As close as Hollywood has come to French Film Noir
The Driver, written and directed by Walter Hill, has for its plot a simple cat-&-mouse theme. A getaway driver who has never before been caught is hunted obsessively by a detective who is determined to catch him, by any means necessary, even if that means breaking the law himself.
Bruce Dern plays the deadpan ?Detective? whose whole demeanour is very much like of a psychotic sheriff in an industrially urban western who is determined at all cost to bring to justice ? while circumventing justice himself ? the infamous outlaw, to whom he even gives the epithet ?Cowboy.? Ryan O?Neal plays the eponymous ?Driver? of the title with laconic cool, whose driving says all that is necessary for him, while Isabelle Adjani is ?The Player,? a gambler who agrees to provide an alibi for the driver simply to pay the rent that she can no longer afford, and who matches O?Neal?s taciturnity with a sultry sang froid.
The film is this simple: but, the fact that The Driver is simple is no negative description. The simplicity of the film has the stylistic elegance of French film noir particularly reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville Le Samurai: indeed, O?Neil?s is just as taciturn as Alain Delon is in Melville?s film. The Driver has the bare minimum of dialogue, which does just enough to propel the story along without the aid of cumbersome exposition while the rest of the film is stripped to bare essentials in terms of the soundtrack, characters, and locations; the sparsity, and emptiness of which I would argue echoes the moral vacuity of the cinematic world into which we are thrust and the figures with whom we are to become involved.
The three principle characters above are the nameless faces that people this seemingly nameless city, whose existences haunt the shadowy worlds of gambling, career crime, and cheap motels while Dern?s detective seems to operate in back alleys or bars. There is not a single scene set in a police precinct building, emphasizing further the renegade nature of his character.
The film?s crowning points are without doubt the thrilling car chases and extraordinary driving prowess of the eponymous driver of the title. The chases are for me just as exhilarating as Claude Le Louch?s infamous 9 minute short film C?était un Rendez-vous, where a Ferrari careens thru the streets of Paris; and, the scene where O?Neal systematically destroys an orange Mercedes in a parking garage in a demonstration of his skill is comparable to poetry.
Having said that, Hill?s chases are at times infuriatingly edited, very often breaking up mid-sensation that of hurtling thru the streets of this anonymous cityscape; on the whole, though, the chases are handled deftly and with a distinct sense of style mixing long shots as we wait for the duelling cars with anticipation heading toward us from the top of a hill, with rapid cuts so we are placed inside the front seat to experience a terrific sense of speed and danger; added to these are rear view angles; both internal and external shots of the cars; and cameras fixed to the bonnet as we head the wrong way on a one-way street directly into the headlights of oncoming traffic.
The narrative simplicity of the storyline is expertly balanced with the frenetic and exhilarating action of the car chase scenes which why, for me, The Driver is without doubt a highly accomplished and stylish film, and to my mind is as close as Hollywood has ever come to the sensibilities and elegance of the French film noir.