The Driver (1978) Walter Hill
20th Century Fox
Studio Canal Blu-ray (Region B)
The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) pulls his car around to the front of a casino and waits patiently until two masked men rush into the car. The three of them make their getaway… at least for a few seconds, until they’re chased by a police car. The high-speed chase is edge-of-your-seat stuff, yet the Driver never utters a word or even lets on that this is anything other than a routine ride around the block. He loses the cops, only to have two more patrol cars on his tail. Pretty soon you realize there’s no way the Driver is gonna get out of this, right?
The Detective (Bruce Dern) has a real itch to nail the Driver, but he can’t get the goods on him. The Detective thinks he’s got an eyewitness, but when a woman known as the Player (Isabelle Adjani) sees the Driver in a line-up, she simply states, “It’s not him.”
Of course there’s more to this scenario and we soon learn why. (The Studio Canal Blu-ray also includes an alternate opening to the film that explains why right up front, but you’ll want to watch that extra only after you’ve seen the entire film.) There aren’t many secrets in The Driver and this one doesn’t stay a secret for very long.
But besides the great car chases (which truly are great), why would you want to see The Driver? Many critics dismissed the film as a typical action flick, and even Roger Ebert panned the film, stating that anytime you’ve got characters with no names, but rather functions, you’re watching a story of symbols instead of characters.
That may be true, but one of the main reasons to watch The Driver is to see Bruce Dern in his prime. Yes, O’Neal is very good as the stoic driver and Adjani is effective as the icy Player, but Dern does what Dern does best – he makes you want to take him down a few pegs. The Detective is good at his job, but he’s so full of himself, you just want to slap him. As the film opens, he gets a new partner (Matt Clark) whom the Detective constantly belittles and tries to intimidate. He pushes people around and demands that everything goes his way. Most of all, he hates the Driver for constantly eluding him, calling him a “cowboy,” which almost turns the film into a western transplanted to the L.A. streets. The Driver contains several little scenes of cat-and-mouse before we reach the final showdown and we know that if one of these characters slips up just a little, it’ll all be over.
One of the best scenes in the film shows a group of thugs who want to hire the Driver for an upcoming job. They pull up inside an abandoned parking garage in a ridiculous-looking flaming orange Mercedes, get out of the car, surround the Driver and ask him how good he really is. “Get in,” the Driver says and proceeds to give them a ride they’ll never forget.
I remember seeing the TV spots for The Driver when I was a kid, too young to see a R-rated movie in the theaters, but renting it on VHS as soon as it was available. I remember not being disappointed in the chase scenes (which are still spectacular over 35 years later), but expecting a bit more from the characters. Of course at the time, I had no idea what a film noir was, much less a neo noir, which is how I would categorize The Driver. As such, the film does, as Ebert suggests, contain probably too much symbolism and too thick a layer of existentialism. It would all seem rather silly if not for the great performances and the great action sequences. Maybe Hill is asking – although asking briefly – questions about what seems to be a meaningless existence for all the characters concerned, that ultimately nothing matters except living in the moment. Or maybe not. Maybe the whole film is just a wink and a nod to a whole legion of film noir fans.
Including his feature debut Hard Times (1975), Walter Hill directed a string of movies in the 70s that were, if not exactly hits, then at least cult favorites, including The Driver and continuing with The Warriors (1979), The Long Riders (1980) – a western featuring four sets of actual brothers playing four sets of historical brothers – and Southern Comfort (1981). Hill hit it big in 1982 with the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte blockbuster 48 Hrs. and a sequel Another 48 Hrs. in 1990. Hill certainly knows how to direct smart action pictures that always give you a little more than you bargained for. With The Driver, however, less is more and less has never been more exciting or fulfilling.
(I recently purchased a region-free Blu-ray player so that I could buy European Blu-ray editions of films that have limited availability in the U.S. The Driver is one such release, having a limited run of 3,000 copies from Twilight Time, whose titles, once they go out-of-print, sell for outrageous prices on the secondary markets. Rather than pay $44 for the Twilight Time Blu-ray, I opted for the Studio Canal Region B Blu-ray, which cost me about £13 (less than half the current Twilight Time price). I’m very pleased with the Studio Canal Blu-ray, which you can read a review of here and compare it to the Twilight Time release here.)