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The Driver

The Driver (1978)

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teaser The Driver (1978)

The three central characters of The Driver (1978) have no names, only titles. They are what they do, defined by professionalism, pride, and ego. Ryan O'Neal is The Driver, a professional getaway jockey who hires himself out to independent crews on a job-by-job basis. Isabelle Adjani is The Player, an elegant croupier at a gambling club who does a little business on the side. Bruce Dern is The Detective, a drawling cowboy cop whose pursuit of The Driver is less professional duty than personal obsession, an obsession that The Driver seems intent on taunting by leaving his signature in every car he abandons after a job.

The Driver is the sophomore directorial effort from screenwriter turned filmmaker Walter Hill and it takes a stylized, almost abstract approach to the crime thriller. The dialogue is terse, the direction sleek and clean, the characters unencumbered by backstories or complicated motivations. Hill apprenticed as second unit director on Bullit, a film featuring some of the most famous car chase scenes in American cinema, and he puts his experience to good use here. The car chases are exactingly choreographed to emphasize The Driver's control and craft as he leapfrogs through traffic, threads the needle through alleys without slowing, and shoots through intersections with crack timing.

Hill originally wrote the lead for Steve McQueen, who starred in Bullit and the Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, which Hill scripted, but he passed on the project because he didn't want to do yet another car film at that point in his career. A number of other actors were considered before Ryan O'Neal's agent called Hill and the director agreed to meet the star. "We talked about the role and talked about the minimalist approach I wanted to try," he recalled in an interview years later. "He felt he could do it and we just got comfortable with each other." O'Neal, better known for comedy and light drama than action or terse toughness, was not an obvious choice for the role but he was considered bankable by the producers and Hill was convinced that he could pull it off. "I think Ryan gave a very good performance. I was always very happy with what he did."

Both Julie Christie and Charlotte Rampling were under consideration to co-star as The Player. The role became the American film debut of French actress Isabelle Adjani, who was a fan of Hill's first feature, Hard Times. "I think [Hill] is wonderful, very much in the tradition of Howard Hawks, lean and spare," she explained in a 1977 interview. "The story is contemporary but also very stylized, and the roles that Ryan and I play are like Bogart and Bacall." Bruce Dern plays against the guardedness of O'Neal and Adjani with a garrulous drawl and smirking arrogance, an attitude that puts him at odds with his own collegaues. It's also a marked contrast from Dern's other 1978 feature: Coming Home, for which he earned his first Academy Award nomination. Singer/actress Ronee Blakley, who played the country music superstar Barbara Jean in Robert Altman's Nashville, plays the Driver's underworld agent, known only as The Connection in the credits.

You might say The Driver is an American action film with a European sensibility. Throughout his career, Hill has played with the pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world. The Driver is one of his most stylized, influenced in part by French gangster movie auteur Jean-Pierre Melville and his 1967 classic Le Samourai, starring Alain Delon as a taciturn lone-wolf assassin for hire who is pursued by a dogged police investigator and protected by a nightclub singer who becomes his alibi. Critic Julie Kirgo also cites Robert Bresson as an important influence on Hill's use of quiet, spare scenes between the action sequences.

The film opened to unfavorable reviews ("It is Awful Movie. It is Pretentious Movie. It is Silly Movie. It talks just like this," wrote Vincent Canby in his New York Times notice) and sparse audiences in the U.S., but it was a success in France. Its reputation has grown enourmously in the years since--filmmaker and genre buff Quentin Tarantino called it one of the "coolest movies of all time"--and it has become a cult film among action cinema fans.

By Sean Axmaker

Author interview with Walter Hill, September 25, 2005.
"The Driver," Julie Kirgo. Booklet in The Driver Blu-ray release, Twilight Time, 2013.
"At the Movies: Isabelle Adjani Finds Poker Easy; Cheating Takes Practice," Guy Flatley. The New York Times, August 12, 1977.
"'Driver' Takes a Rocky Road: No Names, Please!," Vincent Canby. The New York Times, July 28, 1978.
Tarantino: The Man, the Myths and His Movies, Wensley Clarkson. John Blake, Publisher, 2007.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films

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