Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) is the spiritual predecessor to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Both are minimalist neo-noir thrillers about unnamed anti-heroes who are solely defined by their professions as getaway drivers. Both use their stripped down plots and vaguely defined characters to house formalist engines that are fueled by the films of the great Jean-Pierre Melville. Yet, while The Driver has more car chase carrots to keep the audience placated, Drive performs better. That is not to say, however, that Walter Hill’s original rendition is not a stunning cinematic experience.
The film – like its loose remake – with an inspired car chase. The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) has been hired to ensure that a pair of robbers get away from a poker game heist clean. He veers down the streets of downtown Los Angeles masterfully, setting up and springing traps on the less-skilled officers behind the wheel of the LAPD’s cruisers. He accepts his cut of the robbery after dropping the getaway car into a crusher and informs his clients that he will not be working with them again because they were late.
On the tail of the Driver is the Detective (Bruce Dern – that’s right, none of the characters are given names or defined personalities here). The Detective is frustrated because the Driver always gets away clean. Like the Driver, the Detective is good at his job. He blackmails a team of criminals to recruit and setup the wheelman during a bank robbery. The bank robbery doesn’t go as planned and more car chases ensue.
Obviously, the rewards of The Driver do not come in what is being said. They come – like Drive – in how it is saying it. It’s an art house pulp thriller, defined more by mise-en-scene and machismo than the mechanisms of plot and character. This may drive (pun intended) some viewers mad, just like Drive inspired a lawsuit from a viewer who expected to see another Fast and the Furious movie. To those who are more than familiar with the recipe, it hums. Walter Hill’s car chases take up about half of the film’s running length and they are meticulously choreographed and edited. In one inspired sequence, the Driver is asked to showcase his skill. After buzzing around the concrete pillars of a garage for a few minutes, he begins to systematically dismantle the car by hitting the walls. He can stop on a dime; he can continue to drive under duress and with a physically compromised automobile. Like a cowboy (as the Detective often calls him) who knows his way around a gun, the Driver knows how to use his weapon of choice and Hill knows exactly how to film it.
Moreover, Hill knows the strengths and weaknesses of his actors. Dern is great as a high voltage cop who can barely repress his obsession with the Driver. O’Neal, who sinks as much as he can swim, is primarily filmed in reaction shots. However, the movie takes a major misstep with regard to one key story beat. The Driver’s success at outwitting the Detective comes both at the wheel and from his eye for detail (he wipes down his tools to keep fingerprints off of them). He sees the Detective’s trap coming a mile away and swerves to avoid it. Then, the Detective comes to see him, tells him about the plan, and cajoles him into taking part. To our surprise, the Driver accepts. Now, this is a complete leap in logic. Granted, the Driver could be blinded by the temptation to showcase his skills, but we are not given a level of characterization to sell that motive. Instead, it plays off as if the plot is suddenly even more mechanized. Essentially, if Driver says no, there isn’t any story left to tell. So he has to. The motive stands outside the diegetic world the characters inhabit. It’s a tremendous flaw – one that may prompt the viewer to scream at his or her TV in disbelief – but the rest of the film stands tall.
Twilight Time’s limited edition (there were only 3,000 copies printed) Blu-Ray is incredibly strong. The AV transfers are top notch. The HD video perfectly balances natural grain with clarity and the mono sound mix feels more dynamic than you would assume 1.0 is capable of. Moreover, the disc comes with an alternate opening, a theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring stills and a short essay. Fans of Drive, art house genre exercises, and gritty 70s American cinema will be more than pleased with the label’s package.
Editor’s note: The Driver is available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment