Since everyone’s talking about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), I thought I’d weigh in with a few thoughts on Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), a film that Drive doesn’t seem to acknowledge as a predecessor, but the similarities between the two films are obvious. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — as many observers have pointed out, The Driver owes a great deal to Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Le Samouraï (1967), so is there really anything new under the sun? But in this case, each film is an inspired riff on the other, and they all have distinct qualities that make them valuable in their own right.
Written and directed by Walter Hill near the start of his career, The Driver chronicles the life of its eponymous title character — none of the characters have names, just The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), The Cop (Bruce Dern), The Player (Isabelle Adjani), The Connection (Ronee Blakley), and so on — a wheelman for hire on his own terms, which are very strict indeed. O’Neal, then at the top of his game, brings a deadpan flair to the role, which adds immeasurably to the overall success of the film.
The Driver opens with a superbly executed chase sequence, made all the more remarkable by the fact that none of it is faked, and, of course, the whole film was made well before the era of CGI, so there’s no “computer enhancement” of the images, either. Because of this, The Driver has a gritty, stripped down realism, and almost no dialogue; O’Neal says practically nothing, and lets Bruce Dern’s cop do all the talking.
Set in the scummiest sections of Los Angeles, and shot for the most part at night in a wilderness of neon lights and rain soaked streets, The Driver has an intensity that Refn’s operatic, somewhat florid film can’t match; as heavily stylized and beautiful as sections of Drive are, the film doesn’t approach the authentically bleak nihilism of Hill’s earlier work — even if they aren’t officially related.