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Cult director Jack Hill earned his reputation largely for his energetic exploitation classics: The Big Doll House, Coffy, Switchblade Sisters, and the mad black comedy Spider Baby. This edgy, tight racing drama, virtually unseen for years, is less flashy but more intense and assured than those quirky pictures, a well-written, solidly acted drama highlighted by dynamic racing scenes. Dick Davalos (James Dean's brother in East of Eden) is a curt, quiet street racer lured by conniving promoter Brian Donlevy to the dangerous, short-lived sport of figure 8 racing (a hair-raising collision of stock car and demolition derby). He just wants a grudge match with his quick-tempered, strutting champion (Hill favorite Sid Haig), but cool customer Davalos has bigger ambitions: He wants to use the crowd-pleasing track as a catapult to the pro circuit, and he'll run down anyone in his path. It's a surprisingly handsome picture, considering--shot quickly and cheaply in black-and-white to make use of fast film stock for the high-energy nighttime racetrack scenes. Those wild amateur races are so vibrant that the pro rally is anticlimactic, but Hill makes that work for him in a chilly coda. Davalos is appropriately surly and Haig wild and boisterous, but the best turn belongs to the understated Ellen Burstyn (under the name McRae) in her first major role as the mechanically minded wife of a racing champ.

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