B&W, 1967, 90m.
Directed by Jack Hill
Starring Brian Donlevy, Dick Davalos, Ellen Burstyn, Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn, George Washburn
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Infinity (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Something of an oddity in the career of director Jack Hill, Pit Stop features no cannibals, jailed women, or girl gang members. What he delivers instead is a lean, entertaining morality play set in the fast lane of American racetrack driving, as far from the expected follow up to Spider Baby as one could imagine.
Race car promoter Grant Willard (Donlevy) watches one night as a gang of drag racers tears through the streets, sending one member careening straight into a house. He offers to sponsor the best driver, Rick Bowman (Davalos), as a professional racer in a new kind of racetrack called the "Figure 8." This two-loop track with an intersection in the middle is basically designed to cause as many crashes as possible, but Rick takes the offer. The reigning champ, Hawk Sidney (Haig - with hair!), doesn't take too kindly to the newcomer, especially when the local gum-smacking racing groupie, Jolene (Spider Baby's Beverly Washburn), turns her doey eyes towards Richard. Grant skillfully plays both sides against each other, particularly when Richard wins a race and trashes Hawk's brand new car in the process. Hawk retaliates with an axe in the film's most memorable scene, but Richard persists in his climb up the ladder to become the back up driver for bigshot racer Ed McLeod (George Washburn). Richard also sets his sights on Ed's auto-wise wife, Ellen (a young Ellen McRae, aka Ellen Burstyn).
Giving one of his best late career performances, Donlevy leads one of the strongest casts in Hill's career and injects fire into what could have been an average B-movie programmer. Haig is also a joy to watch and in some respects the most interesting, sympathetic character of the film, all manic energy and fiery vinegar. The racetrack footage is both exciting and alarming to watch, with one vehicle after another wiping out in a heap of smashed metal. Toss in a catchy theme by "The Daily Flash," and this is a great drive-in movie to savor with a big bowl of popcorn.
Not exactly a major studio release, Pit Stop was virtually unavailable for public viewing at all following its theatrical run until Johnny Legend and Jack Hill had it privately released onto VHS in mid-'90s. The camcorder interview (in which Hill hilariously discusses his brief stint on John Lamb nudist camp films) and the dual B&W/colorized theatrical trailers from that release were duplicated for a refurbished widescreen transfer from Anchor Bay in 2000, which was quite good under the circumstances. Some vertical scratches and other printing anomalies pop up here and there, especially during the racing footage, but the materials overall are in fine shape and quite watchable. Hill and Legend also returned once again for another loose, affectionate commentary track, in which they deftly covered all of the production background behind the film, the financing, and various distribution tactics (as evidenced by the print itself which bears the on-screen title of The Winner, repeated on most subsequent video versions). After that disc went out of circulation and started commanding pricey amounts online, the film popped up in crummier condition as part of an Infinity Roger Corman set alongside titles like Naked Angels, T-Bird Gang, and Bury Me an Angel, but that was pulled fairly quickly over what were most likely copyright issues.
That brings us to 2014 with the dual-format Blu-ray and DVD UK edition from Arrow, a stacked set that's definitely up to par with Arrow's previous Hill excursions, Foxy Brown, Coffy, and Spider Baby, with a sparkling new HD transfer that's in remarkably good shape for a scrappy, low budget black-and-white film (apart from the credits, which will probably always look rough). The LPCM mono audio sounds very good given the very undemanding nature of the source material.
The audio commentary here is actually a different one, newly recorded with Hill and Calum Waddell; some of the territory here is familiar but there are plenty of new vignettes as well. Oxygen tanks, method acting, the infamous Blood Bath, Francis Ford Coppola, period hairstyles, and strong women are just a few of the topics covered, easily filling up the hour and half with solid material. As usual, some new HD featurettes are included (in addition to the usual theatrical trailer) starting off with the 15-minute "Crash and Burn," in which Hill talks about more production stories like shooting the car races in Gardena, California and getting monochrome movies booked in drive-ins while the demand was dying out. In "Drive Hard," Haig takes center stage for almost 17 minutes discussing the initial financing pitch to Roger Corman for a stock car film - but artful! As usual Haig is full of stories, especially some fun bits about Donlevy and product placement. Then Corman gets his turn with the 11-minute "Life in the Fast Lane," in which he talks about switching gears from biker films, working with Hill (including their segue to women-in-prison films), and this title's role in his string of hot rod epics. A brief restoration featurette also takes a quick tour through the film's restoration process, demonstrating the clean up and color timing process from the original negative for almost four minutes.
And now things get complicated. For years it's been normal to see competing DVD releases of public domain titles turning up left and right, but that's very rarely been the case on Blu-ray at all (with even formerly omnipresent titles like Night of the Living Dead still oddly underrepresented). Nevertheless, here we are with two special editions of this former obscurity. Released within days of each other in the summer of 2015 in the United States are two completely different Blu-rays, with the region-free Arrow disc ported over in its identical dual-format iteration as a "Director Approved Special Edition" (with the same cover art except for the addition of a gold seal sticker with Jack Hill's signature on it).
Then there's Code Red's "Officially Licensed Definitive Edition," licensed from Roger Corman with a completely different HD transfer from Corman's 35mm negative bearing the Pit Stop title. Surprisingly, the two transfers bear very little in common at all with different framing and contrast levels. Generally the Arrow has more information on the top and right side, but discrepancies crop up throughout when you compare the two side by side. For example, the last two reels of the Arrow transfer lose quite a bit at the bottom by comparison and look a bit slanted down to the right, while the Code Red stays straight. The framing works fine either way, but it's strange to see how much they diverge throughout the running time. (As if that weren't enough, the old Anchor Bay disc was 1.66:1 and had more extraneous info on the top and bottom than either of them!) The Arrow also features harsher contrast levels (including very bright whites at times) and paler blacks, while the Code Red has a more consistent, velvety grayscale that gives the cinematography a richer noir look complete with more defined details since it's closer to the original source. Personal preference will probably dictate which one you prefer. Frame grabs seen above are from the Arrow release, while corresponding grabs from the Code Red one can be seen (in order) by clicking here for images one, two, three, four, five, and six. The Code Red extras include a new 5-minute interview with Corman (essentially reiterating the basic casting facts heard elsewhere), a somewhat noisy video interview with Haig clocking in at 16 minutes with some fun Donlevy stories offering a variation on ones he's told elsewhere, and a "Katarina's Drive-In Theater" mode with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters (in the guise of her southern cousin) showing off some colorful racing duds and chatting about the film's background. Between the transfers and extras it's tempting to call this one a tie at the finish line; either way you'll get a winner.
Updated review on June 14, 2014.