Author Raymond Chandler famously said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” I thought of these words as I watched Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) recently and thought about how it applied to its titular protagonist. The film was only Hill’s second outing as a director and yet it showed an assured touch in the choreographing of vehicular mayhem with a no frills approach to storytelling that is one of the hallmarks of his body of work.
It didn’t hurt that he learned the art and the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from the likes of Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair), Sam Peckinpah (The Getaway), and Paul Newman (The Drowning Pool). By the time, he directed his first feature film – Hard Times (1975) – he had seen and done a lot. The Driver saw Ryan O’Neal, in a surprising turn as a taciturn getaway driver, heading up a solid cast that featured the likes of Bruce Dern and Isabelle Adjani. The end result is a lean crime film populated by people that are the best at what they do, traveling down those mean streets Chandler talked about – they just happen to be on opposite sides of the law.
The film jumps right in by showing the Driver (O’Neal) plying his trade. He helps two crooks that have knocked over a casino escape the scene of the crime. He’s the epitome of cool under fire – not even breaking a sweat when the cops give chase, skillfully losing multiple pursuers through the streets of Los Angeles. At one point, he plays chicken with two oncoming cop cars! Hill does a superb job depicting this dynamic chase, not only conveying the speed and intensity of it, but also the skill and utter professionalism of the Driver.
The Driver is doggedly pursued by the Detective (Dern) who has been after him for some time and is determined to bust him. He knows what the Driver does – he just can’t catch him in the act. As he says at one point, “I respect a man that’s good at what he does…I’m very good at what I do.” Does this sound familiar? This dialogue would not sound out of place in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). The Detective respects the Driver’s skills, which only makes him that much more determined to arrest him.
In fact, he is so driven that he bullies a crook (Joseph Walsh) to hire the Driver to help him and his buddies escape a bank after they rob it in broad daylight. It’s a risky move but the Detective feels that it’s worth it if he can catch his prey. This sets the wheels in motion for an inevitable showdown between these two opposing forces.
Ryan O’Neal delivers an incredibly controlled performance as a man of few words, preferring to let his actions speak for him. We know nothing about his past or his private life. He is his work and Hill tells us all we need to know through his actions, like how well he can evade multiple pursuers, or his non-descript attire and economy of words, thereby making him difficult to identify and arrest as he leaves very little of a footprint as it were. Hill even manages to show a slyly humorous side to the man in a scene where he “auditions” for three crooks, proceeding to trash their car in a parking garage while they’re all in it. This sequence is simultaneously amusing and impressive. The Driver is a fascinating, enigmatic character that O’Neal expertly brings to life.
Bruce Dern matches O’Neal beat for beat, being the conceited chatterbox to the latter’s quiet intensity. Whereas the Driver shows very little emotion, the Detective is a grinning braggart so sure of himself and his plan to catch his prey. Dern gives his cop a jovial spin but it’s all a façade to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. Underneath lurks the nastiness of someone that doesn’t like to lose.
Hill takes us on a tour of the L.A. underworld – abandoned factories, parking garages, casinos, and sparsely furnished cheap hotel rooms that reflect the Driver’s world. During the night scenes, Hill utilizes the shadows effectively, creating a neo-noir vibe that is almost tangible.
The director also deconstructs and strips the crime film down to its most basic elements and so the end credits feature no proper names, only identifying the characters by what they do. He provides them with no backstories, forcing us to identify with them by what they do and how they behave in the moment. In this respect, Hill anticipated what Michael Mann has been doing in films like Miami Vice (2006) and Blackhat (2015).
Producer Lawrence Gordon came up with the idea of a film about a professional driver and then Walter Hill wrote the screenplay over the summer of 1975 while waiting for his directorial debut, Hard Times, to be released. He wrote the film for Steve McQueen but the actor didn’t “want to do another car thing.” The studio wanted Charles Bronson – he had worked with Hill on Hard Times – but they had a falling out over it and so he went with Ryan O’Neal instead.
For the role of the Detective, the studio wanted Robert Mitchum but he passed on the role and Hill went with Bruce Dern, rewriting some of his character’s dialogue to accommodate the actor’s personality and to contrast O’Neal’s taciturn Driver.
When it came to principal photography, Hill shot all the dramatic scenes first and then all the chases at night, which he felt “would be very much more in the spirit of what the storytelling wanted to be.” The director had learned about car chases working as second assistant director on Bullitt (1968). He realized that what made the famous car chase so memorable was not just the stunts but “the technique of shooting from inside. You really felt it was a rollercoaster ride as well as something you were observing. I made damn sure that when I was doing The Driver I filmed an enormous amount of inside shots.”
When Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) came out a lot was made about how much it resembled The Driver (and Mann’s Thief) and it certainly owes a debt to Hill’s film but conversely it is indebted to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) with its protagonist of few words that is also an elite criminal. Like Refn did with Drive, Hill makes The Driver his own by applying his specific style and worldview. For example, the crook (Rudy Ramos) that double crosses the Driver partway through the film would be the first of many nasty baddies that populate Hill’s films – amoral men without regard for life, like Luther in The Warriors (1979) and Ganz in 48 HRS. (1982). These guys cannot be civilized or contained – they must be killed because of the threat they pose to the natural order of things.
The Driver may be a criminal but he has his own moral code that he follows and he doesn’t break his rules unless forced to by the bad guy. As Chandler said, he is neither “tarnished nor afraid,” and remains an unflappable presence throughout the film, adapting to any complications that come his way, including the trap that the Detective sets for him.
The Driver received mostly negative reviews when it was first released in theaters. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “And then there are those chase scenes. They’re great. They fill the screen with energy, even if it’s mechanical energy that doesn’t substitute for the human kind.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby, “For a movie in which there are so many chases. The Movie is singularly unexciting and uninvolving, though it does have its laughs.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas described the film as “ultraviolent trash that wipes out Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and Isabella Adjani,” and “plays like a bad imitation of a French gangster picture which in turn is a bad imitation of an American gangster picture.” Finally, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “There’s no realism, no psychology, and very little plot…There is, however, a great deal of technically sophisticated and very imaginative filmmaking.”
The Driver was not a financial success but has become an influential film, counting filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, the aforementioned Refn, and Edgar Wright among its admirers. For Hill, it began a terrific run of action-oriented films that included films like The Long Riders (1980) and Southern Comfort (1981) and continued up to and including Streets of Fire (1984). Some of them were box office hits, some were not but all of them were instilled with the filmmaker’s no-nonsense, hardboiled sensibilities and a terrific capacity for kinetic action.
Hewitt, Chris. “Edgar Wright and Walter Hill Discuss The Driver.” Empire. March 13, 2017.