The muscle car exploitation film Gone in 60 Seconds was released in the summer of 1974, just months after the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, introduced as a response to massive hikes in oil prices caused by the crisis of 1973, reduced the speed limit on US roads to 55 mph. Filmed in and around Long Beach, California, a popular Hollywood location for shooting car chases, the pretext for Gone in 60 Seconds is the theft of 48 cars in five days by a gang of professional crooks led by an insurance investigator. After a slow opening 20 minutes, the rest of the film is essentially one long car chase, including a climactic 34-minute sequence that is often cited as the longest car chase in cinema history.
Gone in 60 Seconds is in many ways a classic exploitation film, a one-man operation written, directed and produced by longtime car collector, body shop and auto salvage company owner H.B. ‘Toby’ Halicki, who also acted and performed stunts in the film (he would, incidentally, kill himself when a stunt failed during the shooting of a sequel in the 80s). Stripping away the extraneous plot elements of the many chase-oriented films made in the wake of Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968), Halicki’s movie is only and always about the cars. The non-chase sections of Gone in 60 Seconds are rudimentary, often ad-libbed performances perfunctorily acted by friends, family, and actual members of the police and emergency services; ‘extras’ are often bystanders unaware that the action is not real; and the only cast member listed in the opening credits is a 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1 named ‘Eleanor.’ This indifference to movie conventions in a curious way makes Gone in 60 Seconds resemble other, more thoughtful California car-oriented films of the time, such as Dusty and Sweets McGee (Floyd Mutrux, 1971) and Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969), though Halicki clearly has little interest in the arthouse audience and has his sights set on the drive-in grease monkey crowd.
Gone in 60 Seconds is interested more than anything else in mechanics – not just the people who build and fix machines but the way systems are put together, as well as the branch of physics that deals with the action of forces on material objects. More than perhaps anywhere else in the world (at least at that time), Southern California was the place where automobility shaped urban morphology. Space and time here are constructed and regulated by the car and Halicki’s film speaks directly, I think, to what happens to this space and time when the systems coordinating them begin to come apart.
The film pits mechanical dexterity against the surveillance networks of law enforcement agencies, in keeping with the fantasies of autonomy written into the notion of driving as a mode of individual liberty. Yet the organized theft of vehicles is never claimed to be, in itself, an act of defiance beyond the instrumental aim of making money. In other words, the criminal business of stealing cars is still a business (rather than a broader symbolic transgression (as in, for example, a film like Vanishing Point ). The one rule the thieves observe is that they steal only insured cars, suggesting a tacit recognition of property rights and the duty of the system to recompense individual victims. The same system, demonstrated in the detailed early depiction of the insurance business and the auto shop, both enables the crime and prevents its seamless execution. As a closed circuit, the city gives the long chase sequences their drama but also prevents any viable escape. Inside the road system and its mechanisms of regulation and surveillance, all chases must end in a crash.
In August 1971, in an attempt to deal with rising unemployment and inflation and an economy dragged down by the cost of the war in Vietnam, President Nixon pulled the US out of the Bretton Woods Accord, taking America off the Gold Standard (the value of the US dollar had been pegged to the price of gold and all other currencies were pegged to the US dollar). Though the move, known as the Nixon Shock, was a political success, it also led to the stagflation of the 1970s and long-term financial instability caused by the flotation of currencies. The dollar depreciated in value and because oil was priced in dollars, oil producers were therefore receiving less real income for the same price. OPEC responded by pricing a barrel of oil against gold, leading to the so-called ‘oil shock’ of the mid-70s. On October 6, 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack on Israel. Nixon responded by authorizing the delivery of weapons and supplies to Israel; OPEC countered by raising the price of oil by 70%. Nixon sent over $2 billion in emergency aid to Israel; OPEC imposed an embargo on all oil shipments to the US. The market price for oil immediately rose from $3 to $12 per barrel. The muscle car era was over; automobile sales in the US fell by 25%; the stock market dropped 15% in a month; drivers queued for an ever-fluctuating supply of gas and were prohibited from buying it on Sundays; and the speed limit was reduced to 55 mph. Though the embargo ended in March 1974 the effects were long-term and devastating.
The era of stable exchange rates was over. Economic growth was no longer inevitable and continuous. The oil business was now run from Saudi Arabia. Domestically and geopolitically, this was the end of America’s postwar ascendancy. The colliding antinomies given form by the crunching, screeching machines of Gone in 60 Seconds -- regulation vs. libertarianism, restraint vs. expenditure, Fordism (centralized mass production) vs. neoliberalism (decentered opportunism [or, in other words, theft]) – register the ‘shock’ experienced by a system no longer able to follow the ascending narrative arc of endless accumulation. The relentless general expenditure in Gone in 60 Seconds -- a flagrant squandering of energy, of time, and of resources, human and material – does not carry the psychosexual charge of J.G. Ballard’s Crash (published June 1973) but it does point toward a similar endorsement of auto-destruction as the defining function of cars and the extravagant systems devised to support their use.
In one way, the self-generated entrepreneurship fuelling Halicki’s film situates it as a manifestation of Nixon’s ‘Project Independence,’ introduced in November 1973 as an attempt to make the US self-sufficient by 1980. What could be more independent than a film that you write, star in, direct, produce, and promote yourself? But as a symptom of decline, it marks the point where, fifty years after the discovery of oil in Long Beach, the only business left in town is the spectacularisation of defeat.