Sunday Editor’s Pick: The Driver (1978)

by on October 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Nov 5 at 7:30* & Sun Nov 6 at 6:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]
*Walter Hill in-person


Once largely overlooked, Alt Screen fave Walter Hill’s second directed feature has been mentioned time and again as an undeniable reference point for Nicolas Refn’s Drive (2011). MoMA’s exemplary “To Save and Project” series offers the opportunity to see Hill’s great stylized genre meditation – unabashedly existential but occasionally quite funny, and a damn good action movie (“among the most impressive montage sequences assembled in Hollywood in the past decade,” remarked Dave Kehr upon its release.)


Kent Jones in his criticism anthology Physical Evidence:

Almost three decades after the fact, The Driver seems like a striking precursor to Tarantino’s the-world-is-a-genre cinema as well as Michael Mann’s L.A-specific crime stories. In 1978, Hill did seem like the last man standing, devoted as he was to Americanizing the “mythic genre movie” genre originated by Melville and raised to operatic heights by Leone. Hill made a bold move with such a stylized undertaking, particularly in cruddy 1978 Hollywood. At a time when old-guard genre filmmakers like Seigel and Karlson were still working and extreme stylization was customarily reserved for subjects of corresponding heft (or for horror) the film barely made a dent.


It’s fairly easy to discuss The Driver in terms of its hypercontrolled elements but a little more difficult to nail its strangely neurotic tone, which is finally what separates it from the myriad paint-by-numbers exercises in fanatically “controlled” genre filmmaking cluttering the multiplexes today. The Driver is indeed the sparest, driest, and most dramatically concise of Hill’s movies, but its three principal actors and their respective “acts” are about as far as you an get from a neo-Hawskian exercise in professionalism and grace under pressure. Dern’s needling, self-aggrandizing cop is very close to his vain Coming Home husband – while almost any other actor would have accented the procedural aspects of the role and made The Detective a study of hubris gone awry. Dern offers yet another portrait of wounded machismo. Meanwhile, O’Neal with is very 1970s male sensitivity and pampered jock good looks, play his role like the cool guy in a romantic comedy, waltzing into the frame and claiming the beautiful woman without even trying. This dynamic of warring male psyches – the self-actualized sensitive man vs. the outdated, unfeeling ma of integrity and action – was already present in Hill’s earlier comic script The Thief Who Came to Dinner. It was also a staple of countless romantic dramas, comedies, and sitcoms of the period. Yet rarely, if ever, did it lie at the center of a movie devoted to getting at “the muscle, the sinew, the tissue, the very nerve center of a getaway driver,” as Hill put it in the press notes. The tension between the dolefully attractive O’Neal in his stylist jackets and open-collared shirts, an otherwordly Adjani adored in sleek late-1970s couture, and the jumpy, beady-eyed Dern with his off the rack drip-dry suits is closer to Paul Mazursky than to Howard Hawks. It’s what finally gives The Driver, which has the chassis of a somnolent Alan Alda triangle and the body of a no-frills action movie, its own very special charm.


, for the record, has listed the film as “one of the coolest movies ever made.”


Edgar Wright curated the film at the New Beverly Cinema, and spoke with Hill:


Scott Tobias in a primer on Hill for The Onion AV Club:

Incredibly, Hill stripped down his style even further for his stellar follow-up, 1978’s The Driver, an almost Zen-like genre exercise that combines his sensational action choreography with a minimalism worthy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. How minimalist? None of the characters have names. They’re only referred to by occupation: The Driver, The Detective, and The Woman, most prominently. And the eponymous character, played by Ryan O’Neal, only says 350 words in the entire movie. (Which automatically qualifies it as the most brilliant use of O’Neal’s limited talents in a movie ever.) Hill intended the project for Steve McQueen, but playing the best getaway driver in the business, O’Neal uses his enigmatic looks and opaque blue eyes as an acceptable substitute. The real stars of the film, however, are the masterful chase scenes through the sprawl of Los Angeles, frequently shot at bumper-level to amplify the sense of speed and danger. Here was a director who was finding his own style by threading the needle between genre deconstructionists like Melville, Monte Hellman, and Sam Peckinpah, and the high-impact commercial films of John Frankenheimer or William Friedkin.



Time Out (London):

Scriptwriter-turned-director Walter Hill’s Hard Times received deservedly excellent reviews when it opened a few years back. His second feature is even better, a combination of brilliantly edited car chases and existential thriller which recalls the sombreness of Melville and the spareness of Leone in a context which is the ‘classical’ economy of directors like Hawks and Walsh. A brilliant plot of cross and double-cross, with cop Dern out to nail ace getaway driver O’Neal, unravels with a tautness to put it on a par with the same year’s action hit, Assault on Precinct l3.


