At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

PIT STOP (Arrow Video via MVD)

By • Mar 19th, 2016 •

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BluRay/DVD review by Roy Frumkes

Made for $75,000, PIT STOP is a rare micro-budget art film success in exploitation clothing, putting it in such good company as CARNIVAL OF SOULS, NIGHT TIDE, maybe EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Monte Hellman’s THE SHOOTING, and some of Cassavetes work. It was Brian Donlevy’s last performance, though he seems in better shape then he did staggering through GAMMERA and having to hold on to the backs of chairs to steady himself.

PIT STOP was done after SPIDER BABY, which featured Sid Haig and Beverly Washburn in far less compelling roles. (In his on-camera interview in the supplementals, Hill says that he decided to take an acting class after SPIDER BABY because he had so little to offer the actors on that one, and the difference shows) Haig just hammed it up endlessly in the former film, whereas here he delivers a strong, nuanced performance. And Ms. Washburn has a much better role and finds more shading in it then I would have thought was possible. The accumulation of things she does with that plastic face of hers are mesmerizing; you can’t wait to see what she’ll do next with that exotic, malleable flesh.

Hill explains during the commentary that, as editor, he had to cut around Davalos’ ‘method’ acting. He certainly made it work. The actor, who died this past March 8th at age 85, previously worked with the likes of James Dean, but I think this is the one he’ll be remembered for.

Davalos plays a loner in the mythological mold of the reluctant hero. This time it’s as a racing car driver on the perilous figure-8 track where collisions are inevitable at the intersection point. He rises quickly in the ranks amidst a plethora of excellent doc footage of racing action, and invites the enmity of current champ Hawk Sidney (Haig). This leads to girl-friend stealing, unmotivated cruelty to cars, and possible brain damage to our protagonist. His performance is simple, focused and effective.

Hill, unpretentious, is prodded into stories about PIT STOP and his other films by his biographer, Calum Waddell, who punctuates the proceedings with an off-putting nervous laugh. I should talk. I conducted a commentary track with screenwriter Heywood Gould for a British release of ROLLING THUNDER, and when I received a courtesy copy of the DVD, I cringed every time he answered a question and I went “Hmmm…” I would have paid them to edit my ‘hmmm’s’ out of the damn interview.

While letting a number of interesting scenes go by without delving into them, Waddell alternatively get Hill’s memories of some of his other films during these off-subject interludes, and in case the director never gets to do in-depth commentaries for those, at least we have a few of his impressions of them here, so it’s a fair trade. The four Boris Karloff films he wrote and partly-directed (he helmed the scenes with Karloff, who was too weak to travel; the rest was shot in the Philippines, directed by people he never met, and edited together later), and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE, etc., are discussed.

About PIT STOP, Hill resists many of the compliments Waddell throws at him, such as the ones about his much-lauded (by Tarantino among others) expertise with dialogue. When Hill mentions that he liked the neo-realist films of the time, and Waddell tries to make a case for PIT STOP being a neo-realist work, Hill counters that it was about lack of funds, and not about style.

A before-and-after restoration comparison reveals that important work was done here, possibly making the film richer visually than it ever was on the drive-in circuit, and certainly accounts in great part for what makes it such a pleasure to watch on Arrow’s BluRay.

Some interesting things to be on the look-out for. A scene 1 hour and 1 minute in, where Davalos sits on the side of a bed and Washburn’s hands suddenly creep out from behind him, revealing for the first time that she is there, was stolen and used in the Paul Newman film WINNING, which came out the same year. The producers of the Newman vehicle had screened Hill’s film before shooting theirs. And it’s one of the best scenes in PIT STOP. Another stand-out scene occurs at 1:14:25. The sudden, appearance of luxurious 40s glamour lighting (the best lighting in the film), was done by Hill himself, much to the chagrin of the cinematographer, but the director wanted this scene to make a powerful impression, so he used the Hollywood portrait lighting he’d learned in school. It’s a lovely scene visually, and quite noirish. Other memorable images are the close-ups of Haig and Davalos through their windshields as they navigate the perilous figure 8.

The supplemental filmed interviews are enlightening, each in its own way. Hill, who resembles Baron Sardonicus whenever his smile widens, has insightful stories about everything from Ellen Burstyn’s premiere screen performance, to being part of that brief period following EASY RIDER when Hollywood took chances with youthful filmmakers – although his stint in the studio didn’t go well. Sid Haig blames the relative invisibility of Hill’s career to the director’s humble nature, a liability in the film capital. He explains how they saved countless bucks by putting the owners of the racetrack, the car shop, the bar, etc., into the film in cameos, thus obtaining the locations for free. Roger Corman in informative, but talks the least of the three about the film itself and more about the evolution of indie filmmaking at the time, and how he trusted young talent like Hill, Coppola and others with their first directorial assignments.

Hill’s best observation: When asked what makes a star, he replies: Talent, business sense, solidity in your life, and luck. So true. So true.

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