I have kind of a vague recollection of when Walter Hill's THE DRIVER came out in back in '78, mainly from the commercials (I was but a wee lad at the time and there was no way I was going to see it), but what I remember about them was the concept: Ryan O'Neal drives a getaway car for bank robbers. That part I understood, a concept so simple that even kids could get it. Had I seen the picture back then would I have gotten it? Perhaps to a certain extent, but I just would have dug on the car chases and not much on anything below the surface. And even though I knew it had a good reputation, it was never on the top of my "must see" list, despite a rare 4-star review from Halliwell's Film Guide, which doesn't hand these things out regularly. But I picked up the DVD a few years back because it was so damn cheap (something like $10) and I knew somewhere in the back of me head that someday I would get to it, so - hey! - I finally did a few weeks ago.
What's interesting to me about THE DRIVER is that it comes from that early stage of Walter Hill's career when he was not so much finding his voice but finding a way to get his voice to break through. It was only his second film as a director (after HARD TIMES) but thanks to scripts like HICKEY & BOGGS and THE GETAWAY, he was already defining himself as a distinctive writer of pulp; someone who appreciated the thriller genre, specifically crime stories and tales of tough and brutal men, but who was also able to take those kind of stories and update them for the 1970s. Novelist like Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake and Raymond Chandler were obvious influences, as were filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel and Jean-Pierre Melville, but THE DRIVER doesn't exactly come across as a homage, just more like a late 70s version of those types of films. It's possible that it could have been made ten years earlier, but the 1978 time frame suits the film fine and makes it a little bit more interesting, since it was one of the few films of its type made during that era, instead of dating it. Like POINT BLANK a decade before it, it feels like the definitive crime film of its era.
The premise, like I said before, is simple: O'Neal is a getaway car driver (the best there is, of course), hunted by ruthless cop Bruce Dern while also trying to rid himself of the crew who screwed him over on the last job. The film is almost half car chases (which are all extremely well done) and O'Neal doesn't really say much, leaving Dern to do all the talking. It's the kind of picture that can translate into any language, but it's distinctly American in its way (L.A. locations are used beautifully); I recall reading a draft of Hill's proposed remake of THE KILLER (which Hill co-wrote with David Giler) and it was absolutely wretched, just a horrendous piece of shit, but I flashed back to it after watching this film because the sparse use of language that Hill employed so well here sure as hell couldn't translate to that material. It wasn't so much that he was the wrong guy for the job, but that he was the wrong guy for that material. THE DRIVER is Woo's KILLER made well before then (and was possibly an influence) and as Hill's "Melville film" it's a really solid piece of work, though nowhere nearly as stylish as Melville (or Woo's) films. Interestingly enough, it does feel like an early version of a Michael Mann film, so perhaps it became influential in its own right.
What really makes THE DRIVER for me, though, are O'Neal and Dern; here you have two actors basically owning two different parts of the film (they only share a few scant scenes together) and each is first-rate. Dern's threatens to take things over the top with his obsessed cop at more than one point, but he pulls back right when he needs to and because of this it all works. An apt comparison is Pacino's character in Michael Mann's HEAT, although with Dern's character it's less of a matter of drive (no pun intended) than all-out obsession. He's really out to get this guy, no matter what, with any and all means at his disposal, which he most certainly does. Contrasting this is O'Neal's driver, basically a blank slate of a human being who is no doubt smart and shrewd but also doesn't seem to have too much of a need for people in his life. Again, the HEAT comparison has to be brought up, though O'Neal's character isn't quite as intriguing as DeNiro's or as deep; I'm sure there's a good back story to the character, but we don't really get one and it doesn't seem to serve Hill much anyway, as THE DRIVER is a film solely interested in the here and now. But O'Neal, a very underrated actor (he's brilliant in BARRY LYNDON), is quite good. He's often been accused of being nothing more than a pretty face, but there's more there than people seem to think there is, and with THE DRIVER his blank stare actually adds a lot, because it's often tough to understand just what's going through his head, and that's the right note for this character. Whereas Dern's thoughts are written all over his face, O'Neal keeps everything hidden inside and doesn't budge much. Some will look upon him as being a cipher, but O'Neal does give you the impression that there's a lot more to this guy going on in his head, but he sure as hell isn't going to let you in on any of it. And it all works.
So over the years THE DRIVER has become known only to Hill fanatics, Noir fans, or 70s movie lovers and hasn't gotten much recognition beyond that. Apparently, Hill attended a 2002 American Cinematheque screening of his director's cut, which was about 30 minutes longer, none of which is on the DVD. Perhaps it's time for a double dip, huh Fox? I'd be up for that.