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Friday, November 9, 2007

Halicki Rides Again (originally published 7/00)

When moving pictures were born in the 1890s, it was not at all clear that they would be used primarily to tell stories. That issue was not to be resolved until 1903, when the runaway success of a ten-minute film called "The Great Train Robbery" ushered moviemakers permanently and firmly down the narrative path. Prior to that turning point, movie audiences by and large seemed quite content just to watch moving images for their own sake. (And by the way, if this seems quaintly old-fashioned, consider that the same phenomenon has come around again, with millions of enthralled web surfers pointing their browsers to web-cams for such captivating diversions as watching cornstalks grow.)

After 1903, storytelling films became the norm, and films based solely on our fascination with the moving image faded into the background. And yet there were always those who still wanted to make movies with no other purpose than to excite us through the sheer kinetic stimulation of the moving image. What these filmmakers usually did was to invent a flimsy story on which to hang their film, then proceed to ignore the narrative in favor of the images. The result, inevitably, was a pounding from the critics, even if audiences were lined up around the block.

One such filmmaker was H. B. Halicki, known to his friends as "Toby," who was a car collector and auto salvage dealer before getting into the movie business. In 1974, he set out to raise the benchmark for automotive action scenes with a low budget production called "Gone in 60 Seconds," which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. The storyline, such as it was, had something to do with a group of car thieves trying to steal 50 cars in one night, but the real point of the movie was the high-adrenaline ballet of car chases and crashes. During the film's 97 minute running time, 93 cars are crashed, most of them during the climactic chase scene, which is 40 minutes in length. In a very real sense, it is the cars that are the stars of the film, not the actors. The "lead role" went to a 1973 Mach 1 Ford Mustang called "Eleanor." The critics, predictably, savaged the film. Audiences, however, disagreed. The modest production, shot on a shoestring, took in some $40 million at the box office.

Halicki followed up his surprise hit with "The Junkman" (1982), an autobiographical film about a junk dealer turned moviemaker who makes car crash movies. Once again, the story was incidental, serving as a backdrop for more and bigger car crashes. His third and final film was "Deadline Auto Theft" (1983). The title does an admirable job of summarizing the plot, which, again, doesn't matter in any case.

In August of 1989, Halicki was back at work, this time on what was to be "Gone in 60 Seconds II." The sequel was not to be, however. On August 20, a stunt performed by Halicki went tragically wrong when a breakaway water tower collapsed before it was meant to, bringing a power pole crashing down on Halicki's car, killing him instantly.

The story does not end there, however. One of the horrified witnesses to the tragic accident was Halicki's wife of only three months, Denice Halicki. Today, she is the executive producer of a big-budget remake of her late husband's original surprise hit, "Gone in 60 Seconds." It has been given the full, high-gloss, big-budget Hollywood treatment by producer Jerry Bruckheimer, including a multimillion-dollar cast featuring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie.

Riding high on this resurgence of interest, Ms. Halicki has plans to reissue all three of Toby's films on home video. In the meantime, if you check the shelves of some of the older mom-and-pop video stores you can probably find a copy of the original video release of "Gone in 60 Seconds" for rent, and maybe even "The Junkman." "Deadline Auto Theft" has never been released on video to my knowledge.

If and when you do get your hands on these videos, remember to switch off temporarily that component of your moviegoing expectations that says "tell me a story." Focus instead on the purely sensory anticipation that asks of a movie only that it "take me away." You will be plugged into the cinema's oldest tradition, and, quite possibly, its most durable one.

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