The Driver was Walter Hill’s second film as a director after, in his own words, the “moderately successful” Hard Times. Hill had already made a name for himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter, especially for his script for Sam Peckinpah’s film The Getaway (which, at the insistence of star Steve McQueen, stupidly cut out the ending from the book—which is the entire point of Jim Thompson’s novel.) The Driver is really Hill’s first great film, and quite possibly his most artistically satisfying.
Ryan O’Neal plays the eponymous “The Driver,” a getaway driver for criminals in L.A. (if it sounds familiar… hold on). He ends up in cat-and-mouse game with a police detective, who is simply known as… “The Detective,” played by Bruce Dern. The Detective is desperate to catch The Driver, who he refers to as “cowboy.” Hill has called all his films “westerns,” even if they are contemporary. Isabelle Adjani is “The Player,” who gets involved with all The Driver’s shady dealings after she sees him with his co-conspirators late one night after doing a hit on a casino.
The film wears itis influences on its sleeve, but at a time when Jean-Pierre Melville wasn’t that widely known outside of hardcore connoisseurs of French crime films. Le Samouraï is the key influence, because both films are about a lone criminal: in Le Samouraï it’s an assassin and a reluctant female witness, all wrapped up in a coating of French existentialism. The film’s other major influence, Point Blank, was moderately successful at the time but hadn’t yet had been reappraised by critics as the masterclass of merging European arthouse with American action cinema that it’s now considered to be. Alexander Jacobs’ original draft of the Point Blank script would inform Hill’s own self-described “haiku style” of screenwriting for The Driver (and some his other films), which has the barest minimum possible of dialogue to move the story ahead.
Ryan O’Neal, who was primarily known for Love Story, Barry Lyndon (which at the time was a critical and commercial disaster), and his collaborations with Peter Bogdanovich, gives probably his last truly memorable performance as The Driver, although Tough Guys Don’t Dance also has its cult film virtues. He is such a blank as a performer that he only shines when working with a great director like Bogdanovich, Hill and of course Kubrick. These directors could mould him into what they needed for the role, from a Cary Grant-esque comedic performance in What’s Up Doc? or his role in Barry Lyndon, where he is just this guy to whom things happen, never the instigator of the action. It’s the blankness of his face in The Driver that says everything you need to know about the character. Hill wanted Steve McQueen, who would’ve been too charming as The Driver. Bruce Dern has the only meaty roll as The Detective, and has the most lines of anybody in the film by a large margin.
When The Driver came out, it only did reasonably OK, but performed well in Japan and France, where viewers picked up on the samurai code of honour that The Driver kind of lives by, and all the existentialist angst. However, it has ended up being a surprisingly influential film. James Sallis, who wrote the novel Drive, was heavily influenced by the film when he wrote the book. It was later turned into the much-beloved 2011 film Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn. It’s no secret that Refn is a Walter Hill fan and likes The Driver (although he claims to not have seen The Driver till the pre-production stage of Drive, saying he never could find it in his native Copenhagen). Both films have some similarities, including L.A. locations, but Drive ends up being more of a Grimm’s fairy-tale version of the lone existential criminal than Hill’s film. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is a more obvious homage, so much so that Walter Hill actually has a voice cameo in that film. Hill is a fan of both films and filmmakers, and takes any influence he may have had a compliment.
The Driver is a high-water mark in American ’70s crime film because of its effort to incorporate a European sensibility into this very basic story. The three main characters might have little to do because they are all symbolic, but Hill is a master craftsman who brings a certain poetry to the proceedings. It’s 91 minutes in and out, much like the title character, but it’s a film that will be ingrained in your memory afterwards.
The new 4K really pops, and showcases the influence of Edward Hopper on Hill when it came to instructing the film’s cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop on how he wanted to light the film. There are newer pieces with Hill: one is a Q&A masterclass in France, where he is revered as a great American auteur, and a longer interview shot on the same trip to France. The alternative opening, which has been available on previous release, plus various trailers and TV spots round off the disc’s extras.