Saturday, March 14, 2015
Stealing Cars: the 1974 version of "Gone in 60 Seconds"
In a decided fashion, post-1970 film and literature featuring auto theft celebrated rather than decried the act of automobile theft with one caveat--namely, that the car stolen was insured. Beyond that qualifier, professional car thieves were elevated to an almost heroic status, and amateurs were portrayed in a comic light. Automobiles were often portrayed as being objects of desire, but at the same time in various chase scenes, police cars and everyday "drivers" were depicted as disposable objects, wrecked and destined to be forgotten. But in most cases the cars stolen were luscious, high performance vehicles that were normally not attainable to any but the highest class of thieves and bandits.
The two Gone in Sixty Seconds films--one done in 1974 and the other in 2000--entertained millions of viewers worldwide. These two films 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, the original 1974 version was written by an unlikely outsider originally from Dunkirk, New York, H.B. “Toby” Halicki (1940-1989).2 Halicki, with no formal education in film or practical experience in the industry, conceived, wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the version 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 that in an early scene Halicki handles a tow truck pulling a car like an expert driver behind the wheel of a sports car. He put together a remarkable low budget independent film, relying on friends, family, everyday police officers, fire fighters, and pedestrians to play supporting roles. And quite modestly, Halicki lists the star of the film as a 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. Despite what one might think of his illegal activities, Pace is a criminal with principles, for he will not steal a 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 vehicle identification number (VIN) sticker, are “switched over” 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 got to work. Here the film illustrates the many ways in which a professional thief can steal a car without making a mark on it. Members of this outfit did not make mistakes; Pace stated to one of his associates that “The amateurs are in jail. Professionals never are caught.” He goes on to explain that 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 the briefcase 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. Given the fact that there was no script, the flow of the film is rather remarkable, culminating with a thirty-four minute chase scene and a jump that left Halicki with ten 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 Ferrari 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). The connection between the beautiful cars and women's' names raises an obvious inference concerning the hot cars and sexuality, although the Chevrolet Vega appears as an outlier. It has been postulated that the Vega was a Cosworth model, but that remains only a conjecture. Despite the low budget, absence of professional actors, and organizational methods that children have exceeded when making home movies, perhaps Halicki succeeded in ways in which the 2000 release fell short. While it may be argued that Halicki was far more interested in making a chase movie than one illustrating the nature of auto theft, the most enduring message is the scene that features a battered Eleanor still running at the conclusion of the film.