There’s a suicide born every minute,” quips cynical sports promoter Grant Willard (Brian Donlevy), as he watches figure eight racing drivers dropping – or rather, flipping – like flies. Indeed, the race, with its entropic intersection, seems like utter lunacy at first glance – a one-way ticket to crumpled steel and fatal injury. Yet there’s something uniquely seductive, even irresistible, about the spectacle: the mesmerising rhythm of crashes and crossovers; the music of purring engines and screeching tyres; the way the dust from the track, intermingled with wispy exhaust fumes, catches the glow of the floodlights; and of course, the aggressively masculine bravado of the winner.
That last element in particular is what sucks illegal drag racer Rick Bowman (Richard Davalos) into the community, in Jack Hill’s sinewy and stylish 1969 B-movie, Pit Stop. Initially repulsed by the sight of so much destruction, Bowman eventually agrees to race for Willard after witnessing the maniacal showmanship of Hawk Sidney (a magnetically unhinged Sid Haig), the dominant force in the sport. The maddening grin, the provocative inflections in his voice, the girl on his arm, the air of invincibility – everything about Sidney sparks a competitive combustion that burns away Bowman’s uncertainties. Merciless ambition takes hold of the newcomer – the raging desire to beat Sidney on the track and take everything away from him, to crush the man and his myth, and usurp him as the very best.
Jack Hill, like so many B-movie masters, began his career as an acolyte of the legendary Roger Corman, working in various capacities on the 1963 film The Terror. From there, his filmography is splattered with violent invention, from the demented horror comedy Spider Baby, to the swaggering Blaxploitation classic Coffy. Like a sleazy alchemist, Hill transmutes shoestring budgets into cinematic gold, melting down and reshaping scrap metal into distinctive, often beautiful art.
Pit Stop, originally titled The Winner, might just be Hill’s best work, a blistering study of the ruthless, soul-shredding pursuit of excellence in the dark art of vehicular carnage. The film is astonishingly immersive, not just in its virtuosic, supercharged racing set pieces (miracles of documentary-style photography, dynamic editing and rear projection), but also in its vivid depiction of the specific subculture that crystallises around these pugnacious petrolheads. Hill’s camera, awash with Austin McKinney’s gorgeous, authentically atmospheric black and white cinematography, affectionately navigates the spaces in which the competitors work and unwind – from the greasy garages in which they tinker with their machines, to the smoky bars in which they drink and dance with their fawning fans. It’s a vibrant ecosystem on the margins of society, teeming with working-class craftsmen and daredevils.
And it’s an ecosystem in which Bowman – a cool, solitary hunter – is primed to thrive. A disaffected, thoroughly unsentimental loner who begins the film behind bars, Bowman falls hard and fast for his new vocation, which offers him an ideal balance between adrenaline and tranquillity. There’s the perilous self-expression of the race itself, him against the world, an extreme test of focus and a volcanic outlet for his nastiest impulses. And then there are the interstitial moments, set to the bluesy bass and fuzzy guitars of the psychedelic band the Daily Flash, during which he meditates through the processes of scavenging for parts and suturing his crippled vehicle back together. Routine becomes ritual, and ritual becomes obsession. Bowman tumbles unceremoniously out of his first few races. No matter – return to the garage, rebuild, refine and race again with a vengeance.
Davalos is probably best remembered for his debut role in East of Eden alongside James Dean, but he was never better than he is here in Pit Stop. There’s an ominous sort of understatement, even minimalism, to his performance as Bowman – a constant sense of danger bubbling beneath the rigid crust. He infuses the driver with icy discipline, refusing to give anything away beyond a raised eyebrow, smothering emotions in their infancy. It’s a brilliantly controlled display of menace – a descent into remorseless inhumanity always seems only a rev of the engine away.
The cost of Bowman’s meteoric rise, of course, is everything – friendship, love, libido and human life, are all wrecked and left to burn in a heap while he races on. Teammates are left to spin out, women are seduced and then spurned, until in the end all Bowman has left is his relationship with Willard, the devil in a suit on his shoulder, constantly whispering in his ear about bigger and better races that need to be conquered. The film’s most haunting image, strangely enough, is of the broken Hawk Sidney – once preternaturally expressive, now appalled beyond words as his ghastly rival walks away into a soulless future. Much more than just a micro-budget car film, Pit Stop is a devastating portrait of the empty shell that’s left behind when every last remnant of human connection is immolated at the altar of winning.