The neon-kissed Los Angeles of Walter Hill’s The Driver is a criminal netherworld where the only thing that matters is results. This hardboiled rule applies to cops and robbers alike, professionals who often repress all forms of emotion in favor of silent and kinetic action. For both sides of the law, procedures are just a means to an end, something to be messily shredded or tossed out entirely when things go bad. The only thing a person can rely on is their talent for improvisation.
Famously riffed on by Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the great heist sequence that opens The Driver is a microcosm for Hill’s barebones aesthetic. The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) stealthily steals a blue town car from an elevated car park and positions himself outside a downtown casino. He waits silently, while The Player (Isabelle Adjani) watches intently from inside the dank interior. Posing like a civilian, she scans the smoky space with the cold intensity of a computer processing data.
When the robbery finally happens, it happens fast, almost too fast for the viewer to realize what’s going on. Two masked men come into frame and jump a security guard, steal the money, and head back outside where The Driver picks them up. The police car chase that follows introduces the main character’s amazing driving skills and is emblematic of Hill’s uncanny ability to compose brilliantly tense action sequences. It’s a visceral symphony of screeching tires and crushing metal that sets the stage for the rest of the film.
After The Driver proves his prowess for escape, Hill introduces The Detective (Bruce Dern), a lone-wolf lawman driven by a warped code of ego and arrogance who’s obsessed with finding The Driver, a legendary car thief the police have also nicknamed “Cowboy.” The Detective spends the entire film hunting The Driver, using methods on both sides of the thin blue line to apprehend him. During their first interrogation scene, The Detective shows a sense of condescending admiration for his prisoner. “I respect a man who’s good at what he does. I’m very good at what I do.” Then he purposefully spills hot coffee on The Driver’s hands.
Throughout the rest of the film, these two adversaries make moves against each other knowing full well the risk involved. Countless times, the threat of prison, failure, or even death is ignored by all parties. Herein lies the beauty of what each character refers to as “the game.” The double-crossings and betrayals that make up most of The Driver are elemental to Hill’s gleaming neo-noir world, helping to forge intimate relationships that grow more intense as the film progresses. “I really like chasing you,” The Detective confesses, and even though he never says it outright, it’s clear that The Driver enjoys the pursuit.
Skill sets are essential to the film’s characters, specifically the ability to manipulate weaker opponents. It’s what defines great professionals as survivors. The best example of this idea comes in the sequence where O’Neal’s cipher cripples a Mercedes Benz to establish a sense of control over a group of “second-raters” who are attempting a double cross. Maneuvering the car through tight spaces, The Driver scrapes the car along multiple cement columns until the entire vehicle has been damaged in some form. This proves how quickly he can give (and take away) power when behind the wheel. The scene also illustrates Hill’s genius as a craftsman of filmic action and as a brilliant man of ideas. Like the brooding antiheroes in Extreme Prejudice, Streets of Fire, and Southern Comfort, The Driver expresses himself best when communicating through his weapon of choice. Why speak when you can drive?
With Twilight Time’s pristine release of The Driver, the film is finally given the glorious 1080p treatment it deserves. The difference in quality between this transfer and previous DVD incarnations is immediately noticeable. The glaring neon hues of downtown Los Angeles and the crystalline blue strobe lights emanating from police sirens pop like never before. Much of The Driver takes place in seedy urban interiors, and Walter Hill’s brilliant interior compositions are given a newfound depth in high definition thanks to the image clarity. The audio balance is at times inconsistent, with some of the effects mixed higher than the dialogue.
As barebones as The Driver’s dialogue. There’s a kitschy theatrical trailer and an isolated score soundtrack. More interesting is the inclusion of an alternate opening that sets an entirely different tone than the one established by the actual theatrical release. Instead of Ryan O’Neal gliding up an escalator to steal a car in a parking garage, we get equally foreboding introductions to The Player and The Detective, each beginning the game of cat and mouse on their own professional terms.
Walter Hill’s The Driver, a classic Los Angeles-set neo-noir with teeth, finally arrives on Blu-ray in an indispensable package from Twilight Time.