There are a myriad of reasons people decide to become filmmakers. Some want to explore the human condition, to find the deeper meaning in universally shared experiences, some want to shake people out of complacency, to invoke socio-political change and hold the powers that be accountable, while others, such as H.B. Halicki, just want to take fast cars and smash ‘em up real good. And that’s okay, there’s more than enough room in the world of motion pictures for both soul-searching and shit blowing up, but before you write off Halicki, the “Car Crash King”, as just another action movie hack, it’s worth noting that he was as about as independent as your average art house auteur and similarly followed his own, albeit very dumb, vision with a single-minded passion, one that eventually killed him.
Halicki, or “Toby” as his friends called him, had a rather peculiar entrance into the world of cinema. At the age of 15, he moved from Dunkirk, New York to Los Angeles, accompanying an uncle who couldn’t read or write and, having a life-long love of cars, found a job as a gas station attendant to help pay the bills. Within two years, mostly thanks to an insane work ethic, he owned his own body shop and parlayed the business’ success into a small empire, one that included a salvage yard, a towing business and a number of other commercial properties. In his early 30s, Halicki had some money to spend, access to a bunch of automobiles and a friendly relationship with the local police department, so he said fuck it and made a movie.
What he didn’t have was a script or any experience with filmmaking, so he essentially improvised what was to become 1974’s Gone in 60 Seconds around what he really wanted to be doing, driving and/or destroying an array of very fast cars. While Halicki did have a budget, it wasn’t huge by any means, so he saved money by doing almost everything himself, including the stunts, which didn’t always go as planned (the climax of the movie’s absurd 40-minute car chase left him with a compressed spine and a permanent limp). All the risks paid off when the film became a cult hit and an unexpected cash cow, largely thanks to the herculean efforts of long-suffering editor, Warner E. Leighton, who had the unenviable task of assembling Halicki’s nonsensical, off-the-cuff scenes into a coherent narrative.
While not nearly as successful, his next feature, 1982’s The Junkman, is a particularly revealing look into what made Halicki tick. Playing a thinly fictionalized, highly idealized version of himself, a self-made man who takes Hollywood by storm with a movie called Gone in 60 Seconds, the plot of the film, which, in so far as it has one, involves dodging assassins ordered to kill him as spectacularly as possible, is basically a perfunctory excuse for Halicki to be the indestructible hero while also showing off his vast personal collection of cars, guns and toys. Throughout though, there’s something sweetly childlike about it, like a little boy playing with Matchbox cars, except the carnage is writ large (large enough to earn him a Guinness World Record for destroying the most vehicles in a single film).
Adding to the weirdly meta nature of The Junkman, the elaborate opening sequence finds the fictional not-Halicki shooting real-life Halicki’s next feature, 1983’s typically true-to-form Deadline Auto Theft, after which he took a few years off before beginning work on a sequel to the film that started it all, Gone in 60 Seconds 2. Halicki had had close calls on pretty much every one of his productions, including an incident on the set of The Junkman when a biplane crashed head on into his Cadillac El Dorado, but his luck finally ran out when, on August 20, 1989, a water tower rigged to fall upon impact toppled prematurely, knocking down a telephone pole that crushed him in front of the crew and a throng of onlookers, among them his co-star and new bride Denice Shakarian-Halicki.
Halicki understood the danger, remarking to reporters just hours before the accident that there is always the potential for things to go wrong. His devoted wife understood that too. Following her husband’s dramatic demise, Shakarian-Halicki worked tirelessly to preserve his legacy, fighting a lengthy legal battle to retain the trademark to Eleanor, the iconic 1967 Ford Mustang that was the real breakout star of Gone in 60 Seconds, arranging to have his filmography remastered for release on DVD and Blu-ray and working closely with producer Jerry Bruckheimer when he remade Halicki’s notorious debut as a vehicle (pardon the pun) for Nicholas Cage in 2000. She’s almost singlehandedly saved his work from absolute obscurity, which is good since, while it may not be “high” art, Halicki’s speed-obsessed oeuvre is still a hell of a lot of fun.