BR: Driver, The (1978)

August 31, 2013 | By

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Film: Excellent/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time/ Region: All / Released: July 23, 2013

Genre: Action / Crime / Car Chase

Synopsis: A sharp & persistent cop is determined to collar a getaway driver involved in a string of violent downtown robberies.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Alternate Opening / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limted to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Walter Hill’s minimalist action film seemed to come long after the best and most elaborate car chases in caper & crime films had been made, and yet that time gap between Bullitt (a film on which he contributed uncredited second unit assistance), Gone in 60 Seconds, The Italian Job (1969), The French Connection (1971) and his own film in 1978 perhaps convinced Hill there was no need to craft a scenario with sudden plot twists and multiple characters with shifting allegiances.

Even in its stripped-down form, The Driver follows Hill’s standard linear plotting – we begin with a hired Driver (Ryan O’Neal) snatching a car to pick-up his clients, a chase, his arch nemesis on the police force, a test of loyalties, and the final chase & wrap-up – but it’s so skillfully built like a Detroit roadster with a solid performance engine, a sleek yet muscular style, and all the basic accoutrements you need to get from Point A to B.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray includes a two-scene,  alternate opening (not present on the 2005 Fox DVD), which served to introduce the film’s two female characters – The Player (Isabelle Adjani) and The Connection (Ronee Blakley) – and the trio of cops who rive around the city in a nondescript van, tracking the Driver’s moves.

According to Julie Kirgo’s excellent liner notes, both scenes were imposed by Fox to help explain characters, but they were obviously dropped for being wholly redundant; the first scene also spoils the revelation that the Driver’s agent is a woman, which is a nice surprise, given Hill’s never been known to write flattering female characters. They’re either sexy décor, or in The Driver, they’re a suited and emotionless agent, and a possibly duplicitous love interest.

The only character who smiles with genuine emotion is The Detective (Bruce Dern) because he’s an egocentric, efficient, sonofabitch and likes to remind everyone around him that he is the best, and he will win any battle. The Driver’s equally arrogant – the sequence where he destroys a mint Mercedes to a set of undesirable clients is the perfect synthesis of his contempt for humanity – but he’s amazingly calm during any crisis, making O’Neal – not the most dramatically diverse actor – perfectly suited for the role of this hard-boiled anti-hero. (Stanely Kubrick also recognized his relative blandness, and cast him quite successfully in Barry Lyndon [M] in 1975.)

There really easy much to this cat & mouse tale of a cop trying to collar a ‘cowboy’ getaway driver, but the deftness of the direction – even the fairly minimal dialogue – and some of the best car chases ever put on film make this an instant cult classic. It’s no surprise it vanished from distribution for years, and found new audiences when it started showing up on video and cable TV, but like French Connection, the stunt drivers are generally going full speed down streets, around corners, and every nook and cranny of the grimy downtown industrial suburbs that lack any kind of ornamentation. Hill either wanted to set the film in a generic American city, or de-emphasize all décor so the focus was solely on the characters, and the chases – which go on for epic lengths. Not unlike Grand Prix [M] (1966), Hill also stuck his star in as many chase shots as possible, and there are a number where the camera car seems to be following O’Neal as he’s driving in tandem with a police car about to get crunched in lengthy takes. The only conceit is that while the first two chases involve hot pursuit by the police, they seem non-existent in the finale, where the two rival cars break every motor vehicle on record with total impunity – a conceit also present in the ludicrous-yet-fun chase in Henry Verneuil’s 1971 The Burglars.)

Around the time of Streets of Fire (1984), Hill’s films started to move from minimalist downgrades of popular genres with mythic characters (or perhaps said differently, western archetypes distilled into contemporary action tales) to the filmic equivalent of a kinetic graphic novel, and while he also digressed with action comedies, there’s something rewarding in watching a director who, in his second film, knew when to change angles, and when to let the seething conflicts between two characters remain fixed in a locked shot because it worked better.

In addition to the alternate opening, TT’s BR includes a trailer and an isolated stereo score of Michael Small’s equally minimalism score. (Small was no stranger to suspenseful scenarios, having scored Klute and Marathon Man.) Note: this transfer recomposes the image from the prior DVD’s 1.78:1 to the original theatrical 1.85:1.

Also released by TT on BT is Hard Times [M] (1975), Hill’s directorial debut, a similarly macho film with a more atypical story.



© 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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