely delve into his filmography (there are plenty of hidden gems in there). And Pit Stop is as good a place as any to start.

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