MUBI Movies: Jack Hill’s PIT STOP

Richard Davalos, Sid Haig, and Ellen Burstyn lend this b-movie the stuff of greatness.

MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.

Even with the praise of famed acolytes like Quentin Tarantino, it’s hard not to feel like we take Jack Hill for granted. The guy didn’t just make his mark on the blaxsploitation and women in prison genres, he gave both some of their best films. Foxy Brown and Coffy are straight up iconic, while The Big Bird Cage and The Big Doll House both offer tons of legitimately compelling b-movie action sleaze, the likes of which most of these films couldn’t supply. On top of that, Hill has classics like Spider Baby and Switchblade Sisters under his belt. He may have made cheap pictures, but he was a heavy hitter all the same.

More proof can be found in his less-discussed 1969 film Pit Stop, which will be streaming on MUBI for the next 18 days (along with Spider Baby, which was made the previous year). Pit Stop doesn’t have the benefit of weirdness or action or nudity to entice viewers and must instead rely on solid filmmaking and a good cast to keep people watching. That it succeeds makes the film one of the most impressive in an already impressive career.

There isn’t a whole lot to Pit Stop. The film focuses on Rick Bowman (played by East of Eden’s Richard Davalos), a wild amateur speedster looking for opportunity to break into the racing world. He gets it when a moneybag witnesses one of his street races and decides to bankroll this long shot in hopes of finding a new champion.

The only problem is the track. These racers compete on a figure-eight course, which means a busy intersection that provides constant opportunities for ugly wrecks. As a result, the races seem less about speed and skill than sheer fearlessness and luck. Having the fastest car doesn’t matter as much in what’s essentially a demolition derby.

The circuit is currently being dominated by Hawk Sidney, played by a young and wild Sid Haig. Rick and Hawk are rivals the moment they lock eyes on each other. It’s not hard to see why. Apart from being competitors, they are extremely different people. Rick is the quiet brooding type; we frequently see him take great umbrage to people touching him. Meanwhile, Hawk is a drunken boor, constantly blowing his beer breath into people’s faces while having the time of his life. He actually doesn’t seem like such a bad guy, but the sheer Sid Haig of him makes him come off like a total asshole.

Much of the film focuses on their racing rivalry, which means tons of scenes featuring cars you can’t identify racing around the figure-eight while a bunch of other cars you can’t identify smash into each other. Though it’s fun to watch the crashes, it’s often hard to tell who is doing what.

The whole thing feels like Hill had the opportunity to film some races and then built a film around that footage. But it doesn’t really matter as the non-racing scenes are just so good, whether Rick’s fighting with Hawk, romancing weirdo Beverly Washburn or having an affair with a young Ellen Burstyn, Hill always makes sure the characters stand out and have interesting things to say. The film ultimately builds to a dour conclusion that feels a little unearned, but getting there is a lot of fun.

The film was originally titled The Winner (in fact, this is still what’s on the movie’s title card), since it’s literally about a guy who wins a lot, that’s a far more accurate title than Pit Stop, of which there are none to be found. But the two-title confusion is all part of the b-movie allure here. And in the same way people got more than they bargained for with The Big Bird Cage or Coffy, Pit Stop provides drive-in neckers with a far better movie than they were probably used to seeing. Check it out.