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Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, and Drive all owe a debt to this arty crime classic

(Photo: Ryan O'Neal in The Driver)
(Photo: Ryan O'Neal in The Driver)

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

The Driver (1978)

In the opening shot of Walter Hill’s The Driver, a broodingly handsome young man walks into a parking garage and then drives out in a stolen Ford. He pulls up behind a casino, and we immediately understand that he’s a getaway driver, his whole purpose being to ferry some fuck-up thieves to safety. He peels down near-abandoned, inky-black Los Angeles streets, evading an endless supply of police cars and finally getting lost in the night. That opening chase seems to go on forever. There’s no music, and almost nobody speaks. The only sounds we hear are sirens and engines revving. And when the Driver—he has no name; he’s just the Driver—finally speaks, he does so in as few words as possible, telling one of the thieves, “There won’t be a next time. You were late.” Then he disappears again.

The Driver is that sort of movie: Dark and brooding and minimalist, with tons of action and almost no dialogue, and archetypes instead of characters. The people of The Driver don’t have names, they have occupations: the Driver, the Detective, the Player, the Connection. The only character who really talks is the Detective, and he talks a lot. He’s Bruce Dern, showing off all that itchy ’70s swagger, making sure his prey knows he’s being hunted. “I respect a man who’s good at what he does,” the Detective tells the Driver. “And I’ll tell you something else: I’m very good at what I do.” In response, the Driver just looks back at him blankly. He does a lot of that.

The critics of the time weren’t kind to The Driver, which might’ve seemed as much gimmick as movie. Roger Ebert chided Hill for making his characters symbols instead of characters. Vincent Canby skewered the movie as “pretentious.” The movie mostly sank at the American box office, too, though it did well in Europe—perhaps not surprisingly. After all, it was essentially a European art movie in disguise as an American crime flick. But as such, it was an important work in the history of American action movies. These days, it’s part of a rich tradition, one that includes movies like Ghost Dog and Drive, the latter of which is basically an electro-romance remake of The Driver. Watching The Driver today, it’s a bit like listening to an old soul album and recognizing all the bits that got sampled later. Michael Mann and Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino would all be very different filmmakers if The Driver hadn’t come first.

The Driver wasn’t an altogether original movie, either. It was steeped in movie history, and it took advantage of ideas that were floating in the ether. Two years earlier, John Carpenter had done similarly uncanny things with B-movie minimalism in Assault On Precinct 13. Clint Eastwood had become famous playing a character with no name. The movie’s plot, built around subterfuge and double-crosses, drew on film noir and Hitchcock, and so did Hill’s shadowy visual sensibility. Isabelle Adjani, the hypnotic French actress who made her American movie debut in The Driver, compared her character, the Player, and Ryan O’Neal’s Driver to the type of undemonstrative tough fuckers who Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart might’ve once played.

The clearest influence is Le Samouraï, Jean-Pierre Melville’s still-stunning work of beyond-cool French crime minimalism, a movie that also left its impact on directors like Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. Like Le Samouraï, The Driver tells the story of a beautiful, brooding, steely eyed young man who almost never speaks. As in Le Samouraï, he lives alone in a barely furnished apartment, has no friends, maintains no connections, lives entirely to commit crimes for money, and gets reluctantly mixed up with a female witness who could give him up but doesn’t.

“Some of the criminal types these days, they think they’re real cowboys,” the Detective tells the Driver early in the movie. And a minute later: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” As the Detective, Dern struts and preens and makes big promises. He knows who the Driver is, and he wants the Driver to know that he knows. But he can’t get a positive ID on him, and he can’t catch him in the act, since he always slips away at the last minute. As that first chase begins, the Detective hears about it on the radio and muses, “Same goddam stunt he pulled six weeks ago.” He’s been trying to catch this guy for a while, and later, he’ll even set up a robbery just to snare the guy.

As with John Wickor even The Warriors, the movie that Hill would make a year later—The Driver works as a glimpse into an imaginary world, one with its own rules and customs and superstitions. There’s a whole society of handsome, silent blond getaway drivers out there, and we see a couple of others at work, though none are as good as The Driver. At one point, Hill cuts to a robbery gone wrong that’s already in progress. He doesn’t much care about the particulars of the robbery; only the getaway interests him. The movie treats chases like art, and the Driver—whose apparent superpower is that he never loses a game of chicken—like a master.

Hill originally offered the role of the Driver to Steve McQueen, an actor whose name is justly synonymous with car chases. That would’ve been a different movie. McQueen would’ve been great, obviously, but he might’ve had too much personality for the part. (Dern might have too much personality, too, but he makes it work.) With the part of the Driver, Hill finds the perfect use for Ryan O’Neal’s bland handsomeness. O’Neal looks like Ryan Reynolds with feathery ’70s hair, and he manages to look wounded and angry and powerful without ever needing to talk. In his best moment, a prospective client asks him, “How do we know you’re that good?” O’Neal answers, simply, “Get in.” He then drives their Mercedes all over an empty parking garage, methodically destroying it, piece by piece.

As a straight-up action movie, The Driver works. Its car chases are riveting and impeccably executed, full of cool moments like a car trunk, hit by a shotgun blast, flipping off into the air, or two cars weaving through traffic in a neon-lit tunnel. Its small-time villains are nasty fuckers, and Hill’s image of a hotel room full of feathers, after a pillow has been shot, will stick with you for a while. But The Driver belongs in this column because it proved, more clearly than any other movie, that a low-budget American action movie could be chilly and artful and existential without sacrificing badassery.

Other notable 1978 action movies: Jackie Chan made his first real starring vehicle in 1978, teaming up with the great kung-fu director and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping for Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow. But the year’s real runner-up is the second movie that Chan and Yuen made together. Drunken Master is the movie that turned Chan into a star, introducing his blend of reckless stunts and goofy comedy. (Chan returned to the role with a Drunken Master sequel 16 years later, and made what I argue was his best movie.)

1978 was a big one for kung fu movies, since it also saw the great Shaw Brothers studio making its two most clear-cut masterpieces, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and Five Deadly Venoms, as well as the almost as memorable Crippled Avengers and Heroes Of The East. Sam Peckinpah got in on the goofy trucker-movie craze with Convoy. Clint Eastwood teamed up with an orangutang sidekick for the underground-fighting movie Every Which Way But Loose. Chuck Norris made his first attempt at rescuing Vietnam POWs with Good Guys Wear Black; more would follow. And the world got to see Game Of Death, in which Bruce Lee’s old studio disastrously attempted to make a whole movie out of the (great) remaining footage of Lee. The fights, including one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are stunning. The other scenes, in which the studio uses shitty Plan 9 tricks to obscure the fact that Lee wasn’t in any of them, are insultingly bad.

Next time: Walter Hill returns, turning New York City into a comic-book fantasia with The Warriors, the greatest street-gang movie ever made.