Known simply as "The Driver," a man makes his living by stealing cars to be used as getaway vehicles in large scale robberies. He is being pursued by "The Detective" who stages a bank robbery to try to catch him.
Sandy Brown Wyeth
Patrick J Burns
William M. Mcconnell
Robert K. Lambert
Richard J Wagner
Douglas O. Williams
The Driver is the sophomore directorial effort from screenwriter turned filmmaker Walter Hill and it takes a stylized, almost abstract approach to the crime thriller. The dialogue is terse, the direction sleek and clean, the characters unencumbered by backstories or complicated motivations. Hill apprenticed as second unit director on Bullit, a film featuring some of the most famous car chase scenes in American cinema, and he puts his experience to good use here. The car chases are exactingly choreographed to emphasize The Driver's control and craft as he leapfrogs through traffic, threads the needle through alleys without slowing, and shoots through intersections with crack timing.
Hill originally wrote the lead for Steve McQueen, who starred in Bullit and the Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, which Hill scripted, but he passed on the project because he didn't want to do yet another car film at that point in his career. A number of other actors were considered before Ryan O'Neal's agent called Hill and the director agreed to meet the star. "We talked about the role and talked about the minimalist approach I wanted to try," he recalled in an interview years later. "He felt he could do it and we just got comfortable with each other." O'Neal, better known for comedy and light drama than action or terse toughness, was not an obvious choice for the role but he was considered bankable by the producers and Hill was convinced that he could pull it off. "I think Ryan gave a very good performance. I was always very happy with what he did."
Both Julie Christie and Charlotte Rampling were under consideration to co-star as The Player. The role became the American film debut of French actress Isabelle Adjani, who was a fan of Hill's first feature, Hard Times. "I think [Hill] is wonderful, very much in the tradition of Howard Hawks, lean and spare," she explained in a 1977 interview. "The story is contemporary but also very stylized, and the roles that Ryan and I play are like Bogart and Bacall." Bruce Dern plays against the guardedness of O'Neal and Adjani with a garrulous drawl and smirking arrogance, an attitude that puts him at odds with his own collegaues. It's also a marked contrast from Dern's other 1978 feature: Coming Home, for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination. Singer/actress Ronee Blakley, who played the country music superstar Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's Nashville, plays the Driver's underworld agent, known only as The Connection in the credits.
You might say The Driver is an American action film with a European sensibility. Throughout his career, Hill has played with the pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world. The Driver is one of his most stylized, influenced in part by French gangster movie auteur Jean-Pierre Melville and his 1967 classic Le Samourai, starring Alain Delon as a taciturn lone-wolf assassin for hire who is pursued by a dogged police investigator and protected by a nightclub singer who becomes his alibi. Critic Julie Kirgo also cites Robert Bresson as an important influence on Hill's use of quiet, spare scenes between the action sequences.
The film opened to unfavorable reviews ("It is Awful Movie. It is Pretentious Movie. It is Silly Movie. It talks just like this," wrote Vincent Canby in his New York Times notice) and sparse audiences in the U.S., but it was a success in France. Its reputation has grown enourmously in the years since--filmmaker and genre buff Quentin Tarantino called it one of the "coolest movies of all time"--and it has become a cult film among action cinema fans.
By Sean Axmaker
Author interview with Walter Hill, September 25, 2005.
"The Driver," Julie Kirgo. Booklet in The Driver Blu-ray release, Twilight Time, 2013.
"At the Movies: Isabelle Adjani Finds Poker Easy; Cheating Takes Practice," Guy Flatley. The New York Times, August 12, 1977.
"'Driver' Takes a Rocky Road: No Names, Please!," Vincent Canby. The New York Times, July 28, 1978.
Tarantino: The Man, the Myths and His Movies, Wensley Clarkson. John Blake, Publisher, 2007.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
The Driver on Blu-ray
His second directorial effort, The Driver (1978), couldn't be more different -- a contemporary drama of cops and crooks in the modern city locked in a struggle that has become (for no explicable reason) personal, all loners with temporary alliances at best -- yet we're in the same Hill universe of tough, terse professionals who define themselves by their abilities and express themselves in action. Hill has always had a penchant for dropping pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world where the rest of the population is either backdrop to their story or simply absent from the frame. The Driver is more stylized than most, right down to characters who have no names. According to the credits, they are identified simply by title, or by profession, if you will.
Ryan O'Neal is The Driver, a professional getaway jockey who hires himself out to independent crews on a job-by-job basis. Isabelle Adjani is The Player, an elegant croupier at a gambling club with business on the side. Bruce Dern is The Detective, a drawling cop eavesdropping on police calls until he hears The Driver's signature driving on a robbery call. Garrulous and cocky in contrast to the terse Driver and Player, he's also driven by ego rather than professional pride: "I'm gonna catch the cowboy that's never been caught." That's the extent of his motivation as provided by the film. It's enough in this sleek, stripped-down culture of dares and challenges played out in a world of life and death stakes.
