Before I write my review of the 1978 film “The Driver,” I would like to mention that none of the characters in the movie have names. They are all referred to in the credits by what they do in the film, and in a few instances, the clothes they wear, or one of their physical characteristics. In this post, the occupation, etc., of each character will be capitalized.
“The Driver” centers on an enigmatic, wheelman for hire, portrayed by Oscar nominee Ryan O’ Neal (Love Story). He’s a person who presents an icy demeanor, and when he drives, fear of crashing, or even death, seems like it holds no sway over him. The Driver receives his jobs through The Connection played by Oscar nominee Ronee Blakley (Nashville). The Driver is excellent at what he does, and as such, charges a high price for his services. The money is seemingly worth it, based on his success rate. In fact, The Driver has never been caught, or positively identified by any witnesses. With each successive job that The Driver pulls off, his reputation grows.
None of what The Driver does, sits well with The Detective, a role acted by two time Oscar nominee, Bruce Dern (Nebraska). He’s always seemingly one step behind The Driver, who Dern’s character refers to as the cowboy, because of the man’s love of country western music, as well as his rebellious attitude toward law enforcement. The Driver treats the streets of Los Angeles, as if they are his to do with as he wants, when he wants, and no one is going to tell him otherwise.
At the start of the film, The Driver has been hired by two thieves. The men are in the process of stealing money from a casino. They are late, however, to meet The Driver at the appointed time he gave them. This leads to a thrilling action scene that pits The Driver, in a 1974, Ford Galaxie 500, against a number of police vehicles. The Driver is a master of the streets. When it appears that he’s cornered, or that the police are going to force him to crash, he maneuvers his vehicle as if the situation he’s in, was his plan all along.
Unfortunately for The Driver, because the criminals were late, several people, who had left the casino a short time before the robbery, get a look at him as he is sitting in his car waiting for the robbers. One of the witnesses is The Player, the part of which is acted by two time Oscar nominee Isabelle Adjani (Camille Claudel). She, along with several other people are brought to a police lineup. The Driver is one of the men in the lineup. Dern tries to illicit a positive identification from The Player, but she tells him that The Driver is not the man she saw. The other witnesses can’t be certain, because they were standing further away from where The Driver was parked.
As it turns out, The Player was paid by The Driver to be a witness to the crime, but of course to not identify him, should he need her. The Detective knows this. He also knows that without any concrete evidence he has to let The Driver go. The Detective devises a plan, which he shares with his fellow detectives, referred to in the credits as Red Plainclothesman (Matt Clark), and Gold Plainclothesman (Felice Orlandi). The plan is to entrap The Driver. The Detective busts a trio of criminals: Fingers (Will Walker), Glasses (Joseph Walsh), and Teeth (Rudy Ramos). They’ve recently robbed a grocery store, and, if convicted, they’ll each serve a decade in prison. Opting to cooperate with The Detective, he wants the trio to hire The Driver, pay him whatever his fee is, and have him be the wheelman on a bank robbery. The police will not interfere during the heist. The rendezvous point for the robbery will be right where The Detective, and his fellow officers are waiting. Will The Detective’s plan work? Do the criminals double cross him for the money, even though their freedom, if caught, is on the line?
“The Driver” was written and directed by two time Emmy winner, Walter Hill (Broken Trail). The film premiered in both Los Angles, and New York City, on July 28, 1978. Parts action, crime, and thriller, the movie has a runtime of 91 minutes. The cinematography from two time Oscar nominee, and two time Emmy winner, Philip H. Lathrop (Christmas Snow), does an outstanding job of capturing every nuance of the car chases.
Trivia buffs take note: The film was originally written for Oscar nominee, and two time Golden Globe winner, Steve McQueen (The Sand Pebbles). McQueen, who at that point had already done 1968’s “Bullitt,” and 1971’s “Le Mans,” didn’t want to be involved with another film that featured car chases, and turned the part down. In addition, also turning down the part of The Driver was two time Oscar nominee, and Golden Globe Winner, Sylvester Stallone (Rocky). Oscar winner, Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), passed on the role of The Player. The Driver only speaks 350 words during the entirety of the film. The movie was inspired by the 1967 film “Le samouraï” directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. “The Driver” was the first Hollywood film for Isabelle Adjani.
A viewer watching “The Driver” today, especially those viewers under the age of thirty, will, in all likelihood, consider this film boring by comparison, to the likes of the movies in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. One of the aspects of “The Driver” that makes the film interesting, and one that should be applauded for its action scenes, is that everything in the movie was done pre-CGI. What younger viewers should understand, is that “The Driver” was one of the films that inspired the directors who are making the modern day action films, especially those that feature intense car chases. Overall, a stylish thrill ride that deserves to be seen and appreciated.
It’s strange, in the poster, seeing Bruce Dern young. I feel like he’s been in his 90s since the 90s.
I know what you mean. When I first watched a Bruce Dern film, he looked like he was in his late 70s, or early 80s, but he’s looked that way for years now.
Another of my favorite ’70s-era films. Indeed, you can spot its influence on Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE (2011) decades later. And DP Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography of L.A. did similar to how James Cameron shot THE TERMINATOR a half dozen years later. Love your look back at these films, Jonathan. Well done.
Thank you. My pleasure my friend. I am glad it is a nice trip down memory lane for you.
I have to imagine this movie was a big inspiration for Nicolas Winding-Refn and his 2011 movie Drive, which obviously featured Ryan Gosling as a very quiet driver, who did not ever get a proper name. In fact these movies almost sound identical in plot. I have to track this down, thanks for the heads up!
It certainly was. The films if watched one after another, don’t line up exactly, but The Driver (1978), had a heavy influence on Nicolas Winding-Refn, when he made Drive.