James Hughes talks to Hill just this week, for The Village Voice:

The Driver, above all, stands as a testament to meticulous location scouting, as the viewer is guided through unidentified parking garages, wood-paneled pool halls, and glass towers rising above the ghosts of Bunker Hill. “Back then, when you went downtown, there was this kind of other,” Hill, a Long Beach, California, native who lives in Beverly Hills, explains. “Nowadays it’s repopulated, and there’s a vibrancy down there. I was interested in the hollow, lonely city.” Whereas the atmospheric detail in contemporary noirs like Collateral and Drive slices through the screen in high-definition video, Hill’s shabbier, rain-slicked roadways blend into the haze, further obscuring all signage and blotting the streetlights as the getaway cars streak past. Aggressively pursued by Bruce Dern, a detective whose presence is like a rope burn, the Driver, as he’s identified (just as Ryan Gosling is in Drive), calmly sidesteps every trap.


Dave Kehr, in a review well worth reading in full, in his book When Movies Mattered:

The Driver is a writer’s film only in the best sense: it was written as a film. Dialogue is relegated to its proper place, as only one tool among the range of expressive equipment at the director’s disposal. Hill’s camera placement, his cutting, his sense of decor, and his careful sequencing join his abstract dialogue as component parts of a single articulation. A flat phrase like “Go home,” which is used twice in the film, carries two widely different meanings at two different times; not because of the eloquence of the line, nor the actor’s inflection, but because of the different cinematic circumstances that surround it. The Driver stands as a work of cinema, making full and intelligent use of the resources of the medium.


If the subject of The Driver is skill, Hill restates it on a technical level by displaying an extremely impressive skill of his own. The car chases, which must make up nearly a third of the film’s efficient 91-minute time, are virtuoso pieces. The chases could almost stand as independent films – studies in motion through time – and the sequences do take on a plastic beauty quite apart from their function in the narrative. Hill uses an unusually large number of shots, taken from most of the available vantage points: the camera moving in front of, alongside, or behind the car, above or below it, moving back to the curb to capture the sweep of the chase, anticipating it, sometimes glimpsing the action off in the distance. Movement is conveyed primarily by the rhythm of the cutting, while the shots themselves develop a sense of contrasting spaces: the narrow confines of the vehicle, the sudden expansion from street to highway. The sound track montage is no less skillful. The cacophony of screaming tires, blaring horns, and wailing sirens (the latter among the most expressive voices to be heard in the film) is assembled with a musical sense reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann‘s electronic chirps and twitters in The Birds. The nervous energy of the chase sequences carries over into the dialogue scenes. The cutting, of course, is slower, but Hill keeps up his compulsive shot-changing, providing more coverage of a simple two-character dialogue than most directors would give to a house afire. Even when the characters and camera are perfectly still, the relentlessness of Hill’s montage keeps the scene on edge; a jitter creeps into even the most benign contexts.


Hill’s framing exaggerates the strangeness of the urban landscape: we see it only in its most elemental sections, bare walls and dim interiors, the shadows cast by buildings creating an artificial twilight even in the film’s infrequent ventures out into the light of day. The Los Angeles that Hill conjures is spare, empty, anonymous, mysteriously compelling in its lifelessness. The harsh neutrality of the setting immediately evokes the spirit of Robert Bresson, for whom all detail is a sign of cinematic impurity. Hill, wisely, doesn’ go to Bresson’s extremes, but a good deal of Bresson’s method is also apparent in his direction of actors. The players deliver their lines as flatly as possible, maintaining a perfect impassivity of expressions. When it works it works brilliantly: thoughts and feelings must be read by interference, and the viewer discovers them almost as the character does. It may be cruel to say that Ryan O’Neal gives his best performance in The Driver, where he isn’t asked to perform at all, but it’s true.



Omar Ahmed discusses the film’s genre inspirations for Ellipsis:

A closer look at the film unveils a complex interconnected matrix of intertextual signifiers. Much of this is due to cinematic homage on part of Walter Hill yet the film’s connection to the past and it’s influence on the present provides what is a missing link in the evolution of the existential crime thriller, suggesting quite strongly how the parameters of mainstream American genres continue to be broached and appropriated for the expression of cinephile concerns. It would be worthwhile to dwell on these intertextual signifiers and explore how Hill’s film absorbs a range of influences, giving the film its minimalist style that reflexively echoes the work of European auteurs and classical Hollywood cinema.


