Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978) is a cool, minimalist, exciting cop vs. robber movie featuring some capers that succeed, another that flops disastrously, and several outstanding car chases ranking among the best ever filmed. It heavily influenced many urban action pictures including ones I love, like To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Heat (1995), and Drive (2011).
The main characters are nameless types there to serve the plot: The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), an unflappable master in the art of getaway chauffeuring, The Detective (Bruce Dern) obsessed with catching The Driver by any means not limited to legal ones, The Player (Isabelle Adjani) paid by The Driver to be primary witness at the scene of his latest job, a casino robbery, and then lie that it wasn’t him driving, and finally The Connection (Ronee Blakely), the business partner who arranges The Driver’s work and brings news of a new job, a bank robbery that’s actually a trap laid by The Detective.
Action is everything, so these characters are not only nameless but have no lives or much personality outside of their moves and functions in their respective capers or sides of the chase. Everything is ultra cool, stripped down and detached, and the cat and mouse game and the driving are refreshingly real compared to some outlandish CGI stunts in recent car films. You don’t need motivations or arcs to get involved in the suspense and the stakes, but you still care veyr much about these characters getting through the crime, the night and the race.
The Detective calls The Driver a “cowboy who’s never been caught,” but samurai fits too, both describe this cautious but confident and resourceful loner, a man of his word and his honour, with the composure to navigate through any tight spot. The Driver hardly speaks, and doesn’t need to since his skill says it all. When he’s asked by the obnoxious hoods sent by the Detective, to show why his price is so high and his reputation so legendary, he takes them on a hilariously terrifying and precise tour of destruction through an empty parking garage, nimbly dodging the slalom of columns when he wants to, and peeling off the car’s mirrors, doors, bumpers and roof when he chooses. He demonstrates in a few unforgettable instances that he’s also the world champion at “chicken,” turning to face and floor it toward his pursuers, and he’s just as intimidating and unreadable without the auto, able to stare down and eliminate double-crossers. He won’t work with you again if you’re even a second late, and claims to hate guns–his car is his best weapon after all, even an extension of him–but he has the sense to keep tools of the trade handy despite his distaste for them, and pulls out a pistol at the most satisfying moment.
There’s a nice sequence involving a money switch at the train station, where Adjani stoically waits and watches in her stylishly tilted, wide-brimmed hat for the deft exchange of locker keys. It’s all part of the picture’s elegant neo-noir style. Most of the acting is just that spare and emotionless, and exchanges require very few words and lots of loaded looks, in contrast to Dern’s entertaining wired, ragey motor-mouthed outbursts, vivid threats and frustration when The Driver repeatedly slips out of his grasp. Little wonder, since he’s The Driver’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does is getting away.