Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Driver

"A guy with an attitude like yours, really ought to carry a gun." says a thug with a gun trained on the man, known only in this film as The Driver (Ryan O'Neal.) Being a big proponent of the show don't tell philosophy, the Driver surprises the thug by his agreement with that statement, quickly pulling his weapon and shooting the man dead. He tells us at another point in the film that the hates guns, but that fact comes second to being good at his job. We know that if the gun wasn't necessary, he wouldn't carry it. The Driver is the ultimate professional criminal. He's the best getaway man there is, because he knows how to drive, and he follows the rules that work.In the film's opening, after leading what seems like the whole police force on a chase through the city, he takes his pay from the men who were pulling a heist. They seem relieved, that he isn't injured from the bullets the police fired at them. "We've got to keep you safe for next time." one of the criminals says. "There won't be a next time. You were late." the Driver informs him and that's the end of the matter.

Of course a criminal as good at his job as The Driver is bound to attract attention. He's become known as "the cowboy that's never been caught." to the man known as The Detective (Bruce Dern.) He hauls in The Driver, knowing he was involved with the last heist, but in a scene reminiscent of Melville's "Le Samourai" The only person who saw him clearly was the woman known as The Player (Isabelle Adjani) a gambler in the Casino that was held up. She claims that it wasn't him though, serving as his alibi.

While the Detective is shown to be quite formidable, he's much harder to like than The Driver. While the Driver has no need to boast about his skills, electing just to show them if need be, the Detective suffers from a need to announce his competence at every opportunity. During a conversation with the Driver, he says, "I respect a man that's good at what he does. I'll tell you something, I'm very good at what I do." The Driver hears him out, but isn't terribly bothered, not any more than he needs to be. He's aware that the Detective is on a quest to bring him in and he factors that into his plans.

Whether the Detective is good at his job or not is debatable, and rests largely on what you'd consider his job.   If you'd consider it catching bad guys then he makes a fair showing, however if you'd consider his job being an officer of the law, than "good at his job" goes out the window. He's determined to catch the Driver and confident that normal means won't do it. He decides to use a couple of bank robbers he's recently arrested to set a trap. They're to rob a bank and enlist the Driver for the job. Afterwards, they're to meet the Detective at a certain place and turn the Driver in, at which point the Detective will set them free.

Sounds like an effective plan on paper, but much like the Detective, these criminals don't feel they need to follow the rules. The plan is complicated even more by the fact that the Driver doesn't like them and doesn't want to work with them, due to their gun fondness and general personalities as "second raters." One of the heisters questions how they know his skills justify his paycheck, and once again, rather than respond with words, he tells them to get in the car and proceeds to drive at high speed through an underground parking garage, demolishing the car piece by piece without slowing down. They're terrified and beg him to stop, but he stops when he's done and advises them to change their license plate if they're going anywhere in that car.

The Driver initially refuses to help with the bank job, even beating one of the men who attempts to convince him at gunpoint. The lead robber explains to the Detective that the Driver won't help them. The Detective pays The Driver a visit and tells him "I really like chasing you." He responds, "Sounds like you've got a problem." He then challenges the Driver to play against him saying "You win you make some money. I win, you do 15 years.How about it?" The Driver next meets with the thugs and tells him his price is doubled.

When the bank robbery happens, the lead robber, kills another of his crew in the bank, and then decides to skip the Detective's rendezvous, choosing another place to park where he tries to bump off the Driver, and ends up dead himself because the Driver is just that much better at the criminal thing than he is. Of course, complications ensue. The Driver leaves the money in a locker at a train station. The Player assists the Driver in exchanging the dirty money from the heist for clean money, by meeting with The Exchange Man who replaces the bag of dirty money in the locker with a bag of his own.

