Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), reviled at release but now regarded as a classic, offers a cold and unsentimental genre film, complete with excellent stunt work.
Soon available in UK cinemas in a crisp new 4K restoration, The Driver focuses on a getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal, Paper Moon) under constant pursuit by the authorities. His prowess allows him to charge robbers a high price, and his reputation only grows with each robbery. The Detective (Bruce Dern, Silent Running) is hot on the Driver’s heels, but can never get quite near. The (card) Player (Isabelle Adjani, Possession) sees the Driver’s participation in a heist, but the Detective can only chase her up after she has been paid off by the Driver to tell the Detective she saw nothing. It’s quite easy to follow in terms of plot.
The car chase at the beginning of the film features hardly any dialogue, and the Driver maintains a cool, reticent front over the course of the story. He knows the extent of the trouble he’s in, but he has faith in his ability to evade the Detective. Despite being mostly set at night, the film is made colourful by the urban lights. The city truly never sleeps, and its nocturnal folk are its most troublesome. The car chases are genuinely breathtaking, and easily the best part of the film; they are perfectly choreographed, shot and edited. Aesthetically, it draws upon classic film noirs, but much like The Long Goodbye, served as a seminal piece with its influence on directors such as Michael Mann and Nicolas Winding Refn being obvious from the outset. The Driver is one of those films that seems unremarkable today, but only thanks to how so many films since have borrowed from it.
The film’s characters are merely listed in the credits as ‘The Driver’, ‘The Detective’, ‘The Player’ and ‘The Connection’ (Ronee Blakley, Nashville). Writer-director Walter Hill uses archetypes and wants you to be aware that these aren’t really fleshed-out, multi-dimensional characters, but unfortunately there is no real metaphysical or deconstructive reasoning for this, and instead they remain uncompelling. The result is that it actually ends up more pronounced as a genre film, as the characters and plot conventions are very conventional by design. Unfortunately, this means that much of the plot is predictable and that the characters lack personality.
This insistence on cold characters, coupled with bland and sometimes cringey dialogue, forms the basis of the film’s biggest hamartia; that ultimately the thrust of the film comes from the excellent action sequences, rather than an engaging plot and characters. Isabelle Adjani is a phenomenally talented actress whose panicked, sympathetic performance as Adèle Hugo (daughter of Victor Hugo) in The Story of Adèle H rightfully established her as one of the world’s most daring, interesting talents, but her role here only allows her to deliver lines without emotion and stare gormlessly into the distance; it’s a role that could have been played by anyone. Bruce Dern is given more to work with as the determined Detective, whose steadfast pursuit of the Driver creates most of the film’s narrative conflict.
44 years on from release, the carefully-constructed new 4K restoration makes the film as visually appealing as anything contemporary. There is now much greater contrast between the natural nighttime darkness and the artificial lights that keep the city alive, giving the sense that the characters of the film are almost alone in their endeavours. Also, the sound quality and design is really as good as it gets, really contributing to the thrill of the car chases and the suspense of the more expository scenes. When a film is so dependent on its visual splendour, it’s essential that its restoration is in safe hands, and StudioCanal have done a fantastic job in removing the visual muddiness while retaining the narrative grittiness and visual beauty that are crucial to the film’s appeal.
The Driver has its fair share of memorable moments, and I’d really be loath to spoil them. A particular highlight is when the Driver is challenged by potential clients on his driving ability – he takes the challenge in his stride with wonderful finesse in an almost humorous set piece that sees him prove himself in quite an unusual way. The final fifteen minutes are also excellent in their use of suspense, intrigue and stunt work and provide a totally satisfying finale.
The Driver is definitely worth revisiting, as it’s a seminal neo-noir heist film whose DNA can be seen in Collateral, Drive and Baby Driver. One of the most famous recurrent motifs in Pulp Fiction is also present here, even if Quentin Tarantino interpolates it in his own way; you’ll pick up on it when you see it! While the film’s quiet approach and intentionally distant, difficult characters may disappoint those in search of a white-knuckle action film, its chases are some of the best ever put to film and its actors do their jobs perfectly, even if their roles aren’t very demanding or interesting.
A new 4k restoration of Walter Hill’s 1978 film The Driver will be in UK cinemas from November 11 and on home entertainment December 5, 2022.