Jack Hill’s “Pit Stop”: A mean little movie with go-go bars, fast cars & electric guitars

By on April 17, 2017

Exploitation master Jack Hill directed movies in nearly every genre, from horror to comedy. Pit Stop — now streaming on Night Flight Plus as part of our Arrow Videos collection — is not only one of his best, but it’s fascinating in that it doesn’t rely on the usual trappings of the period.

Pit Stop is proof that not everyone in 1969 was listening to Grateful Dead albums and dreaming about Woodstock. The free love hippie vibe is nowhere to be found here, which is refreshing, because a lot of movies from that era — particularly those produced by Roger Corman, who produced Pit Stop — are really saturated in the fashions and pop culture of the time.

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The story takes place in the strange world of figure 8 racing, a dangerous hybrid of stock car racing and demolition derby. It was sometimes called “banger racing,” with cars speeding on a track that intersected itself, which guaranteed collisions and the occasional death.

Rick Bowman, played by Richard Davalos, is an ex-con who has seen plenty, but can’t hide his shock when he sees the violence playing out on the racecourse.

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He’s brought there by Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy), an older man who owns a fleet of cars and makes a game of luring young men to drive them on the most perilous tracks around.

Bowman’s not interested. “I don’t have the guts for it,” he says.

His attitude changes when he meets a sadistic driver named Hawk, played with villainous glee by Sid Haig.

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Hawk struts around like a professional wrestler, so Bowman decides the local racing champ needs to be taken down. In a short time, though, Bowman is sucked into the vortex of racing madness.

The drivers who work for Willard are all addicted to danger.

Worse, Willard likes to play one against the other, until they’re all out for blood.

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There were plenty of racing movies coming out at the time.

In fact, this film’s original name – The Winner – had to be changed because it was too close to Winning, which came out around the same time and starred Paul Newman as a car racer.

Pit Stop feels like a throwback to the juvenile delinquent films of more than a decade earlier, especially with the late night drag race that starts the movie.

As Bowman, Davalos wears his hair like a ‘50s hood and is as surly as any rebel with or without a cause. Since the movie is filmed in black and white, it sometimes achieves the shimmering look of film noir.

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Donlevy’s heavy presence makes the whole movie seem decidedly less like ’68. In short, it’s a ’60s movie that feels like something else.

How the movie came to be, and its struggle to find an audience, was typical of the independent film world of the time.

Director Jack Hill discussed it with Ultra FilmFax in 1998:

“Roger Corman put up the funds for a film about stock car racing. I couldn’t stand stock car racing, but then I came across figure eight racing, which was totally wild. Then that picture came together. I had some delays on Pit Stop because of the sound. By the time it got released, many drive-ins had switched to an all-color policy, so that hurt distribution.”

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The new prejudice against black and white film was unfortunate, because Pit Stop is one nice looking movie.

The nighttime racing scenes have a ghostly atmosphere, and the bars and shady hotels where the drivers congregate look dank and dodgy.

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The movie has gained a small cult following, and it’s easy to see why. The characters are edgy, the cars smash into each other, and its filmed in a surprisingly artsy manner; it’s as if Jean-Luc Godard stopped by the Gardena, California race track for a wild weekend, catching us hostile Americans at our worst.

There’s also a tasty guitar soundtrack by the remnants of a psychedelic Seattle outfit called The Daily Flash.

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Jack Hill

Hill was part of the great team of young filmmakers working for producer Roger Corman during the 1960s. Along with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich, Hill thrived in Corman’s loop.

He may have hit his peak in the Philippines when he directed a pair of women in prison dramas for Corman’s New World Pictures, The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972).

Hill also directed two of the best-remembered titles of the Blaxploitation era, Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974), both starring Pam Grier. Then came The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974) and Switchblade Sisters (1975).

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After this strong run, however, Hill gradually vanished from the movie business. He occasionally picked up work as a script doctor, but he and his wife were developing other interests.

His last film was The Sorceress (1982), which he wrote and directed under the name “Brian Stuart.”
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He resurfaced in the ‘90s and 2000s, when there was a resurgence of interest in his movies. Quentin Tarantino, who helmed a DVD rerelease of Switchblade Sisters, once hailed Hill as “the Howard Hawks of exploitation.”

Hill seemed to enjoy the attention, and spoke about plans for new projects, including a romantic comedy he’d written with his wife. Nothing came of them.

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Hill remains a revered figure of independent and exploitation cinema. How could he not? It’s as if every movie he made has a cult following.

We haven’t even mentioned Spider Baby (1967), Hill’s cartoonish horror movie that starred Lon Chaney Jr., or the series of films he made in Mexico with Boris Karloff.

