Writer-director Walter Hill is a Mustang of a filmmaker. An American muscle car whose engine is finely attuned to accelerate fast and brake harder. His films are so macho they give you whiplash. So it is with great delight to see one of his perhaps most understated films, The Driver given the 4K restoration treatment by StudioCanal.
Upon its original release in 1978 the film was a bit of a car-wreck at the US box office. Yet over the years it has grown in popularity, helped no end by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright extolling its ultimate cool virtues.
The Driver (Ryan O’Neil) is a getaway driver for hire. The best in the business, he encounters The Player (Isabelle Adjani) while on a job. Attracting the laser sighted focus from The Detective (Bruce Dern), Driver soon finds himself playing a game of cat and mouse with law while trying to navigate a group of criminals who might not have the score as their ultimate prize.
Hill’s film is so wonderfully neo noir that, as you can see from the above, he never gave his characters names. These are archetypes, professionals in their chosen field who are always cool under pressure. If it sounds reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat it was undoubtedly an influence. Not to mention an inspiration for the likes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. What makes the film so magnetic is these understated characters. The Detective often refers to The Driver as a cowboy, and that is the point, he is that Man With No Name character, he doesn’t need to say much his actions speak for him.
To compensate for a lean plot Hill peppers the film with blistering action sequences. Hill had been an uncredited Second Assistant Director on Peter Yates iconic Bullitt and clearly learned a thing or two about cars screeching their way around city-scapes. Hill would later state he had asked Steve McQueen, the lead in Bullitt, to play The Driver but the star felt he’d done his fair share of car movies. Like Bullitt the car sequences in The Driver are relentless, often going on so long you realise you need an intake of breath they’re so well executed.
In the book American Neo-Noir by Alain Silver and James Ursini (for which Hill gave a foreword) the sub-title of the book is “The Movie Never Ends” and it is here that The Driver seems so perfect. Because after everything that has happened you feel nothing has changed, in a way few films dare to try and even fewer succeed at. The wheel has turned and we’re back to square one, the result is satisfying in ways it arguably shouldn’t be but unquestionably are.
StudioCanal’s 4K release should also be resoundingly applauded. They have managed to both clean it and yet keep that essential level of noir grain. A look so important to the aesthetic of the genre that had it been taken away would have felt cheated. The 4K disc is particularly magnificent, and the included poster featuring Matt Griffin’s gorgeous new artwork is a lovely addition.
The Driver remains an effortlessly iconic film, understated in such a way as to allow the audience to put all manner of emotion into the characters. It is what every noir should be; thousands of shades of grey.