They don’t come much cooler.
This may seem a controversial statement given the state of the modern (and historic) cinema, but I believe it’s possible, with the right amount of resources, planning, and judicious abnegation of ego, for anyone to make a good movie. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I really do believe that. “Good” is a very broad quantity in movies, attainable in any number of ways, many of which are a simple matter of effort. One way that isn’t, and that is usually only attainable by not trying, is to be cool. Genuinely cool movies are the product of forces beyond rational comprehension and any kind of studious planning. Filmmakers may want their movie to be cool, and even go to some lengths to make it so. To actually be cool a movie has to either come along at just the right time, or be fortunate enough to remain available long enough for that right time to come along. Falling within the latter category is one of the more popular cult movies as of this writing, Walter Hill’s 1978 film The Driver.
The Driver is currently enjoying a good run of attention from modern directors, notably by the prominent influence displayed in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, and it’s been cited by Edgar Wright in the course of promoting of his latest, Baby Driver. Upon initial release, The Driver was not so fashionable, derided by the LA Times as “a bad imitation of a French gangster picture which in turn is a bad imitation of an American gangster picture” and pushing Roger Ebert to sigh, “It’s a damn good thing there are great chase scenes or the movie would sink altogether.” Indeed, it’s out of step with its immediate point in time, itself an intermediary period between the peak of the 70s much-ballyhooed New Hollywood and the subsequent, decadent 80s, and fits the prevailing aesthetic of neither period.
Hill arrived at the singular and ultimately influential look and feel of The Driver by paring down every element of the film to a bare, spare minimum. He took the paintings of Edward Hopper as inspiration, and the clean, stoical lines of Philip Lathrop’s cinematography could very well be Hopper’s. Cinematically, The Driver alternates between two modes, and Ebert’s lament about the divide between the car chases and the rest of the movie points to the dividing line: the style of the car chase scenes is derived from Hill’s experience working as an uncredited second assistant director on the seminal Bullitt, in which Steve McQueen’s iconic jaunt through San Francisco defined the form—both in terms of photography and montage—of the modern car chase. The Driver’s chases are an elegantly executed version of that basic template, on which most car chase scenes of the era were based.
The non-car-chase parts of the movie had an entirely different rhythm, one considerably closer to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, a movie that often suffers from the dynamic, not its fault at all, whereby fans of movies inspired by it go back and realize to their unpleasant surprise and shrinking enthusiasm that . . . it’s . . . really . . . slow. (I should note that this is not based on my own reaction, but on several instances when, after my having told them “The Killer was an homage to this,” friends and acquaintances reported back “Dude, it’s really slow.” It’s really good. It’s just not the fastest-paced movie in existence. Caveat emptor.) The more Melvillematic parts of The Driver proceed at a deliberate pace, but at a precise rhythm that moves consistently ever onward. It’s that very precision and deliberation that put it out of step with the shambolic experimentation of the earlier 70s and the “yippee!!!” sugar rush of the newly fashionable mid-late-70s Spielberg/Lucas popular cinema. And, a film out of place in its own time, it faltered commercially, and receded into obscurity until re-discovered and escorted back into the light by a generation of directors who watched it on VHS as kids.
The tendency to collapse all of history into a singular, monolithic “past” has its obvious downsides, but in a rare beneficial side effect that tendency led to The Driver’s measured, composed staging taking on a feel of the classical. There’s a scene in the movie where The Detective (Bruce Dern; none of the characters have proper names) is putting the squeeze on The Player (Isabelle Adjani), and circles her as if on a proscenium stage with the camera standing in for the audience. The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), hiding in the next room, observes, but we only see his face reflected in glass. The thought that I had re-watching it for this column was “this kinda feels like Hitchcock,” although more in the sense that actual care was taken to block the actors’ movements at all than in any specific set-up or gesture. It’s the precision of the construction, in this one scene as in the movie as a whole, and the elegant cool of the result, that lends a timelessness to The Driver.
It says not a word more than it has to. Its lean grace has few peers, ever. Its star (in the most crucial aspect of the homage to Le Samourai and Alain Delon) is both beautiful and tough. Isabelle Adjani is in it. The Driver is cool. It’s too cool to ever act cool. It’s too cool for adjectives, it consists entirely of nouns and verbs. If you act cool in the hopes it’ll think you’re cool, it won’t work. Don’t try. Be. Don’t speak. Do. Don’t sweat. Drive.