It is not surprising that both John Carpenter and Walter Hill are in agreement on the influence of Howard Hawks as their male protagonists seem out of synch with contemporary society. Their mere existence is signified by an attachment to a nostalgic and primitive view of American society in which the resistance to conform was a potential source of male identity. Perhaps more so than Carpenter, Hill’s preoccupation with a moral code which his male characters in particular are absolutely dependent upon is also an aspect of the western genre that becomes conflated with a Hawksian regard for an innate belief in professionalism, integrity and most importantly, self respect. This is evident in the central character of ‘the cowboy’ (Ryan O’Neal) who treats the role of a getaway driver as one of great social defiance and non conformity. Not only does he invest a disconcerting level of professionalism and sincerity into his work as a driver but the distance he maintains from mainstream society positions him as a rebel. To defend the validity of the moral code upon which the driver depends also elevates his status beyond those around him including the insidious and troublesome police detective played by Bruce Dern.

The influence of Walter Hill’s film on the work of Michael Mann, especially in regards to the construction of the alienated yet dedicated professional loner, often goes unacknowledged. Though Hill inherits an austere tradition from Melville who in turn borrows liberally from Japanese samurai mythology, the driver’s adherence to a punishing moral code and lack of emotional attachments prefigures Mann’s morally ambiguous anti-heroes. Ryan O’Neal’s sharply suited, ice cold character is a virtual template for Vincent in ‘Collateral’ and also mirrors Frank in ‘Thief’. One could go back even further, tracing a linage to films like ‘Bullitt’, ‘The Getaway’ and ‘Point Blank’ in which the male characters seem prisoners of a system that offers minimal validation. However, the criminal in many of Mann’s crime films are punished for transgression. This is a very traditional and perhaps even conservative means of preserving social order but in Hill’s film, the criminal is offered a way out whilst the absence of sophistication or skill in the figure of the egocentric police detective makes the character of the driver/cowboy altogether more noble and revolutionary in his intent.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The most direct manifestation of Walter Hill’s continuous desire to remake Pickpocket — his “models” are noir dwellers distilled to their quiddity, his musique concréte is the vroom-vroom of skidding chases. The antihero, Ryan O’Neal, emerges from industrial depths into a garage, and drives into the night; people are defined by their actions, so he’s the Driver, a getaway ace on his way to a casino holdup. The Player (Isabelle Adjani) deals the cards, and catches a glimpse of O’Neal as hokey-masked crooks rush into his car; the Detective (Bruce Dern) admires professionalism, particularly his own, and deems the cat-and-mouse game better than sports. The city remains unnamed, but it’s clearly L.A. before Michael Mann made it his own, a land of existential phantoms most at home in the nocturnal sprawl where they act out their roles as fractions of the auteur’s terse reverie. O’Neal’s softness provides an analysis of Steve McQueen, his “cowboy desperado” pitted against Dern’s haunted sheriff — macho hostility is ritualized, aestheticized, etherealized, the dialogue pitched at another Bresson, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. (Dern: “A real sad song… Only trouble is, sad songs ain’t selling this year.” Or an incantatory Adjani: “You think… maybe… you could wait… for a while?”) What’s bottled up in the characters is released behind the wheel, and Hill transforms every car showdown into wonders of abstraction: deep-focus diagonals for streets lined with posts, the orange Mercedes-Benz dismantled in the strangely phosphorescent concrete garage, a tunnel illuminated with spooky, greenish light, the labyrinth of warehouse boxes. Hill leeches the notion of underworld loyalty out of the Pickup on South Street homage (Ronee Blakley in her hotel room) and reclaims his own bit of business from The Getaway (a valise of money in a train) to lend it metaphysical heft. Finally, a cut magically teleports the Detective and a battalion of officers into the empty train station lounge in time for the Driver and the Filmmaker to unveil their last taciturn gag, a moment of spiritual quietude offsetting and complementing the visceral kineticism that has led up to it.


– Compiled by Brynn White

  • Alex Tworkowski

    By my count, someone’s missing on the credits. The driver of the Trans Am near the end is not mentioned in the credits. It’s the best chase scene in the movie and it leads to a wreck in a warehouse. The driver tells him to “Go Home.” No character name and no credit. WTF?

    • gyebnar
      • Alex Tworkowski

        I’m thinking that too. I Google Frank Bruno and got the fighter. Then i remembered that there was a black guy in on a robbery in the beginning that i thought might have been Frank Bruno. I don’t think the ages worked out. You must be right. Nobody had a name. Confusing. Good movie. Thanks.

        • gyebnar

          Your welcome. It is almost a 40 years old movie, we won’t know it…
          I was 6 or 7 when it was showed on the TV in my country (Hungary). We had brand new color TV… it was a good experience and now it is a good memory :)
          I think my parents liked this movie because the actor was in the Love Story movie too. But I liked the mobie because the cars. :D

          • Alex Tworkowski

            I totally agree with you. I’m old and wizened now and i still like the movie for the cars and the racing around. BTW, the two women in the movie sucked. Can i use that word? I’m glad you saw and liked the movie. Happy New Year.

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