Thursday, January 27, 2011

Toby Halicki and the Original "Gone in 60 Seconds" -- a remarkable independent film

The two "Gone in Sixty Seconds" films of the post-1970s era celebrated both the professional thief and the high performance, elegantly styled automobile. And while the story was appropriately centered in car-culture dominated southern California, it was written by an unlikely outsider originally from Dunkirk, New York (located on Lake Erie not terribly far from Buffalo), H.B. "Toby" Halicki (1940-1989). Halicki, with no formal education in film or practical experience in the industry, conceived, wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the version that was released in 1974. From a rough and tumble Polish-American family, Toby began his work life as a tow truck driver before migrating to California, where he succeeded in a number of businesses, including automotive recycling, body shop repairs, and real estate. It comes as no surprise then, when in an early scene in the film, Halicki handles a tow truck pulling a car like an expert driver behind the wheel of a sports car. Halicki put tougher a remarkable low budget independent film, relying on friends, family, everyday police, firemen, and pedestrians to play supporting roles. And quite modestly, Halicki lists the star of the film as the 1973 Mustang Mach I named Eleanor.
Halicki plays the part of Maindrain Pace, a respected insurance investigator and owner of Chase Research by day. At night and in and around parking lots, streets, the chop shop, and dealerships, however, Pace is the head of a highly organized car theft ring. Yet despite what one might think of his illegal activities, Pace is a criminal with principles, for he will not steal any car that is not insured (ironic given his day job!). AS the film opens, the work of a chop shop is detailed, as valuable and tagged parts, along with the VIN identification sticker, is transferred from a wrecked red Dodge Challenger to one stolen from an airport parking lot. A bit later, with an order from an Argentine General to steal 48 cars in four days, Pace and his associates quickly get to work. Here the film illustrates the many ways in which a professional thief can steal a car without making a mark on it. Mistakes are not made by members of this outfit; Pace tells one of his associates that "The amateurs are in jail. Professionals never are caught." The only professionals who are in jail are those who were sloppy. Each associate is given a specially equipped briefcase, containing tools, magnetic license plates, and anything else that one might need to quickly and cleanly "boost" a car. And a number of these devices are shown in action -- the slim Jim, door button pry bar, and separate ignition switch. Newer additions to thecase include a walkie-talkie and a compact key cutter. A number of car culture notables from the era play minor roles in the film -- Parnelli Jones, J.C. Agajanian, and Tony Bettenhausen -- and given the fact that there was no script he flow of the film is rather remarkable, culminating with a 34 minute car chase and a jump that left Halicki with 10 crushed vertebrae and a limp. Among the cars stolen were a : 1924 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost (Eileen); 1970 Jaguar E-type (Claudia); 1959 Rolls-Royce Phantom V (Rosie); 1972 Ferarri Daytona 365 GTB 4 (Sharon); 1973 Jensen Interceptor (Betty); 1971 Citroen SM (Patti); 1962 Ferrari 340 America (Judy); 1971 Chevrolet Vega (Christy); and a 1967 Lamborghini (Tracy). As to the why of the Vega, I have no answer! And despite the low budget, absence of professional actors, and organizational methods that children have exceeded when making home movies, Halicki succeeded in ways perhaps that the 2000 sequel fell short. And while it may be argued that Halicki was far more interested in making a chase movie than one illustrating the nature of auto theft, perhaps the most enduring message is one that features a battered Eleanor at the conclusion of the film still running. Detroit iron was tough back then!

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