Late Fees: Pit Stop (1969)
Rockie Juarez, a video store junkie, has a lot of cinematic blind spots. While he is surrounded by awe-inspiring cinema, it is impossible to dive into all the world of movies has to offer. Thankfully, he has the incredible Stephanie Crawford to point him in dangerous directions he has overlooked or has been too damn lazy to dive into. Will these recommendations elevate his love for cinema or will these films completely melt his brain, causing it to leak profusely out of his nose? Read along as these two cinephiles break down and dissect each recommendation, hopefully without going for one another's throat.
Stephanie’s recommendation to Rockie this week is Pit Stop, Jack Hill’s 1969 exploitation racing film, starring Brian Donlevy, Richard Davalos, Ellen Burstyn and Sid Haig.
Rockie Juarez: Jack Hill’s Pit Stop may be one of the best first time screenings I have ever had. I say this comfortably and without pause. It is a sweaty and muscular film, filled with stunning black and white cinematography. Jack Hill came out of the Roger Corman world and totally went for it with this film. The best part is that Hill doesn't give a shit about racing, very similar to Scorsese and his aversion towards sports, a focus on character becomes the central point and not the sport they are covering.
Veteran actor Brian Donlevy plays Grant Willard, a victory at all costs kinda guy and he manages new up and coming racers. The race he wants them to participate in is called “The Figure Eight”, and it is beyond deadly. The track is literally a figure eight making crashes a guaranteed thing and basically turns the race into a demolition derby bloodbath. Grant hires Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) after watching him in an illegal street race promising him glory so long as he stays alive and wins. What follows is a fascinating journey about how far one would go for sport, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to achieve victory.
Pit Stop is never boring. It is always up to something beyond the racing scenes–which, by the way, blew my mind because I thought Hill was using stock footage for a lot of it, but nope. They shot ALL of the footage you see making this a marvel of editing and rear projection trickery. The film also has two very young acting juggernauts in their early on screen roles: both Sid Haig and Ellen Burstyn show up and deliver the damn goods. Ellen’s eyes even then portrayed such wisdom and motherly understanding, it is a joy to see. As for Sid Haig: Where to begin?! He steals this film as the unhinged Hawk Sidney, the dude crazy enough to race in these crazy competitions. A dude angry enough to destroy another man’s car with a mallet for what feels like an eternity. Pit Stop is just a wonderful thing to dive into even if you dislike cars like me (sorry, gearheads). From story to execution, this was a total winner and as a Jack Hill Blaxploitation fan, I was kicking myself for having never heard of it. Thanks again, Steph!
Stephanie Crawford: My pleasure! I’m a big Jack Hill fan, but I only got to this one in the past year or so. I’m not surprised by him flexing a raw, powerful style here that seems to use sinew as much as it does film, but I was surprised by how stylish and beautiful the film looks. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, blurrily shot race movie where it feels like dust is usually stuck in the lens. It’s funny, because cinematographer Austin McKinney did such an amazing job, but he also worked on the Mystery Science 3000 classic The Skydivers, which absolutely does have that haphazard look… as does most of his work, actually. I think the magic of Pit Stop really inspired him. The look of this film reminds me of one of my favorites of Hill’s: Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told. Beyond the returning cast (Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn), they both manage to avoid feeling as exploitative as they otherwise might have thanks in big part to how loving the camera treats both films. There’s a respect shown to a fringe community that I think adds a lot to their appeal. Everything about this movie screams the classic definition of “cool,” and that absolutely includes the music from The Daily Flash. I’m a big garage rock nerd, and the slow-swagger theme song does it for me. Say, Rockie, you’re a music fellow: What do YOU think of the music?
RJ: I loved it! They kept cutting back to these rowdy parties where you can just taste the smoke in the air and smell the booze that engulfs the room. The music ranged from a rockabilly sound to go-go dancing jams. This just added to the hustle and bustle of those happening times and captured a perfect snapshot of that era of music. Also, those parties felt like real parties. Everyone shows up to get wasted and oh yeah, we have to shoot a few lines here and there. There was an authenticity to the entire film and the hang out sequences were no exception. I love Pit Stop because it is not a racing film primarily. It manages to be about the loss of one's soul to a sport and the damage done in the process. Thank goodness this is the case because I’m not a car fan whatsoever and would have been bored to death. Oddly enough, I’d pair this with Two-Lane Blacktop for being a film about cars, but going way deeper than that thanks to Monte Hellman’s love for his characters. How about you, Steph? Any other vehicle related jams you’d double bill this with?
SC: The landscape was lousy with car movies and television episodes around this time… sometimes lousy themselves, but for the most part, the car provided a great vehicle (!) for stylish action scenes and a big, beautiful symbol that a wild card character who couldn’t be tied down could attach themselves to. For more of something that wouldn’t upset the palate with Pit Stop, it’s hard to top Monte Hellman’s cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop when it comes to mixing car action with a script and characters delivering real pathos. For fun, I can’t not mention Leonard Nimoy starring in Baffled!, where he plays a race car driver who receives some mysterious powers after an accident…
In all honesty, though, car movies are a blind spot for me because I can’t watch them just for motor vehicle porn. That’s not an interesting enough topic for me on its own, so it needs to be a great movie besides. That’s Pit Stop. Whether you crave chrome or wheels leave you flat, it’s a compelling, lean, sexy, and sensitive portrait of a lot of interesting people at a crossroads.
Pit Stop is available to stream on Amazon Prime.