MOVIE REVIEWS

Driver
8/10 NR 01 hr 30 min

January 1, 1978

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By Steve July 21, 2017

www.noiroftheweek.com

This week we take a look at the intense neo-noir, The Driver. Directed by Walter Hill, this cold neo is a perfect example of how film noir evolved into experimental crime films in the 1970s.

No doubt inspired by Le Samourai which itself was inspired by This Gun For Hire, The Driver is a cold, lean piece of pure cinema. A night time world of criminals and angry cops.

Film noir isn't known for car movies, but there are some great moments of criminals "on the lam" living and dying in cars. Gun Crazy and the recent Criterion release of They Live By Night have some hypnotic crimes taking place with the point of view from inside the car looking out. The point of view draws the viewer into the driver's perspective and it's always mesmerizing. You almost always get a jolt of adrenaline when you feel you're in a real car on a real street corner. Walter Hill's The Driver takes those moments and makes an entire movie out of it.

Starring a very disco cast, the film has barely any dialog. Bruce Dern gets the most lines as the man chasing the "driver." Mostly he frustratingly barks at middle-aged-hard-life-cops played by day-player actors that peppered every crime films of the time. Beautiful Isabelle Adjani is the female lead. And Ryan O'Neal is the handsome driver. Sporting long-ish, wavy hair and an open collar, he looks more like a playboy trying to pick up Diane Keaton at a bar than a hardened criminal.

Originally Steve McQueen and Robert Mitchum were at least close to playing the Ryan and Dern roles. The film would most definitely be more beloved -- even possibly a classified as a classic -- than forgotten if they had those guys in it. But would it be a better movie? I'm not so sure. Ryan has no actual backstory but his look just makes him more interesting. What is his story anyway? Hell, the guy doesn't even have a name. That's exactly what I thought watching the killer in Le Samourai. Why and how did they become what they are? O'Neal also has a great entrance. Slowly rising. Coming into frame one one of those man lifts that parking garage guys use to go up flights quickly. And Bruce Dern was never better than he was in the 70s. He looks like he could be Ryan's brother.

The film succeeds when you realize and accept there's not much plot or humor.

Just enjoy the ride.

It resists the Burt Reynolds joke-y 70s car movie hijinx and takes thing very seriously (and I love those fun Burt Reynolds comedies). Never do you think O'Neal is enjoying his driving or frustrating police. With a deadpan face and unmoving hair, it's all about the visuals in 70s neon-lit downtown LA and the pleasing sound of metal bending, tires squealing, and gears changing. It's amazing that McQueen turned the role down saying he didn't want to do "another car movie." It would have been one of his best. Instead, it's a pretty much forgotten film that was panned as pretentious in 1978. A box office bomb that would be a critical darling if it was put out today.

With the release of Baby Driver, director Edgar Wright has made it clear that his film was made because of the inspiration of watching The Driver over and over again late night on the BBC. The Ryan Gosling film Drive, a completely different movie than Baby Driver, was also a direct tribute to the 1978 neo noir.

You could pair off The Driver with a number of different films for a double feature. As I mentioned before, They Live By Night, Le Samourai, and a number of other 70s thrillers like Sorcerer, Bullitt, or even the equally panned romantic Aloha, Bobby and Rose would all make great double features with the beautiful, petal-to-the-metal neo-noir The Driver.

Some would argue that a film like this shouldn't be considered noir. Well, they'd be wrong. It has all the elements of a film noir without trying to pretend to be from the 1940s. And it's a hell of a ride.

By John Chard January 29, 2017

Sparse Urban Magnificence.

The Driver is written and directed by Walter Hill. It stars Ryan O’Neil, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani and Ronee Blakley. Music is by Michael Small and cinematography by Phillip H. Lathrop.

A determined cop pursues an enigmatic getaway driver through the crooked streets of Los Angeles…

It’s most amusing to now be able to look back at some of the reviews for The Driver back on its initial release. Without wishing to sound like a smarty pants myself of course, but some of them simply didn’t get it, they didn’t understand that Ryan O’Neil’s character was meant to be one note, unreadable and dissociated from society. There is a reason that the principal characters don’t have names, they are simply known as The Driver, The Detective and The Player, the core emotional worth of these people is a key aspect to the film’s strength. Where The Driver is emotionless and not for shaking, The Detective is a coiled spring waiting to explode, a law enforcer willing to do anything to capture his Moby Dick.

Much of the plaudits that come the film’s way tend to focus on the car action, which is perfectly understandable. The chase sequences are kinetic, the trial runs exhilarating, this is quite simply a fast car lovers dream as the stunt team lay fire to the streets of L.A. It’s also an influential film into the bargain, however, this is not purely an exercise in action over substance. For sure the story line is simple, but the themes simmering away are anything but simple. The thin line between law and lawlessness is observed, between calm and chaos there is but a hair’s breadth, the grey areas vivid in their textures. This is a cat and mouse thriller with a difference, even daring to risk the viewer’s ire with a crafty and low-key finale.

The script is in turns laconic and hard-boiled, the screenplay surprisingly convoluted in relation to how it all pans out. While the neo-noir vibe is further enhanced by Lathrop’s photography as the streetscapes pulse with urban realism. The acting doesn’t have to be top notch, the characters do not call for thesping of the method or board walking kind, they just need to get a handle on their respective traits that define them, and they do, perfectly so. A supremely cool movie, exciting and brawny as well, The Driver is a neo-noir gem. 9/10

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