Starring: Ryan O’Neil, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani
Director: Walter Hill
The casting of Isabelle Adjani suggests that in this, his second feature as writer/director, Walter Hill had one eye on French cinema, in particular the sort of pared down gangster caper you associate with Jean-Pierre Melville. If you squint a bit you can just imagine it as a French flick starring Alain Delon. But as it is, it’s Ryan O’Neal who plays the titular character, a getaway driver for hire with ice water in his veins, no human connections and no possessions except a portable tape player. Bruce Dern is the tough, unscrupulous, obsessive cop who knows where he lives but can’t pin anything on him, and Adjani is the girl with the shady past who finds herself trapped between the two.
Adjani’s role isn’t quite the love interest – Hill’s characters aren’t allowed to feel anything as straightforward as lust. They’re in a state of moral and physical numbness where the only way to make sense of life is to play it as a game and the only thing that matters is winning or losing. (In this case, the driver and the cop pysche each other out with bank heists and bags of stolen cash.) The allure of Adjani’s character is that, unlike the guys, she knows she has already lost. The actress is at her moody best delivering this message. With her sulky doll-face and her black bell-bottomed trouser suit, she gives European fatalism a devastating sex appeal. (Five years on, she would make Jean Becker’s One Deadly Summer, a sultry rural murder thriller in which she struts around in the nude to blistering effect, but this fully clothed turn remains her quintessential outing as a noir screen siren.)
If you want to be critical, you could argue that the film wears its existentialism heavily, to the point of pretension. The characters, and the actors playing them, are given almost no room to breathe, strapped into Hill’s nihilistic philosophy as tightly as Melville’s gangsters are buttoned up inside their waterproof macs. True, O’Neal’s and Adjani’s studied blankness is offset to some degree by Dern’s twitchy, ants-in-his-pants performance, but there’s something of the phantom about him too, a policeman you never actually see in a police station (when he organizes a line-up, it seems to take place in a nightclub).
Yet even as he keeps a lid on his enigmatic cast of characters, Hill opens up the film beautifully in other ways. The whole movie is one gorgeous ode to being a night owl. Shot on location in downtown Los Angeles with state-of-the-art Panaflex cameras, the cinematography by Philip Lathrop (who also DP’d on the very stylish Point Blank) serves up lushly poetic nocturnal sequences that were to remain unrivalled until Michael Mann’s Heat nearly twenty years later, all sweaty neon, sticky midnight blues and fuzzy headlights. And of course, there are several ravishingly mounted car chases. Hill may not have digested his influences as thoroughly here as on later projects such as Southern Comfort, but The Driver is as hard-boiled as you like and as doomily romantic as a Gauloise dangling from Alain Delon’s lip, and for that reason it’s a highlight of the director’s impressive late ’70s/early ’80s filmography.
While not quite up to the standard of Second Sight’s recent Blu-ray of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, this HD transfer from StudioCanal is strong, clean and grain-free, with those all-important night time scenes looking better than ever. The disc comes with a mystique-deflating alternative opening that tells you more than you need to know about the set-up and characters – more proof that sometimes it’s what you leave out that makes a film work.