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The American love of cars has always paralleled the American love of movies, and as soon as the first cameras rolled enterprising producers discovered that audiences were fascinated to see a car destroyed on screen. Not until the 1960s did anyone really trash real, functioning cars in movies; around the time of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World the industry began to realize that a car careering madly on a highway was an entertainment unto itself.
The so-crazy-it's-riveting car chase came unto its own in 1968's Bullitt, with earlier honorary mentions in movies like Don Siegel's The Lineup. But not since Laurel and Hardy sawed a Model T in half did America see anything as outrageous as Gone in 60 Seconds, a breakneck 1974 orgy of mechanical mayhem that concluded with a forty-minute car chase. Wildcat entrepreneur H.B. Halicki wrote, produced, directed and starred in the epic, and then ended up distributing it himself. And the amazing thing is that Halicki's effort is a smartly assembled entertainment in all departments.
Bullitt mostly inspired follow-ups like The Seven-Ups and the insufferably pretentious chase film Vanishing Point. The picture that really raised the bar for destruction-derby thrills was made by an ambitious car wrecker/junk dealer/real estate speculator named H.B. Halicki, who simply up 'n decided to do the wildest car chase movie ever. With his extensive business and civic connections, Halicki could get cooperation that nobody else could. He bought dozens of cop cars at auctions and garnered an amazing help from the friendly police and city goverments of several different LA satellite communities. Since there was little precedent for movie people overrunning the highways with speeding vehicles, he was somehow able to shoot his chases everywhere. The vehicular insanity is waged on property both private and public, including recognizable main thoroughfares and the freeways.
Halicki had no real Hollywood connections except for his lab, CFI, but he got lots of cooperation from sports figures who appear as themselves in the film, most notably Parnelli Jones. Usually when the filmmaker's family plays roles in the picture it's an invitation to a disaster, but the forceful Halicki seems to have whipped everyone into shape. The old folks back East gather for a big wedding while the brothers and sister who probably helped him in legit business populate a fictitious hot car ring that's too slick to be believed.
The first hour is an excellent show of superior storytelling. We're kept fascinated by the detail work involved in stealing cars. Pace buys wrecks of similar vehicles to obtain a legal registration history to attach to the perfect auto that's just been stolen. The film's advertising tagline is 100% accurate: For many Americans their car is their most expensive and coveted possession, and everyone's concerned about having their wheels stolen. Maindrian Pace's car thieves enter vehicles and hotwire them so quickly that the real chore is spotting and setting up the targets, not the actual heist. Of course, we don't see them coming into conflict with modern safeguards like Lo-Jack or sophisticated car alarms. I guess that means that today's rustlers have to be even more clever about the cars they steal.
As if to keep our sympathy for the thieves, Halicki makes Pace's first rule to not steal a car that's not insured. What difference this distinction makes is a mystery, for Pace is not above putting the public in dire jeopardy. When he has to outrun the cops he zooms down pedestrian walkways and causes accidents right and left. To be fair, Halicki shows the injuries he causes and lingers on the good work of honest cops and emergency crews as they help people. Gone in 60 Seconds seems to be covered with some kind of moral Teflon, for we don't feel we're watching the equivalent of vehicular pornography. We want Pace to escape but wouldn't cry to see the cops shoot him full of holes either. Today's equivalent of this movie plays out once or twice a month on live TV (at least it does here in Southern California) when TV channels preempt the news of the day to watch some poor fool try to outrun the cops on the freeway system. If that's what counts as entertainment, the city should give extra-clever fugitives in deadly-weapon vehicles the equivalent of a "Halicki for a Day" prize. 1
When Gone in 60 Seconds turns on the juice and gets its big car chase going, there's almost nothing to compare. Halicki uses telephoto lenses and excellent camera positions to give us a feel for speed, direction and context; if one knows the topography between the berth of the the Queen Mary in Long Beach and San Pedro, and then North along the Harbor Freeway, it's easy to see that there's no cheating going on. There's an incline to a row of hotels along Long Beach that one might remember from Mad Mad World. A bridge toll booths that Pace screams through is the same location that stood in for the Ohio-Indiana border in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 'hero' car Eleanor (given top billing in the picture) becomes a frayed mess of shattered fenders but keeps moving at high speed after dozens of impacts large and small. Halicki keeps continuity reasonably correct -- the car doesn't 'un-damage' and then 'damage' again -- and dozens of little gags are worked in along the way. Some black teens in their low-rider Cadillac "Billy" keep popping up like droll comic relief.
The credibility of the chase is stretched but not taken to ludicrous extremes. Pace eludes his pursuers mainly by wrecking them, or encouraging them to wreck themselves. He shakes a dozen black'n whites in some empty fields near Signal Hill. Every time he's cornered, Pace exploits a chink in the roadblocks to keep on going. He's the perfect example of a fugitive driver who needs to be machine-gunned from the air.