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One of the reasons for Hill’s disappearance was because the exploitation style was beginning to lose traction in the late 1970s. Mainstream movies were absorbing the nudity and violence that exploitation films had lived on, so Hill’s movies were no longer so unique. Even Blaxploitation movies fell by the wayside, as major studios starting using more black actors.

Still, Hill wasn’t about to go mainstream. He liked working on the edges of the business.

“I had the freedom to improvise,” Hill once said of his time in the Corman ranks. “I feel quite fortunate that I worked in the low-budget sector because it meant I did not have to deal with committees who wanted to impose their ideas and prejudices on my material. I had a free hand–much more so than I would have had if I was working for the studios.”

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It helped that he had a secret weapon: Sid Haig.

Haig had starred in Spider Baby as a member of a family of cannibals, and would appear in quite a few films for Hill, usually as some sort of dirtbag criminal. He was especially nasty in Hill’s women in prison flicks. Haig told Corman biographer Chris Nashawaty the secret of Hill’s success with those features:

“People always ask what the formula to a great Philippine women-in-prison movie is. The answer is: nine naked women and Sid Haig.”

As Hawk in Pit Stop, Haig gives one of his best performances. Irrational, cocky, and downright dangerous to anyone around him, Haig’s Hawk is unforgettable.

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According to legend, Haig didn’t even know how to drive a car, but Hill stuck with him as Hawk. It was a smart choice, because it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

In fact, if you only know Haig from his more recent turns in movies like House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) or The Devil’s Rejects (2005), his work in Pit Stop will be a revelation.

Sometimes, though, Haig didn’t care for the way Hollywood used him, and even took an extended break from movies in the 1990s:

“I just didn’t want to play stupid heavies anymore. They just kept giving me the same parts but just putting different clothes on me. It was stupid and I resented it, and I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

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Davalos, too, found himself being typecast. He was well into his 30s at the time of Pit Stop, probably too old for the role, but he still looked youthful.

He had movie star looks – from certain angles he looked like Johnny Depp – and a decade earlier he played James Dean’s brother in East of Eden (1955).

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Unfortunately, Davalos’ career never quite ignited. He worked steadily in television, though, and had roles in a couple of classic features, Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). He passed away in 2016 at 85.

It must’ve been a coupe to cast Brian Donlevy as Willard. He was the veteran of the cast, having started his acting career in 1923 during the silent era.

An Oscar nominee for his role in Beau Geste (1939), Donlevy lends a taste of old school Hollywood to Pit Stop, considering the rest of the performers were mostly beginners, or had worked exclusively in television.

It would be his last film; he died in 1971.

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Of course, you can’t say Beverly Washburn was a beginner. She’d been acting since she was a kid, appearing in films like Shane (1953) and Old Yeller (1957), plus dozens of television programs, including a classic “Star Trek” episode.

As Jolene, who starts out as Hawk’s girl but ends up with Bowman, Washburn gives the movie its only whiff of the era’s youth culture. With her pixie haircut and her oversized false eyelashes, she could’ve stepped right out of “Laugh-In.”

Of course, she’d already worked for Hill in Spider Baby, which means she has a cult following, too.

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Ellen Burstyn, who plays the wife of a driver, was also a veteran of the business, but was still largely unknown.

She looks great in Pit Stop, and is convincing as the frustrated wife of a man who has given his life to racing.

One wonders why it took so long for Burstyn to break through. When she did break through, as she would in the 1970s, she was unstoppable, appearing in such landmark features as The Last Picture Show (1971) The Exorcist (1973), Harry and Tonto (1974), and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), which earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

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Pit Stop doesn’t get much recognition in the canon of films produced by Roger Corman, but it plays a lot better than many movies of the period.

Because it avoided most of the groovy vibes of the late ‘60s, it doesn’t feel too dated, or stuck in its own era. It’s just a mean little movie, and it has aged surprisingly well.

The credit must go to Hill and his cinematographer Austin McKinney. They approached this kamikaze style of car racing like documentarians and nailed it.

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“The action scenes were the real thing,” Hill said. “Not staged. It was a real slice of Americana.”

If you need a dose of go-go bars, fast cars, and electric guitars, watch Pit Stop on Night Flight Plus.

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About Don Stradley

Don Stradley has been a busy freelance writer for several years, covering everything from the pop culture to sports to crime. His work has appeared in various places, including Cinema Retro, ESPN.com, and the Film Noir Foundation's official magazine, Noir City. He's currently serving as editorial consultant for The Film Detective, a massive archive that specializes in restoring vintage films. He lives in the Boston area.