Words, Music & Screen

Discussions and Reviews by Thomas Itty

SEPTEMBER 6, 2020

MOVIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

THE DRIVER: A 70s GENRE FILM

Written & Directed by Walter Hill

Movie Review and Discussion by Thomas Itty

When it comes to movies, I've always loved gritty thrillers from the 1960s and 1970s. I still do. "The Getaway," "Shaft," "Dirty Harry," "The French Connection," "Bullit," "Fear Over The City," "Brannigan," "The Vanishing Point," and "The Mackintosh Man," come to mind right away. Since the pandemic started, I've been re-watching many of these old movies. They bring back happy memories of cutting class in my middle-school and high-school years and sneaking off to the movies with my friends. For most of my childhood and teenage years, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister of India. Because of the animosity between her and Richard Nixon (primarily because Nixon chose to support Pakistan over India in the 1971 Indo-Pak War) most US products were banned by the Indira Gandhi administration. The degree to which Nixon hated Indira Gandhi was revealed only a few days ago in the declassified White House tapes. So Indians couldn't buy Coca-Cola, Levis, and a myriad of other American products in the 1970s. But somehow we got to watch a few American movies at least — even though they came to India only a few years after they were released in the rest of the world... but it was better than nothing!

Among the 100-odd movie theaters in Bangalore at that time, there were about seven that only played English movies in the Cantonment area, the main commercial section of the city and where I lived. I can still remember their names. Lido (where all the James Bond movies always played), Rex (which was on Brigade Road where all the young people hung out those days), Imperial (which played reruns of old English movies and was opposite the seedy Hotel Imperial which had short-term room rentals and the best Biryani in town), Plaza (an old theater with stadium seating on the balcony — where you could walk out to a foyer with large windows overlooking M.G. Road while you had samosas and coffee during the movie Interval), Galaxy (the newest theater those days, where we watched "Enter The Dragon" and "The Exorcist" and waited in line for over 5 hours to buy the tickets), and Blu Moon and Blu Diamond (which were part of a new duplex that sometimes played rock concert movies like Emerson Lake and Palmer (ELP) and Woodstock as "morning shows" Blu Moon even had Indian rock bands playing concerts inside the theater before the start of the matinee show). I don't think I ever ventured outside the Cantonment section of the city (which was all within a 10-mile radius) until I was over 20-years old!

But I digress... I first watched "The Driver" in one of these theaters. I can't remember which one now, but I recall enjoying it a lot! I saw it again some 30 years later at my home in Ossining, New York. I rented the DVD of the movie from the Westchester Public Library. Since the library only allowed patrons to keep movies for 3 days, I always found it easier to copy movies on DVD and watch them later. This was many years ago — before you could stream movies online. At one point I may have had a couple of hundred copied DVDs along with an equal number of "original" DVDs I'd purchased. Of course, the copied ones were only for me to watch at my leisure and not to sell — so I don't think I was doing anything illegal. Recently, I found a spindle with DVDs of movies from those days in the attic and I watched "The Driver" again on my computer. I still find it very enjoyable.

The movie is written and directed by Walter Hill who had already made "The Getaway" (Steve McQueen), "The Mackintosh Man" (Paul Newman), "The Thief Who Came To Dinner" (Ryan O'Neal), "The Drowning Pool" (Paul Newman), and "Hard Times" (Charles Bronson) by then. Hill would also go on to make some other hit action movies such as "48 Hours," "Aliens" (as the writer), "Extreme Prejudice," "Red Heat," "Last Man Standing," and "The Assignment (his most recent movie)."

"The Driver," released in 1978, is a typical genre film of the neo-noir crime thriller kind. It is as "genre" and generic as it can be... including dispensing with actual names for its characters and sparing them of any real detail. Instead, they are just symbols of what they do. So, Ryan O'Neal is The Driver, Bruce Dern is The Detective, Isabelle Adjani is The Player, Ronee Blakley is The Connection, and so on...

The story of the movie is firmly in the neo-noir crime genre. The Driver is a quiet man who is the best getaway driver in a generic big city (which can be recognized as Los Angeles if you look closely). The Detective has been on the trail of The Driver for a long time and has become obsessed with catching him. The Driver's go-between with the criminals he works for is The Connection. He pays The Player to lie and disprove The Detective's case against him in a police line-up. With no way of catching him red-handed, The Detective decides to trap The Driver by leveraging a violent gang of robbers to hire him for a job. When The Driver refuses to work for the gang, The Detective goes to him directly and challenges him to accept the job as a getaway driver — mano a mano! If The Driver wins he can keep the money from the robbery, and if he loses he goes to jail and The Detective will finally catch his "white whale." That is the gist of the story. The rest of the details are also very "genre" but that's exactly what Hill intends with this movie...

Before writing and directing "The Driver," Hill's experience was mostly in westerns and high-action urban crime thrillers. Here he combines the two. The Driver is the laconic outlaw (he listens to country music and The Detective even calls him "Cowboy"). The Detective is like a tough western Sheriff who doesn't care how he gets his man. Both characters are hyper-masculine and they are essentially in a pissing contest to see who is smarter and tougher. They are also both more alike than different and have a silent code of honor they live by — like the strong western characters. Even though the movie plot is very stripped down, the cat-and-mouse story is quite engaging and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end.

What really makes the movie, though, are the three amazing car chases and driving sequences in it. As a teenager watching these movies in Bangalore, the car chases were my favorite parts. They were performed and choreographed by very talented stunt drivers and directors who didn't rely on computer generated special effects to make it exciting — unlike what they do these days.  In fact, I find the over-the-top action sequences of most of the recent movies unbelievable, yawn-inducing and mind-numbing after a while. You can almost smell the rubber burning as The Driver out-races and out-smarts the cops in the first sequence — and later chases the bad guys and catches up with them in the last one. This movie is definitely on my top ten list of car chases from the period — others I can think of include "Bullit," "The Man With The Golden Gun," "Fear Is The Key," "Vanishing Point," and "The Getaway." The action scenes are also very believable, brutal and well paced — to keep the movie interesting while sticking to the genre at all times.

The Driver and The Detective are both alpha males but there is a grudging respect they have for each others abilities. Both men take great pride in what they do and strive to be the best at it. The lovely Isabelle Adjani, even though she is wanted by both men for different reasons, is rendered almost sexless in this movie. She's not much more than a woman in a pant-suit and a wide brimmed floppy hat. If you want character development, this isn't the movie for you — but even though the plot is simple, Hill has created a taut, riveting film that will appeal to most fans of action and suspense.

Both Dern and O'Neal are great in the movie. O'Neal, as the stone-faced enigmatic driver, is a far cry from his romantic "Love Story" character. Blakely is convincing as The Connection and Adjani is certainly eye candy, even if her role doesn't call for anything more.

All in all, "The Driver" is a very entertaining movie and one of the best in its genre. If you haven't seen it yet, I certainly recommend watching it. You can buy "The Driver" new or used on DVD on Amazon or eBay. For some reason it is not available for streaming anywhere on the Internet (I searched). However, I found a version dubbed in Hindi that you can watch for free on YouTube. Since there is very little dialog in the movie it almost doesn't really matter I think! Watch it here.

Here's the first car chase in the movie:

Walter Hill — writer and director

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