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Action-packed, lean-scripted crime thrillers are back in vogue again, a trend that raises the interest in Walter Hill's The Driver from 1978. When new, Hill's heavily stylized car chases seemed eager to establish him as a director with a distinctive, ultra-cool signature. Thrillers have since become so mindlessly action oriented that this tale of a pro getaway wheelman now plays as an enjoyable minimalist exercise. The exciting car chases have a quality that their modern counterparts have completely lost - they aren't stuffed with patently impossible stunts and effects.
Walter Hill made his name as a new face in action cinema starting with a script for the underrated detective show Hickey and Boggs. His first job of direction was the excellent Hard Times with James Coburn and Charles Bronson, and he later became a top producer with Alien. Although Hill had big hits with buddy action comedies, he always favored purposely shallow neo-noir-ish crime dramas that blended urban realism with existentialist fantasy.
The Driver fits this model to perfection, at least in the way it is structured and stylized. Its central reason for being is a series of exciting, impressive car chase scenes staged in downtown Los Angeles. The direction is sufficiently assured, but the picture sags somewhat in the acting department. It's a Steve McQueen movie, but with a big hole where McQueen should be.
The principal players are given no names, and interact solely on a professional level. The Driver (Ryan O'Neal) is the ultimate pro getaway specialist for heists and holdups. He's picky with his assignments but even prouder of his professionalism -- absolutely nothing disturbs the neutral poker face he presents to the world. The Driver is freed from a police lineup after The Player, a hired 'witness' (Isabelle Adjani), earns her pay by feigning an inability to identify him. Frustrated that his prey is still at large, The overly confident Detective (Bruce Dern) initiates a wildly illegal scheme, forcing a crook to hire The Driver for a real bank holdup, just so he can catch him in the act. The Connection (Ronee Blakely) brings the job to The Driver, who at first refuses but then goes along. The Detective springs the trap, but catching The Driver isn't as easy as he thought it would be.
Walter Hill must be a fan of minimalist samurai films and ritualistic French crime films like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï. His self-conscious aim in The Driver is to reduce the drama to basic elements -- stoic, antisocial characters in a faceless urban landscape. That's why they have no names and the hero has no visible identity, just a relationship with his professional function. The Driver is his Skill. His body is the Car. Nobody can stop him. He lives to practice his rarified profession of escaping from bank robberies. The money he earns has no significance of its own, but he demands a huge cut to demonstrate that he's the top rooster in the criminal pecking order. The Driver pulls down maybe $30,000 a month but lives in a skid row hotel to fulfill the director's seedy urban vision. It's the reverse of Michael Mann's approach to criminal lifestyles. In Mann's Heat we find bookstore clerks living in fabulous view apartments in the Hollywood Hills.
The dialogue, at least when The Driver and The Player are involved, is pared down to sentences of three and four words. I'm not saying that this approach can't work as a movie idea. From silent cowboy Harry Carey forward, film history abounds with charismatic actors that need only give existential stares to click with an audience. We'll read the faces and provide the depth of character on our own: a sense of nobility and purpose? Pent-up male resentment? There were many practitioners of this, some more successful than others. Steve McQueen was one of the few who could get away with it time and again -- when he stared meaningfully into a mirror, we believed it.
But Walter Hill got Ryan O'Neal, a featherweight whose presence doesn't dominate scenes. There's no particular reason for tough gangsters to be intimidated by The Driver, for the cops to respect him, or the girl to be moved by just standing near him. For this gambit to work, the soul-sick look on the actor's face must be fulfilling in itself, as it is in the case of Jean Gabin, Robert Ryan or even Charles Bronson. The heroes of the French crime films by Melville, Becker and Clément may not broadcast their emotions, but their sallow faces and tortured eyes reveal the depths of their souls. Since Hill seems after a surface effect, I suppose Ryan O'Neal could be an appropriate choice. The Driver is emotionless, all right -- his face never breaks from the same slightly tense I-don't-give-a-damn expression. He barely even blinks. This guy must spend his ill-gotten loot on Visine. 1
Hill stays way outside his characters. The female lead Isabelle Adjani (Herzog's Nosferatu) just stares and mopes. We learn that she's a kept woman and a gambler. She hires on to feed The Detective a false alibi because her provider "hasn't been keeping up with the rent". She comes off as a complete cipher. The Driver's
The really good auto chase scenes through the pre-dawn streets of L.A. comprise at least 40% of the show. They're blocked out in masterful sequences that give our moving-violation hormones a serious workout. O'Neal takes off at high speed, evading pursuing cop cars like a master. The camerawork and editing can't be faulted. Logically speaking, we don't exactly understand The Driver's modus operandi for getaways, though. He uses the same standard routine at least three times. Without any initial contact with the cops on the street, The Driver invariably screeches away from the crime scene in a rubber-burning peel-out that would alert the North West Mounted Police, let alone every LAPD cruiser within a twenty-mile radius. If The Driver just tootled away down a side street and dropped his passengers off at a bus stop or something, he might easily escape undetected. 1978 is a tad early for the cops to have fully coordinated helicopter coverage, but the chases go more than long enough for a cop chopper to arrive overhead. If you want to outrun the law in Los Angeles, dig a tunnel. The police have 1,001 ways of tracking anybody in a vehicle; it's a game they love.
The whole point of this existential combat is for The Driver to prove that the law can't touch him. His cat vs. mouse technique is fairly impressive, as The Driver usually causes his pursuers to wreck their own cars. A fantasy element enters, when it looks like no innocent drivers or pedestrians are injured by these reckless chases. Walter Hill eventually reduces a chase to minimalist terms as well. Pursuing another crook, The Driver threads his way through an enormous warehouse, as if looking for his prey within a maze in a video game.
The best car scene occurs when some punk robbers question The Driver's skill. The very notion of having his street cred doubted sends The Driver into a passive-aggressive rage. He gets them into their Mercedes and proceeds to utterly destroy it in an underground garage. It's a more grandiose version of the vehicular hazing Lee Marvin dishes out to the used-car salesman in John Boorman's Point Blank.
The end of the movie is pure Jean-Pierre Melville, the kind of dead-to-rights cop vs. crook showdown that ends with the crook making a suicidal final gesture of purity, like a samurai who doesn't mind dying if he can leave behind a legacy of incomparable coolness. What we get is a variation on an Elmore Leonard loot-in-the-locker gag, but it serves the same purpose.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Driver gives Walter Hill's show a filmic wax & polish job that improves greatly on an earlier Fox DVD from 2005. Philip Lathrop's nighttime cinematography on the downtown streets can't be faulted, especially with all of the intercutting of car-mounted chase cameras. The ultra-slick camera work almost goes for a fantasy look. The inner city seems like one big criminal playground.
A trailer is included that sells The Driver as a slick art film, yet one with plenty of car and gun violence. Apparently Fox panicked at Walter Hill's first cut, for another extra is an alternate extended opening, a pair of unnecessary 'setup' scenes to explain what The Detective and The Player are up to. Figuring out who these people are and what they are doing is what makes Walter Hill's movie an entertaining neo-noir diversion. Julie Kirgo's liner notes go straight for the French crime classic connection, and then discuss the film in relationship to its interesting, commercially successful director.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Driver Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.