November 2, 2005
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Walter Hill was one of the best action/thriller directors. Like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah before him, Hill made lean, gritty no-nonsense genre pictures like The Warriors (1979), Southern Comfort (1981) and 48HRS (1982). He understands that what drives an action film is visual storytelling through kinetic editing. This is what propels his under-appreciated movie, The Driver (1978) that is finally seeing its debut on DVD.
The Driver (O’Neal) is a professional getaway driver who specializes in big time robbery jobs. He’s a man of few words, cool under pressure and the best at what he does—the quintessential Hill protagonist (see: Tom Cody from Streets of Fire and Jack Cates from 48HRS.). Ryan O’Neal adopts an impenetrable mask for his facial expressions that gives nothing away. The Driver only exists when he is doing a job and this makes him hard to catch. It is an unusual role for O’Neal who delivers a very minimalist performance and is as much cast against type as he was in Barry Lyndon (1975).
Hot on his trail is a police detective (Dern) determined to bring him down. “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught,” he tells the Driver early on. The detective becomes so obsessed with catching this guy that he sets up a bank job in order to entice, trap and ultimately arrest him. Bruce Dern plays the detective as a tough cop who maintains a friendly exterior but just underneath the surface exudes menace and this gives his scenes with O’Neal a sense of palpable tension. Dern’s character is a cocky S.O.B. who’s convinced that he’s going to catch the Driver because he’s smarter.
The near dialogue-less opening heist/getaway sequence foreshadows the same kind of approach Michael Mann would later apply to his own urban crime thrillers, most notably, Thief (1981), which owes a huge debt to The Driver in terms of style and attitude. The first car chase, where the Driver evades several police cars through city streets at night is the epitome of stylistic economy. There is no CGI, no special effects; just judicious use of editing and letting the action tell the story.
There’s an impressive sequence where the Driver shows a group of thugs who want to hire him just how dedicated and fearless he is as he proceeds to systematically total their car in an empty underground parking garage. It starts off slightly scary as he pulls all kinds of dangerous moves and then funny as he begins taking apart the car, piece by piece and then almost absurd as he continues to wreck the car beyond the point of any rational human being.
Hill employs a classic, no frills style of filmmaking that is almost non-existent in today’s climate which is all about music video style and editing (which he dabbled with in Streets of Fire). He doesn’t feel the need to spell things out through dialogue or providing unnecessary back stories. It’s not important where this guy came from or that we even like him. This movie is a battle of wills between the Driver and the Detective.
There is a three-minute “Alternate Beginning” which establishes, early on, the detective’s work philosophy and also the two women in the Driver’s life. This prologue originally aired on television.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
Sadly, Fox has not included the 135 minute version that was shown at Los Angeles’s American Cinemateque, which apparently included more car chases.