Jarv’s Birthday Series: The Driver (1978)
When I was growing up, for some reason that I can’t really remember, I always wanted to own a Pontiac Firebird. Now, as an adult, I know better and that there is almost no good reason on God’s green and verdant Earth to want to drive an American car. Basically, if you want to drive something that weighs the same as the QE2, has the handling of a brick, the petrol consumption of a thirsty rhino, brakes that Europe discarded for being crap about 30 years ago, and isn’t even particularly fast then an American car is the way to go. The reason I say “almost”, is that they do look damned cool. Still, all in all, I’d rather have an Aston Martin, and as it’s nearly my birthday, instead of giving me the complete works of Kate Hudson, feel free to club together to buy me one. Anyhow, as I kick off this heinously misguided series, the first film was released on my actual date of birth in France, and features lots of cool American cars being driven fast.
Walter Hill is a severely underrated film-maker. He’s got an absolutely splendid CV, but I challenge anyone (not called ContinentalOp) to name 5 of his films without looking. Admittedly there is the odd stinker on there (looking at you Last Man Standing), but as a rule, if you see his name on a film, then at the very least it will be interesting. The Driver was only his second film, but is an absolutely splendid slice of noir, with hard-boiled morally dubious characters and no clear hero or villain.
The Driver is about, to state the fucking obvious, The Driver played by human slab of mahogany Ryan O’Neal. The Driver is a consummate criminal that makes his living from driving getaway cars in jobs organised by The Connection (Ronnee Blakley). The Detective (Bruce Dern) has a boner for The Driver, and is desperate to catch him. To that end, he organises an elaborate sting operation to bust The Driver in the act. Unfortunately, the goons he hires (Glasses, played by Joseph Walsh) are unreliable scumbags and try to steal the cash for themselves. The Driver manages to come away with the money, and with the help of The Player (the gorgeous Isabelle Adjani) attempts to launder the cash. I won’t spoil the rest of the film, but there are twists and turns aplenty.
The first thing to note is that all the characters in this are morally dubious. The Driver and Glasses are obviously criminals, so there’s no surprise there, but even The Detective is a prize-winning cock. He’s arrogant, corrupt and not above a bit of light torture to gain information. The Player is a throwback to earlier times, and were this made in the 50’s you can really see Lauren Baccall in the part. I can give no higher praise to this film than that. The writing, aside from the character work, is sparse. Dialogue is, in particular, kept to a minimum with The Driver himself speaking less than 350 words in the whole film. This, actually, is great. I really like the “strong silent type” hero, and I wish more films would do this rather than casting Shia Laboeuf to run his mouth off for the entire film. Green Hornet, for example, would have been infinitely better with less of Rogen’s gob.
The acting is as sparse and hard-boiled as the writing. O’Neal in particular has never been better and I honestly think this is the only film I’ve seen him in that uses his table-like presence properly. I’m sure he’s trying to remember his lines, and that’s why he’s so silent so often, but it makes him into a brooding, calculating presence on-screen. You know this is a cool customer that weighs up all his options and always has a back-up plan. Dern is in fine form as the Detective (he really does play a prick well), and Adjani smoulders on the screen. There’s some really good noir acting here.
There’s a lot of action in this film, well, a lot of car chases. I have to say that the opening chase is damned exciting and features some superb stunt work. The closing chase, however, with the Driver’s shitty truck chasing down a Trans-Am is fucking riveting. You know that he’s obviously going to catch the two dickheads, but this really is a stupendously shot sequence. The car chases aren’t in the same league as Bullit or The French Connection, but this is because The Driver is set in an “unnamed city” and filmed in LA which isn’t anywhere near as photogenic as San Francisco- particularly not for car chases.
This is also a really atmospheric film. It’s seedy and grimy and the world of the Driver oozes off the screen. The credit for this has to go to Hill, as the direction here is as sparse and tight as everything else in the film. He’s got his actors on a tight leash here, and although Dern does chew a bit of scenery on occasion, this is fine because everyone else is almost underplaying their part. Hill never allows the complicated plot or elaborate chases to get away from him, everything is understated and, as a direct result, cool as fuck.
Overall, this was a pleasant and enjoyable way to kick off this series of 33 films. I was losing hope a wee bit for the first one, but it always warms the cockles of my heart when I find a film I’ve never heard of and it turns out to be good. I do recommend this one, as both a slice of noir and an excellent car chase film, and I do believe it’s the only film I’ve seen with Ryan O’Neal in it that doesn’t suck a giant cock. I give it 3 Pontiac Firebird Logos out fo 4.
Next up is the first undisputed classic in the list. 1979’s seminal Life of Brian, a film that caused a completely unjustified furore in this country on release and one of the finest comedies ever created.
So, until tomorrow,