Jack Hill's drag-racing cult classic PIT STOP gets a high definition upgrade courtesy of Arrow Video USA.
Rick Bowman (Dick Davalos, COOL HAND LUKE) is introduced to the world of figure eight stock car racing when sports promoter Gavin Willard (Brian Donleavy, KISS OF DEATH) bails him out after a property damaging race between the hothead and one of his own drivers. Rick is challenged and easily beaten by "bad boy of racing" Hawk Sidney (Sid Haig, GALAXY OF TERROR) who drives interference for champ Ed McLeod (George Washburn). Rick picks up pointers from an old timer quickly and humiliates Hawk (who then wrecks Rick's car in an impotent rage), but his skills are dismissed by McCleod. With a chip on his shoulder, he seduces McCleod's lonely wife Ellen (THE EXORCIST's Ellen Burstyn) and then plots to have Hawk drive interference against competitor Sonny Simpson (stunt driver Ted Duncan) in order to take on McLeod himself and win the championship.
Director Jack Hill (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) was first hired by producer Roger Corman to shoot additional scenes for Francis Ford Coppola's DEMENTIA 13 when the director's cut ran short (the scenes with Angus the game keeper), and he would also shoot more scenes – alongside footage shot by Coppola and Monte Hellman – for Corman's three-day wonder THE TERROR (Hill would later rework Coppola's Dubrovnik-shot thriller OPERATION TITIAN into the horror film BLOOD BATH, only for Corman to hire THE VELVET VAMPIRE's Stephanie Rothman to rework Hill's version into TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE). So impressed was Corman with Hill's no-budget MONDO KEYHOLE (SPIDER BABY was shelved until 1968), that he hired Hill to make a low budget film about car racing. Hill – who found stock car racing appalling – conceived of a film about a hero who loses the big race, but Corman insisted the hero had to win the race; so Hill modified his idea to a hero who wins the race but loses his soul. As such PIT STOP – originally and ironically titled THE WINNER – is more of a fatalistic film noir drama than a drive-in action film. Davalos is perfect as the cool rebel with a hint of something sinister (particularly when he grins or "smolders" into the camera), subtly expressive as the ambitious underdog becomes so consumed with winning that even Hawk seems sympathetic in comparison thanks to Haig's measured performance (and we just know that he would have dropped Jolene later on had she not walked away from him first).
Released theatrically by Distributor's International, the film's first DVD release was from Anchor Bay Entertainment, licensed from director Hill with a commentary moderated by Johnny Legend. Arrow released the film first on all region Blu-ray/DVD combo in the UK last year and have reproduced the package for its stateside release (substituting an NTSC DVD for the PAL version in the UK set). Both the Anchor Bay DVD and the Arrow UK/US BD were struck from Hill's answer print bearing the original title THE WINNER (the title had to be changed because of the Universal film of the same name with Paul Newman) and given a meticulous digital clean-up in the UK of the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen image and the uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono sound. The monochrome cinematography of Austin McKinney (THE LOVE BUTCHER) has deep blacks and possibly some minute detail lost in the highlights (the desert scenes late in the film) but is generally quite pleasing although perhaps slightly more rough-hewn than one would expect of a noir film. The night scenes evince more grain, and the race scenes of course look far grainier as they were dependent on the available track lighting (one extreme wide establishing shot looks almost like blown-up 16mm). Some vertical scratches and smaller blotches could not be completely cleaned. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. There seems to be a disagreement about the legal status of the film as Code Red is releasing a competing Blu-ray (distributed by Kino Lorber) licensed from Corman using his negative with the PIT STOP title card and may be an interesting alternative or companion release simply for being an entirely different master.
Extras start off with a brand new commentary by director Jack Hill (moderated by Callum Waddell), who recalls the film's $75,000 budget was only workable due to free resources like houses that were scheduled for demolition and a car club contributing their members and automobiles as extras. He shot thousands of feet of racing crashes and then doubled the cars to incorporate them into the film. The film had to be shot in black and white because the current color film was not fast enough for the film's night scenes, dooming the film to the B-status when it was shown with the Corman-produced color biker film THE NAKED ANGELS. Screening a rough cut of PIT STOP for producer Luis Enriquez Vergara lead to him getting the job to write four horror films for Boris Karloff with the sick actor's scenes shot in Hollywood and the rest of the scenes shot in Mexico. These would become the HOUSE OF EVIL, THE SNAKE PEOPLE, THE SINISTER INVASION, and THE FEAR CHAMBER for which Hill shot the American scenes but did not know until years later that they had been finished (with Juan Ibanez shooting the Mexican scenes).
Hill also appears in the on-camera interview "Crash and Burn" (15:30) covering some of the same ground but also reflecting on working with method actors like Davalos and Burstyn – drawing upon what he had learned in acting classes – and exploiting Donlevy's name value as a main character even though he was only on the set for three days. In "Drive Hard" (16:37), Haig calls Hill as an underrated director because he is a bad self-promoter, and recalls working with him during the director's student film days – including "The Host" which was included on Arrow's release of SPIDER BABY – followed by Hill's reshoots on BLOOD BATH and SPIDER BABY. Besides discussing his co-stars, he also recalls that the doctor who normally patched up the drivers played himself and let Hill shoot in his office, and the product placement deal with the beer distributor for the party scenes. In the shorter "Life in the Fast Lane" (11:36), Corman also discusses how he came to notice Hill, PIT STOP and his other racing films (and Hill's other New World films), and scoring Ellen Burstyn before she became a star. James White provides a concise yet informative restoration featurette (3:53) demonstrating how Hill's fine-grain answer print looked in the initial scan and the steps taken to clean it up. The disc also includes a trailer (2:04) for the film, a reversible cover, and a collector's booklet (presumably the same as the UK release). (Eric Cotenas)
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