Halicki shows helicopters being rallied for the chase, but they aren't around when Pace make his final big break. Thankfully, only one scene uses the expected 'airborne' stunt with a hidden ramp; I've always wanted to see an official Hazzard county car that can't go 50 feet without flying through the air like a Frisbee.
Halicki's a good straightforward actor, even though everyone wears the grotesque fashions of the day, with overgrown blowdried hairstyles and hedgerow sideburns. Pace has a penchant for Superfly garb, especially big hats. His main lady dispatcher back at hot car central has a bouffant hairdo so huge, she could fit an extra head in it. Amazingly for such a low budget production, most everyone has a credible presence. Many dialogue scenes are played as voiceover, over documentary-like shots of meetings on the street, in boats, etc.
Halicki's editor Warner Leighton does marvels with both the hour of preliminaries and in the big chase, often cross-cutting two major actions. The lengthy mass car heist scenes make clever use of telephone conversations cut over shots of the thieves in action, giving a fairly simple narrative both pace and complexity - we have to watch carefully to see what's happening. The pay-off is often an ironic joke, as when the radio disc jockey eager to exploit the big chase finds out that his Mustang is the car being destroyed. The choice of angles is so 'just right' that we don't care when one wide panning shot reveals an entire camera crew in the middle of a boulevard getting a second angle.
The DVD of Gone in 60 Seconds is an elaborate 'indie' special edition with a handsomely restored transfer of the film that sadly is not 16:9 enhanced. It looks fine, but it could have been so much sharper, especially for those car crash fanatics who will want to step through every collision to take an inventory of which auto parts fly in which direction. The audio has been entirely redone from the sound effects up in multi-channel Dolby and DTS. 2
The Special Ed extras are all organized by "Toby" Halicki's widow, who provides a spirited intro to the film as well as contributing to a very long Speed Channel cable docu on the filmmaker's life and times. An entrepreneur who could not be stopped, Halicki comes off as a workaholic dreamer with limited horizons -- after the huge success of Gone his idea of nirvana on Earth was collecting toys and exotic cars and continuing with several less inventive chase pictures featuring endless destruction.
Halicki followed the lead of Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack after getting the usual attitude Hollywood distributors reserve for outsiders: Give us the show, we'll exploit it/bury it, you'll never see a dime. He distributed it himself, "Four-Walling" the movie one territory at a time. Four-Walling came from the idea that the independent simply rents the theater for a set fee, shows the movie and collects all the profit. Blanketing the Phoenix area with ads, for example, he'd clean up with a two week booking. In the second week the advance men would be prepping the next zone. As box office reports and word of mouth spread, localities that got the film weeks later would have a pre-sold audience waiting.
The docu offers too much detail of Halicki's life but clears up many stories about the film. In one stunt Halicki crashed into a freeway light post quite by accident, and was lucky to survive. Speeding through a Cadillac dealership, he was supposed to hit only two of his own 'ringer' Caddies, but took out an entire row. How he cleared that mess up -- or how he persuaded the dealership to let him turn the sales areas into a demolition derby in the first place, isn't covered! Halicki's luck would last for fifteen years, until he was instantly killed in a non-car related accident on a later film set.
Also included are three lengthy scenes from later Halicki productions made with more money, including the unfinished sequel. They rely on traditional coverage that make the stunts look less out-of-control. There are also a couple of random interviews (one with Lee Iacocca).
A 'full throttle' interactive game is included as a DVD-ROM extra. An insert allows purchasers to send away for official Gone in 60 Seconds license plates and license plate frames. The packaging has too much confusing print; one has to squint to find things like the running time of the film. All in all, viewers ready for an asphalt-burning, metal-smashing experience won't be let down.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gone in 60 Seconds rates:
1. It's interesting how perceptions change when these chases become personal. I call home as I leave work for lunch one day, and am told that my family is going to walk to a nearby market, crossing Beverly Blvd. While in my car, I hear the play-by-play account of that day's vehicular pursuit ... which goes down Highland Avenue, turns on Beverly and heads right for where my family is going to be ... at 60 mph, running red lights. In a couple of seconds I'm screaming at the car radio for the cops to kill the guy. Somehow it's no longer entertaining when one's own loved ones are threatened. TV news is like a modern lottery in that we're invited to feel good about ourselves because it's our neighbors that ended up dead on the 11 O'Clock Happy News, not us.
2. An important audio note from Bruce Holecheck, 9/20/05: It's worth noting that GONE IN 60 SECONDS' original score is, well... gone. Film preservation be damned. The new audio track really is an abomination, with its generic muzak and canned foley fx. In one of the restoration featurettes, (someone)from the "restoration" outfit mentions something along the lines of, "I'm sure there are certain people out there who will complain because this song is gone, or that sound effect has been changed, but they need to shut up." (Okay, it wasn't that blatant, but that's the way I took it.) Halicki went through a lot of trouble to capture authentic sounds, and now they're all gone. What a waste. -- Bruce Holecheck