[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
The Driver is a study in dogged auteurism in which screenwriter-become-director Walter Hill seeks to reclaim his own. Anyone who has seen the Hill-scripted The Thief Who Came to Dinner (directed by Bud Yorkin) and The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah) will be hard-pressed to ignore that the new picture doubles back over much the same ground. In itself this would not necessarily amount to a bad thing; variations on themes, characters, and situations are, after all, very much a part of the auteur bag, and echoes, even repetitions, are key evidence in tracing an artist’s signature. If the auteur in question reduplicates his previous efforts too closely, hallmark may become cliché. If, on the other hand, he shuffles the deck thoroughly, turns old options on their heads, tests the assumptions and conditions in previous works, he continues to be worth watching, has room in which to grow and the courage to make use of it.
The Driver doesn’t exemplify either of these possibilities, exactly. As a director, Hill is neither a transplanted TV traffic manager like Yorkin nor a first-rank cineaste like Peckinpah, but a unique and still-formative talent; it’s entirely appropriate that he should recycle those Hill materials we initially met at second hand, and see whether he can give them fresh life, the precise form of life he may have wanted them to have in the first place. Yet the material fails to gain in freshness—indeed, it is very nearly wrung dry—and one reason for this seems to be that there’s nothing, no intervening sensibility, for it to push against.
The Driver is about a criminal superprofessional, a wheelman, who clearly carries on in his dangerous business to satisfy some private need to achieve and maintain perfection of skill and assertion of selfhood in the face of mounting threat. He is played by Ryan O’Neal, who also portrayed the computer programmer who became a stylish high-society sneak thief in The Thief Who Came to Dinner; that fellow left chess moves at the scenes of his crimes whereas this one can’t resist tossing his personally ground master key into the stolen car he deserts—uses up and leaves on a junkpile—after it has served him on a job. In the earlier film O’Neal was engaged in a battle of wits with an insurance investigator (Warren Oates), very much a model of his former, straight self, who has sworn to nail him; here he is up against a manic police detective (Bruce Dern) determined to do the same, and to break the law if he has to to get the job done. In both films there is a girl (Jacqueline Bisset in Thief, Isabelle Adjani here) who becomes involved in the criminal’s private life and strikes fiercely enigmatic poses on the periphery of action that really involves only the two men—in essence, perhaps, only one of them, carrying on a contest with himself.
About halfway through The Driver O’Neal is beset by cross and doublecross, money-drop and switched railway-locker complications written into Hill’s scenario for The Getaway (and, to be sure, into Jim Thompson’s novel of that name). He also acquires another obsessive pursuer reminiscent of Al Lettieri’s Rudy (here, Rudy Ramos), for whom spoiling The Driver’s game and killing him becomes an even stronger motivation than the desire to lay hands on the holdup money he is carrying. Add to this a subplot whereby detective Dern forces a gang of vicious stickup men (of which Ramos is a member) to help him entrap O’Neal—while Dern’s own partners, Matt Clark and Felice Orlandi, get increasingly edgy about and estranged from their colleague with his questionable methods and icy rage—and you have a situation in which Hill can indulge an unending series of duels of will, character, and style among his various grimly self-defining males.
Indulge, unhappily, is the word; for Hill has absolutely purged his scenario of anything but willfully allegorical transactions, so that nothing like normal life and aspiration can leak in to throw the mythic struggles into relief. “Go home,” O’Neal solemnly advises a young punk at two stages of the game, but the concept “home” no longer possesses the validity it had in Hickey and Boggs (written by Hill, directed by Robert Culp); all homes were under attack in that film, one literally slipping away from its clifftop foundation, but here home is not even tenable as a dream. Hill’s visuals underscore this. As handsome as, and even artier than, those in his first directorial effort, Hard Times, they relentlessly define cold, dark, life-expunging spaces—some as austere as Bresson frames, others consecrated to a chilly luminescence that makes Pakula places seem like glowing hearths. Such an environment underscores the signification value of every gesture but—except during the high-octane driving duels with which the film more or less begins and ends—they mostly fail to make the significations seem very meaningful to anyone not committed in advance to Hill’s ritualistic, specialized vision.
Even a claustrophobic vision is preferable to none at all, and I want to like Hill’s movies. But The Driver is almost impossible to travel with. Ryan O’Neal takes his role seriously and does what he can to convey his character’s enigmatic quality, but his achievement is mostly negative: he doesn’t do a disservice to character or film, but he fails to add anything of his own to the role—and as written, or underwritten, by Hill, the role demands adding to. Isabelle Adjani, whose character is identified simply as The Player, utterly fails to make sense or even earn a sense of belonging in the film; she’s a mysterious kept woman who witnesses O’Neal’s participation in a robbery, fails to pick him out of a police lineup, and may have designs on getting him into bed; whether she succeeds in this last is a question left pointlessly unanswered in the terseness of Hill’s narration. (Terseness may also account for a similar failure to make sense of the underworld character played by Ronee Blakley, who also seeks to define a meaningfully meaningless relationship with The Driver, but it seems more likely that some of her scenes disappeared in the cutting room.)
© 1978 Richard T. Jameson
Screenplay and direction: Walter Hill. Cinematography: Philip Lathrop. Production design: Harry Horner. Music: Michael Small. Production: Lawrence Gordon.
The players: Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi, Ronee Blakley, Joseph Walsh, Rudy Ramos.