There is a long list of films (and directors) that owe a major debt to Walter Hill’s seminal 1978 neo-noir film ‘The Driver’. Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Nicolas Winding Refn, and most recently Edgar Wright, have all confessed their love for it at one point or the other. However, ‘The Driver’ itself wasn’t a wholly original idea. Parts of it that have been borrowed from some films that came prior to it, especially from European cinema. However, Hill’s execution of those ideas is fairly original and the overall film bears his distinct signature.
Hill had mentioned that the primary inspiration for the film was Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’ – a film that has inspired countless other filmmakers as well. The basic framework has been borrowed; only the protagonist’s profession has been changed from a hitman to a professional getaway driver; also there’s much more flesh on the bones, in terms of entertainment value. There are exhilarating car chases and sudden shootouts. Melville’s film was a minimalist portrait of a lone, brooding, methodical hitman who communicated more with his actions than with his words. And so does the protagonist in Hill’s film.
Everyone in ‘The Driver’ is nameless. Ryan O’Neal’s character is simply called The Driver. Bruce Dern plays The Detective who is hot on his trail. He’s been trying to nab this “Cowboy” (his nickname for him) for ages. Isabelle Adjani plays The Player, a facilitator of sorts, with whom The Driver gets involved. She is the sort of mysterious, alluring European lady who belongs in a James Bond film; in fact, she is introduced in a James Bond-esque setting: a gambling den. Although her profession is left vague, it’s obvious that she works for the people who get The Driver his assignments.
The film begins with a small heist, which is followed by a grand car chase sequence involving several police cars that serves as a showcase for The Driver’s admirable driving skills. Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ has a similar opening sequence; one could call it a remake of this scene. The Driver is expertly able to evade the cops and get his occupants to safety. The Detective is perfectly aware of the identity of his “Cowboy” and even lets him know that he knows. But he is unable to prove it because The Driver being incredibly smart and cautious, knows how to cover his tracks. One can see shades of The Detective in Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna character from Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’.
Some of the thugs The Driver has to work with are unpredictable and vicious characters; given this fact, an ample amount of betrayals, double-crossings and intensely violent showdowns, which can potentially endanger the lives of The Driver and some others, occur along the way. The Detective uses every trick known to him – even methods that are unlawful – to nab The Driver and the rest of the bad guys. This is a world where everyone follows their own rules, especially The Driver; it’s how he has survived all these years. He lives a life of secrecy and solitude. Always stoic and reticent, he is not one to easily give in to manipulation or intimidation from anybody.