by NIR SHALEV
The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) is a loner. He dresses well but lives in random hotels. He earns a living driving scum around the streets of L.A. Robbers of all kinds need him and he’s expensive because he’s the best. The Detective (Bruce Dern) is hot on The Driver’s trail but nobody ever gives him up due to the “thieves’ honor code” and large sums of money.
This is a film about a quiet man who drives cars for a living and is always composed (even when pursued by several cop cars) and a dirty police detective who will strike deals with known criminal just to put The Driver behind bars.
The Driver chooses jobs based on the people he drives around and not based on the job itself; he had lived in L.A. long enough to know how and where to lose pursuing cops. He also never carries a gun, or at least he tells that to all of his clients.
The Player (Isabella Adjani) gets him out of jams by pretending to be a witness claiming that he is NOT the one the cops are looking for and The Connection (Ronee Blakley) fronts him jobs and pays him his dues. It’s all very tight knit on their side. On the other side, at one point in the film The Detective strikes a deal with a felon that should be doing ten years in jail. He forces him to hire The Driver to do the job and to deliver The Driver to him. The felon disobeys The Detective and The Driver and suffers the consequences on both ends.
The film features the classic cat and mouse chase where The Detective literally sees his job as a game. He tells a fellow detective that in order to be a better cop he should read the sports section of the newspaper every morning: that way he knows who the winners and losers are. On the other side of the game, early in the film The Driver drops off passengers and they ask him when their next job will be. He tells them that there won’t be a next job because as he waited in the car for them, they were late. Never nervous and always thinking two steps ahead, The Driver manages to outwit The Detective and the criminals.
Car-chase movies rarely feature actors shifting gears and pedaling the clutch at the same time which they should, because most of the cars driven in those films have standard transmission; those movies always showcase either shifting or pedaling. But this film does it one better: The Driver only drives 70’s American cars (including a Chevy S10 pickup truck) where the gear shift is by the steering wheel and they also do not have a clutch, so when he brakes the camera cuts to the pedals and when he shifts gears the camera stays at shoulder height. Also, what greatly sets this movie apart from other car-chase movies is that the cars driven are not muscle or classy cars. We see average Chevys, Pontiacs, and Fords.
Initial D (2005) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) are contemporary examples of movies that showcase the racing technique called “drifting”; it incorporates having the rear wheels’ traction slip more than usual so that the car “drifts” sideways while cornering. Although it had become popular in North America just over the past decade it had been in use in England and Japan since the 1960’s, on the streets and in movies. This movie features drifting, and other examples of classic movies that showcase it also are Bullit (1968) and Vanishing Point (1971).
The aforementioned “thieves’ honor code” can be largely found in the French gangster cinema and interesting similarities to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) can be seen here. The Driver, like Alain Delon’s assassin, is a loner who has no friends, and even when performing their professional tasks they do not reveal any emotions. The alibi that The Driver provides (Adjani) is similar to Delon’s (Cathy Rosier) and both protagonists know their city to the tee.
One other similarity to the French cinema is the use of shadows. The Driver is shot like a Film Noir and mostly at night. There is little music throughout (especially during the car chases) in order to evoke a feeling of the reality of being a criminal. The Driver steals cars and chauffeurs criminals around but he is the protagonist and we favor him over The Detective because he is not as big a jerk.
Director Walter Hill has also directed a few Westerns (The Long Riders (1980) and Wild Bill (1995)), and this film is a great example of an Urban Western in which the characters occupy a time and space outside of the present world because they are defined as who they are by what they do. That is why the Detective is THE Detective and The Driver is THE Driver.
Before the Fast and the Furious franchise took us into the seedy underbelly of illegal street-racing in L.A., Miami, and Tokyo, we had movies that showcased breathtaking car chases that had primarily concerned themselves with their characters and the characters’ situations. Car chases can get very boring if they are repetitive and long, and also if they’re too short (like the drag races in the aforementioned “Fast and Furious” films). In The Driver we have three solid car chases that exhilarate us because we care for the people in the cars and for their outcomes.
In movies with car chases, we’ve been conditioned to expect cars to flip over but luckily, they do not explode. They wouldn’t in real life and they don’t here. We do need suspension of disbelief but realistic car chases are the key to an exciting Urban Western with cars.