The Detective follows the Exchange Man, and shoots him trying to escape from a train. Meanwhile one of the robbers who wasn't at the heist, starts looking for the Driver to claim his share (and likely more) of the money. He learns about the exchange and steals the key for the locker containing the money from The Player. The Driver chases him down with the Player riding along. He kills the robber and returns to the locker for his money. He's surprised to find the Detective waiting for him with many officers, just waiting to celebrate. He's surprised however when the Driver shows him the case he picked up is empty.
Detective: What happened?
Driver: Looks like we both got swindled.
Detective: looks like we both got ripped off, by the Exchange Man.
Driver: Lot of crooks around these days.
The Driver, knowing the Detective has no evidence, walks away.

The Driver is a fascinating variation on the heist film and film noir conventions. While most heist films involve a getaway driver, his part is usually the smallest one, almost an afterthought. Here, however we're asked to consider what would happen if the Driver was the strongest link in the heist chain. Driver is aware of what it's doing, the use of titles instead of names, clueing us in to the idea that we're looking at these people as elements of a story. Once we've decided on the viewpoint character, we know how we'll be viewing these elements. While the Driver has historically been the least used character for viewpoint, the focus here means that we get lots of car chases, and that the story is all about him. After all, everybody is the main character in their own story. Keeping that in mind also explains the behavior of the obnoxious narcissistic Detective. He's as unscrupulous as any criminal, perhaps in part because this is a criminal's story, and therefore colored by the Driver's judgment.

Hill leaves out everything that isn't vital to the story. To the Driver, everything is about events that are happening. He can't be bothered to say one more word than necessary because his energy is better spent on doing something. As the Detective observes, he has no friends, no girlfriend or extravagant habits. He doesn't do what he does for the money either, although he charges a premium price for his services. His fee seems to be more about respect than what he needs to spend. He enjoys his legendary status, and doesn't find many challenges. When the Detective urges him to accept the bank job, he accepts because there's a possibility he's found a worthy opponent. The Detective is driven by a similar need and he is quite open about it to the Driver. Bruce Dern does a terrific job making the Detective unlikable in many ways. Even his subordinate officer can't stand him, although he does what he's told begrudgingly. He makes up for the Driver's lack of words and then some, never using one word when he can use three, and never missing the chance to make those three tie in to how good he is at what he does.

The Driver also uses another film noir convention, by making our Driver adhere rigidly to his own code. While this is most often used in hit man movies, it works well here, and that's really the heart of the story, one man following his own code with discipline, while everyone around him bends their own rules to suit their own convenience or agenda. The Driver as a character has much in common with Melville's Jef Costello, from "Le Samourai" a fact which Hill points to in a couple of scenes; the Player refusing to identify the Driver in a line up, and the Detective finding the Driver still on his bed, in his small apartment in the middle of the day. Ryan O'Neal. "Le Samourai" itself was a variation on similar themes, and there wasn't a new story there, or in "The Driver," just a different focus.

Ryan O'Neal shows us his character mostly by keeping his composure. His expression is the same whether being held up at gunpoint or talking with an associate.  He exists in a class of his own, as far removed from most criminals as he is from the cops, although we can assume that there are other first rate criminals in his world, or he wouldn't have a job.

One staple of these genre that Walter Hill skips is the usual problems with an employer. Usually the protagonist is doublecrossed by an employer to avoid arrest, avoid paying, or just to eliminate the knowledge that he gained during the job. "The Driver" makes it clear that The Driver is independent and mostly not bothered by such concerns.Although he is double crossed, he's not in any danger as it was a predictable part of working with "second rate" robbers, and he remedies the situation quickly. The big double cross is not from a boss at all but from the "Exchange Man." who leaves an empty case in the locker rather than a case of clean money as agreed. This doublecross however only works in the Driver's favor, keeping him from being arrested. It's an interesting choice to have the ending hinge on such a twist, when most of the film is establishing that the Driver always gets away due strictly to his own abilities. My take on that is a reminder that chance is always a factor, no matter how skilled you are, and the best you can do by following your code is to keep the odds in your favor. The presence of The Player, whose defining trait is being a gambler leads me towards that conclusion. If it's a game, than some amount of luck is involved.

