The 1978 action film noir ‘The Driver‘ is a minimalist masterpiece. Unburdened by character development and dialogue, the movie focuses on the actions of the protagonists as they race through the streets of L.A.
Witten and directed by Walter Hill, the film was box office disappointment during it’s theatrical release. But in the decades since, it has become a highly influential cult classic. ‘The Driver‘ is clearly the inspiration for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 masterpiece ‘Drive‘ and heavily influenced Edgar Wright’s 2017 modern classic ‘Baby Driver‘. While those films explores character motivation, ‘The Driver‘ is all action.
The opening scene drops the audience right in the action. The driver skillfully steals a 1974 Ford Galaxie 500, slides up to the scene of a casino robbery just in time to pick up the bad guys. An intense police chase follows which displays the driver’s skill. He late-apexes the corners while the police cruisers drift wide; this guy has skills. For a moment, the driver evades the cops, and hides at the end of a dark alleyway. When two police cruisers rapidly approach, the driver floors it towards the cops, head-on, then turns on his headlights to scare the crap out of them. The cops’ self-preservation instinct causes the cops to lose the game of chicken, veering off and crashing into a dumpster.
There’s a moment in Refn’s ‘Drive‘ which pays homage to this scene, when the hero (Gosling) goes to kill bad guy Nino. The driver speed towards Nino’s car then flips on his high beams moments before crashing into the Lincoln. It’s hard to describe the action in words; but the speeding ar with the lights off at night is the shark from Jaws just before his dorsal fin pierces the water. By the time you see him…it’s too late.
The other major character in ‘The Driver‘ is the detective. He doesn’t have a name, but he does have a mission; to catch the driver. It seems the driver has been active in LA for years, is well known by the cops, highly respected by the criminals, but has never been caught. The detective is determined to bring him down. So, he sets up an illegal operation to catch the driver. The detective offers immunity to a recently captures gang, if they plan another caper and hire the driver as their wheelman. The deal is they’ll double-cross the driver, hand him over to to the cops, and gain their freedom.
The second big car scene isn’t a chase, so much as an audition. The crews wants to test the driver to see if he’s up to the task of being their getaway driver. He takes the wheel of their orange 1970 Mercedes Benz and demonstrates his precision driving ability in an underground parking garage. Then, he absolutely demolishes their fine German automobile for questioning his reputation.
During the ‘double-cross’ scene, the driver pilots 1977 Pontiac Firebird. It has a chocolate brown exterior over a double-double coffee coloured interior, and is the epitome of 70’s cool. The driver has his aviator sunglasses on, and his shirt unbuttoned to the mid chest, like a true macho man of the era.
Hill’s use of colour is interesting, as nighttime shots are filled with wet neon streets, cars reflecting teal and blue light. But daylight in LA looks so drab and muted; everything looks muddy and brown.
The final chase scene is the coolest. The driver has a female passenger with him, and her terrified reactions to his driving stunts remind the audience how dangerous the moment is. Clarifying that the driver is truly an urban cowboy, the director has him behind the wheel of a jacked-up 1973 Chevrolet C10 pickup truck, pursuing his double-crossers in their customized 1976 Pontiac Trans Am. The bad guys car has a blood-red grille, and teeth on the front bumper and just looks evil.
Film critics often cite the 1967 French film ‘Le Samourai‘ as the forefather of ‘The Driver‘ and both the plot and main character in the 2011 film ‘Drive‘ is its descendant. Maybe the protagonist in all three movies is the same character. Regardless, ‘The Driver‘ is a cool, stylish film with a gritty 1970s look that make it a totally unique in the action film noir genre.