The Walter Hill Collection: The Driver Review
If Walter Hill (born 1942) had been around twenty or thirty years earlier, we might now appreciate him as a man who made some fine B-movies. We would appreciate the kind of film, with interesting angles and use of style, not to mention sheer muscular momentum, which made it worth staying for the whole of the double bill, in the days when they had them. (I may be showing my age there!) We might regard him similarly to Joseph H. Lewis, say.
But Hill was a wartime baby, and, after work as a writer and an assistant director, he began as a director in the mid 1970s. His best work is a run of five features taking him into the early eighties, and following the Purple Patch Theory of Creativity, those five films may be the ones his reputation stands on when he's no longer with us. They are at heart genre B-movies – action-thrillers and westerns – but made with a distinct style and sensibility, not to mention strong use of actors and even (given the macho cast of the genres he works in) actresses. However, somewhere in the early Eighties, Hollywood changed, and Hill was not the only director to come unstuck. While there are interesting things in his later work, something was lost, something hopefully shown by the six films packaged in this box set from Optimum, which I will be reviewing in chronological order.
Hill's had his break as a director from Larry Gordon, then a producer at Columbia. Gordon gave many people a chance at directing: the deal was, Hill would write and direct at minimum scale for both activities, and the film would be shot fast (thirty-six days) on a low budget. That, more or less, was Hard Times (released in UK cinemas as The Streetfighter). The presence of a big star (Charles Bronson) only raised the budget in that Bronson was paid a higher salary. Hard Times is not included in this set (it's available on DVD from Columbia), and it's been nearly twenty years since I saw it. If memory serves, it's a notable debut, if not entirely typical of Hill's later work.
With The Driver, released in 1978, Hill hit his stride. With it, he takes the material of the crime thriller and boils it down to essentials, taking it into places at once existentialist and bordering on the abstract. None of the characters have names, and are either listed in the credits by their occupations or by some kind of physical description (Fingers, Teeth, and so on). The Driver (Ryan O'Neal) is the best getaway man in the business. However, the Detective (Bruce Dern) has him in his sights...
I don't know if Michael Mann (himself two years away from his own feature debut) was taking notes, or maybe it's a case of mutual influence (especially Jean-Pierre Melville's Le samouraï), but when watching this film again it seemed the most Mann-like of Hill's films. We have a clash of two professionals, who are in opposition to each other but have a mutual respect. (Says Dern's detective, “I have a lot of respect for people who are good at their job. I'm very good at my job.”) Hill's screenplay, while intricately plotted and with some crackling dialogue, most of the best of it going to Dern's character, isn't literary in its approach but highly cinematic. The characters may well have an inner life, but it's not one we're privy too: all we know about them is what we see and what they say. Hill uses actors with interesting faces and that indefinable thing charisma, to keep us interested, and the rest is what the actors bring to their roles. If they are cast right, that's most of the work done. It's an essentially modernist approach to writing: we don't know everything about them – not even their real names – but we don't need to.
The casting in The Driver is particularly interesting. Ryan O'Neal had become a major star seven years earlier in Love Story, and – along with his title role in Kubrick's Barry Lyndon - was trying to extend his range beyond the light romantic handsome leading man he was being typecast as. As it happened, the public didn't take to him as a criminal and the same year he reprised his Love Story character in Oliver's Story, his period of movie stardom waning with the decade of the Seventies.
Showing the influence of Howard Hawks in particular, the role of women in many of Hill's films is well worth examining. Like Hawks (and also, later, James Cameron), Hill showed a taste for tough women who worked on equal terms without any allowances for their gender. You could argue that Isabelle Adjani's Player and Ronee Blakley's Connection could be men with only minimal rewriting. (Famously, Sigourney Weaver and Veronica Cartwright's roles in Alien - for which Hill was a producer and uncredited co-writer – were male in early drafts.) But why do we need to be reminded all the time of their femaleness? We don't constantly need reminding that the Driver and the Detective are male – we know that by looking at them. A decade later, women tended to turn up in action thrillers as love interest, just so that our hero can shag them and thus demonstrate his heterosexuality to the audience. (There's one particular offender later on in this very box set.) Hill should be commended for avoiding that future cliché: the Driver's relationships with the Player and the Connection are purely professional ones, and like the Driver and Detective, they have a mutual respect for each other due to their ability to do their jobs well.
As with the men, yet again Hill's casting is unusual and pays dividends. Isabelle Adjani had, three years earlier, won a Cannes Prize for The Story of Adèle H, but had so far not worked outside her native France. This was her first Hollywood film and she shows herself fluent in English, if inevitably accented. It's a left-field piece of casting that works, though Adjani seemed perhaps a little too exotic for Hollywood, and has only made two further films there: the notorious flop Ishtar and the dreadful Diabolique. Even more surprising a choice is Ronee Blakley. Primarily a singer with a parallel acting career, her defining role is her one in Nashville, but this isn't far behind.
Many hallmarks of Hill's style are present in The Driver: the dark and grainy look especially in his urban thrillers (camerawork here courtesy of Philip Lathrop), the economy (the film comes in under 90 minutes), and not least the flair with which he directs action sequences. The film's car chases retain their thrill, particularly because they were achieved in the days before CGI. These are real cars, with real stuntmen driving them.
The Driver didn't really click with wide audiences, but it rapidly picked up a cult following which it maintains to this day. In Britain, presumably because there is no strong language and the bullet impacts are not close-up, the BBFC gave the film a rather lenient A certificate (equivalent to today's PG), albeit with one brief cut of a woman being threatened by having a gun forced into her mouth. (This DVD is uncut, with a 15 certificate.) But it's a film that got Hill noticed.
As part of the StudioCanal catalogue, The Driver was originally released by Warners (and reviewed here by Kevin Gilvear) before StudioCanal bought Optimum and released their films through them. Optimum's disc is here reissued as part of the six-film Walter Hill Collection. Affiliate links and price comparisons refer to the boxset rather than the single release. The disc itself is a DVD-5 encoded for Region 2 only.
Hard Times had been shot in Scope, but with The Driver used 1.85:1 and went on to use the narrower ratio on all his films up to 1993's Geronimo. The DVD transfer is opened up to 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The film has always been grainy, with that somewhat heightened colour that many Seventies films have, so no complaints there. There are some minor signs of damage such as scratches, but nothing to object to. I do think the transfer is softer than it should be, though.
The Driver was released in cinemas with a mono soundtrack – Hill's first in Dolby Stereo would be 48HRS, four years later. As such, mono is what we get on this DVD and it's perfectly serviceable, especially if you turn the volume up a bit. What is unfortunate is that Optimum, by policy as it seems on their English-language DVDs, have not provided any subtitles for the hard of hearing.
There are no extras at all on this DVD, not even a trailer.
7 out of 10
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