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Walter Hill's icy, standoffish noir The Driver never connected with audiences on the level of The French Connection or The Getaway but is nonetheless an effectively spartan thriller with several terrific car chases. A handsome Ryan O'Neal is the Driver, a talented wheelman for professional crooks who walks if the money or the players are funny. Hill, whose resume includes The Warriors and 48 Hrs., made a film as coolly detached as its lead. The plot is simple - the Driver is set up by a rogue detective (Bruce Dern) determined to take him down - and viewers expecting lengthy character arcs will be disappointed. What the The Driver lacks in pretense it makes up for in style and execution, and the film's several car chases are both intense and shot completely in camera, an art largely absent from today's action films. Fans of Hill will no doubt enjoy revisiting this early gem, and the uninitiated will find The Driver directly influenced Nicolas Winding Refn thirty-three years later on Drive.
The film opens on the Driver at work. A big-time bank robbery concludes with a swift getaway, which, in a rare lapse of judgment by the Driver, is almost foiled after the robbers deviate from their plan but are still allowed to hitch a ride. The slip-up brings the Detective closer to taking down this vehicular enabler, and the Driver vows never to work with amateurs again. The Detective has become obsessed with nabbing this illusive criminal and strong-arms several low-level thugs into hiring the Driver for a staged heist. They quickly irk our anti-hero with their obvious naivety, but the Detective pushes his pawns to enlist the Driver's services no matter the cost.
Fine-tuning elements from the work of Sam Peckinpah, Peter Yates and even Jean-Luc Godard, Hill shoots a lean thriller that wastes little time with extraneous plotting or unnecessary set-ups. The Driver is good at his job and tolerates no one who isn't; there is little else Hill wants the audience to know about his lead character. A beautiful woman (Isabelle Adjani) who witnessed the earlier bank-heist getaway warns the Driver after the Detective pushes her to crack his case, and the Driver picks up a rare piece of excess baggage. His new job may be staged but the money isn't, and the Driver knows this woman may be the key to hitting back at his tormentor.
Dark and gritty, The Driver remains in constant forward motion as the Detective circles his prey. The getaways and an intense demonstration of the Driver's skills in an underground parking garage give Hill the opportunity to stage several crackling car chases. A stately orange Mercedes is shot like a bullet through a maze of columns and ramps, and the Driver wheels both heavy, era-appropriate sedans and sport coupes with intense ease. The editing is deliberate and sharp when necessary, but Hill allows the audience to ride alongside his roaring metal rockets as they careen down city streets that actually resemble real thoroughfares.
The Driver is certainly an enigma, which makes him hard to crack. O'Neal gives the character as much personality as can be afforded and Dern allows the audience to concoct a backstory of its choosing for his unhinged detective. These are the glossy, damaged characters of noir, and the core conflict is utterly personal despite the stark lack of personalities. I suspect The Driver won't appeal to viewers bothered by long, dialogue-free stretches of intense calculation, but the film was not universally appealing back in 1978 either. The Driver is an early victory from an underrated director, and Hill's sharp eye is complimented by his lead actor's resolve.
Twilight Time licensed The Driver from Fox, which provided an excellent 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Fox had issues in the past with grain removal, color timing and other digital manipulations, but The Driver looks period appropriate while sporting some impressive high-definition detail and texture. There is some noticeable black crush early on in this frequently dark film, but shadow detail greatly improves as the film moves outdoors to nighttime city streets and alleys. The image does sport a greenish tint, the accuracy of which is apparently being debated on several Internet forums, but colors are quite vivid and saturation is excellent. Close-ups provide some incredible detail, and wide shots are crisp and steady. Skin tones are accurate, and the grain appears natural and fluid. The print is in excellent condition and largely free of blemishes, and there are no issues with aliasing or telecine wobble.
The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono mix preserves the original soundtrack experience. Dialogue is clear and free from hiss and distortion, and the overall clarity is good. The mix gets a bit convoluted during action sequences, which is to be expected, but the clarity of these effects and the film's score is good overall. English SDH subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Twilight Time releases The Driver as part of its "Limited Edition Series," which is capped at 3,000 total copies for each title. The disc arrives in a standard Blu-ray case and inside is a multi-page booklet with essay about the film and a number of pictures. Extras include an Alternate Opening (3:20/HD), the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:26/SD) and an Isolated Score Track. Michael Small's sparse, effective score is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio.
Walter Hill's The Driver never received the acclaim of chase films like The French Connection and Bullitt, but the film is a lean, entertaining thriller that inspired later film noirs like Drive. Ryan O'Neal is the enigmatic Driver on the run from Bruce Dern's reckless Detective. Character arcs are absent and the plot is sparse, but The Driver is coolly effective and features several impressive chase sequences. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.