Like his writing, with spare dialogue that suggested what wasn't spoken, Hill's direction is clean and direct. There's no extraneous detail, no backstories, no real world details to complicate the urban mythology he's playing with here. The influence of French gangster movie auteur Jean-Pierre Melville is unmistakable. Melville brought a chic elegance and an existential cool to his signature films, and especially his 1967 classic Le Samourai, with Alain Delon as a taciturn lone-wolf assassin for hire. The Driver plays like the American answer to that film, not a remake per se but a respectful tribute. O'Neal's Driver is a cousin to Delon's contract killer and Adjani's Player very much plays out the Le Samourai role of the witness who protects the Driver, though here it's a matter of business, pure and simple. "I've been paid to do a lot of things, but I've never been paid to be an alibi." Or maybe not so simple. While it's not like you can feel a sizzle of attraction between two such guarded, enigmatic characters, there is a spark on interest that keeps them connected even as The Detective puts the screws to The Player.
Hill wrote the lead for Steve McQueen, who passed on the project because he didn't want to do yet another car film, at least at that point in his career. Ryan O'Neal is an unexpected alternate. He was (and still is) better known for comedy and light drama can action or terse toughness and he's been called out as a weak link in many reviews. I disagree. His physical performance is superb, his body language as guarded as his expression, betraying almost nothing, coming to life only when he's behind the wheel. Hill is determined to show us O'Neal in the driver's seat and thanks to superb shooting and cutting the illusion is perfect: that actor has become his profession. His face, meanwhile, never betrays a hint of anything but emotionless focus and determination.
In contrast to The Driver and The Player, who are professionals to the core, The Detective is a cowboy cop, getting a charge out of his vigilante tactics -- he sets up his office in an after-hours bar and commands his team like a gangleader constantly proving his alpha status -- and treating the case like a personal challenge. He says right out that "It's a game." Not like a game, mind you, but a game, and he treats it that way, as if there are no consequences to his actions beyond winning or losing. Dern's garrulous drawl and smirking sense of power makes his easy to dislike yet fun to watch, and the way he saunters through a scene and sprawls rather than sits, as if claiming the space as his own, creates a dramatic dynamic with O'Neal's taciturn restraint. His "new man" (Matt Clark) doesn't bother to hide their disdain for his actions or his attitude.
Hill apprenticed as second unit-unit director on Bullit and clearly learned a thing or two. The car choreography and stunt driving is excellent, from the nighttime chase scenes through Los Angeles city streets to an object lesson in an underground garage where he "auditions" for a prospective client that questions his abilities. The street chases are cleanly directed and marvelously choreographed, the emphasis not on crashes but on the control as he leapfrogs through traffic, threads the needle through alleys without slowing, and shoots through intersections with crack timing. But in the garage, where it's all narrow spaces and obstacle-course pillars, he painstakingly dismantles the car with his clients inside, a display of utter contempt for thugs who let themselves be used by the cops.
The Driver is one of Hill's nocturnal films, where characters live by night and only the Detective can be seen in the daylight. It's a world that Hill revisits in The Warriors (1979), 48 Hrs. (1982), Streets of Fire (1984), and even Bullet to the Head (2012), and figuratively in the black of space of Supernova (2000) and perpetual twilight of prison in Undisputed (2002) in the. This is the era where fast film stocks gave filmmakers more versatility in location shooting and Hill and cinematographer Philip Lathrop do wonders with the possibilities, bringing striking splashes of color to the location scenes while keeping the interiors more subdued, all soft light on the characters with pools of illumination and dark corners filling in the space. It creates a shadow world where its characters live and work in a kind of twilight. The film is presented to fit the 16x9 widescreen format (about 1.78:1) and features a DTS mono soundtrack. The HD digital master keeps Hill's cool color scheme, with subdued colors for the interior scenes and the streets at night in shades of cool blue and green with splashes of color via traffic lights and headlights and flashing police red and blue. The grain is visible but unobtrusive in low-light scenes and the rest of the film looks very good, with strong, clear images and color.
The Blu-ray includes the alternate opening that was also on the DVD, essentially a short prologue that introduces the characters of Dern, Adjani, and Blakely that was wisely cut out to preserve the surprise of the first big revelation and appears to come from a workprint. Though unrestored with a lot of speckling, it looks to be remastered for 1080p and looks very good. There's also a trailer and Twilight Time's signature isolated audio track for the score, this one spotlighting the music of Michael Small, plus a booklet with another fine essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
By Sean Axmaker
The Driver on Blu-ray
The titular driver is a man of few words - 350 in all.
Not one character has a name in this movie, and are all addressed by their occupation; e.g. "the Driver".
This film was originally written for 'Steve McQueen' .
Released in United States June 2010
Released in United States Summer July 1978
Shown at Los Angeles Film Festival (Downtown Confidential) June 17-27, 2010.
Completed production April 1978.
Released in United States June 2010 (Shown at Los Angeles Film Festival (Downtown Confidential) June 17-27, 2010.)
Released in United States Summer July 1978