The other interesting departure from the norm is that the Driver doesn't have a death wish. I believe this is simply due to his occupation. While we can expect a hitman, who deals with death as an occupation to have a death wish, the Driver in some ways is his opposite. The Driver's function is to get away, and while he kills a few people, he has no interest in doing so, only resorting to killing when there is no other way around the obstacle. Certainly his occupation has its own drawbacks, constant movement preventing him from forming attachments, but welcoming death isn't one of them. Given his character, and the manner with which he handles gunplay, he views death much like he views the Detective, just another opponent to play the game against.

"The Driver" was Hill's second film and in keeping with the stories he's playing with, most of it happens in dark rooms and on dark streets. Even in the daylight this world is rough and dirty. one advantage of choosing  The Driver is that he gets to spend a good amount of time on his car chases, and there are some great ones here, my favorite, being his demonstration to the robbers in the parking garage. While there's plenty of violence in the film, it comes across as unexciting. There's far more energy in the Driver beating up a man who pulls a gun on him, than when when he actually has to shoot back. He doesn't like guns, that comes across.

The film has received renewed interest since the release of Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive." which isn't a remake but uses many of the elements from "The Driver."  THis is fitting I think, as "The Driver" did the same thing with the noir films it expanded on. THere aren't any new stories, just new approaches and viewpoints. Hill's film isn't nearly as polished or stylized as Refn's. He presents the character, the situation, and then lets it go. For fans of heist films and neo noir, it's very satisfying experience and a sign that Hill took his influences seriously.


le0pard13 said...

Definitely an old favorite of mine. Walter Hill working cinematically and elegantly with the city and its underworld. As well, as with those noted, using the city of Los Angeles as a vital character within the piece. Well done, Brent.

INDBrent said...

thank you! I've been meaning to get to this one for some time. Yes, Los Angeles is certainly a big part of it. I'm sure Michael Mann got some ideas here.

Unknown said...

Not to mention DRIVE was hugely influenced by this film. Excellent look at this Walter Hill classic.

I never thought that Ryan O'Neal was much an actor, but I have to say he was very effective in this film. He was very convincing as an ultra-professional getaway driver.

Your review makes me want to watch this film again. The Blu-Ray can't come soon enough!

le0pard13 said...

Agreed, J.D. This one is one of the gems from the 70s. A Blu-ray is long overdue (with decent extras this time).

INDBrent said...

Thanks, J.D., Yes, "Drive" was definitely very influenced, along with a lot of influence from the '80's. I definitely enjoyed revisiting "The Driver." It ages very well!

Exploding Helicopter said...

Nice piece on an interesting film. As you mention in the review, it's really interesting to think about The Driver in terms of the films it was influenced by and the films that it also went on to influence.

For me, I think Jean Pierre Melville's 60s thriler Le Samourai is hugely influential on The Driver. In turn, the 1942 film noir This Gun For Hire hugely influenced Le Samourai.

If you're interested in The Driver and Drive then I'd recommend checking out the other film and seeing how the themes and ideas have been refined or adapted.

INDBrent said...

Thanks very much! I'd agree with all of those points, was actually just discussing the influence of "Wanted Dead or Alive" on "Le Samourai" the other day. Other than the patriotic angle it's the same story for the most part, not that they're at all the same film. "Wanted Dead or Alive" was actually one of the earliest posts I made on this blog, and I recently wrote an article on "Le Samourai" in Issue 11 of "Crime Factory" (you can get a free pdf of the issue via the link at the top of my sidebar if you want.) As far as "Drive" yeah, there's no doubt about that, it is kind of baffling that Refn didn't admit it though.

risioja said...

Nice blog

StellaTennantFreak said...

I meant to see this film in 1978 when I saw the trailer on TV. However, I missed it somehow. Very glad to see it later on. I love the film because it has the noir of the late '70's. Reviewers don't mention Ronee Blakely as The Connection. How cool that a woman filled that job so well.