Judge Jason Panella is a man of few words and even fewer thoughts.
"I respect a man who's good at what he does. I'll tell you something else: I'm very good at what I do."
The sophomore directorial effort from Walter Hill (The Warriors) is less a movie and more the bare elements of a movie…and it's awesome as a result.
Facts of the Case
The Driver (Ryan O'Neal, Love Story) is a man of few words and even fewer emotions. He's also the best wheelman in the business, having never been caught despite countless jobs. The Detective (Bruce Dern, Silent Running) is the Los Angeles cop obsessed with stopping the legendary getaway driver.
The Driver is short and to the point, so much so that the film is basically a handful of brutal car chases connected by minimalistic neo-noir sinew. Characters are pure archetypes, even down to the smallest parts (none of the characters in the film even has a name). There isn't a single hint into what motivates The Driver. He's The Driver, and he's a professional. Cue car chase.
As a result, The Driver was rejected by American filmgoers, aside from a handful of genre geeks (like Quentin Tarantino, one of the movie's most vocal supporters). Europeans dug it a lot more, of course, maybe because the film is heavily indebted to French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville's work (specifically the crime classic Le Samourai, which, as many others have pointed out, shares a lot in common with The Driver). As a result, the film has lingered in obscurity for years.
That's a shame; it's a fine film that picks a few strengths and plays exclusively to them. The car chases that bookend the film may not have (or maybe even deserve) the broad acclaim given to similar scenes in The French Connection or Bullitt, but they're still some of the best in cinema history. The chases here are genuinely exciting, and they have a cat-and-mouse element to them that ratchets up the tension even more. The Driver isn't all pure adrenaline, of course, but the quick verbal spars between the various characters serve as action in a way. O'Neal and Dern are great in their roles, the former a consistent blank slate and the latter the personification of hotheadedness. The supporting cast handle the material well, especially Isabelle Adjani (Quartet) as The Player, the woman caught between the cop and criminal. Like the rest of the characters, The Player doesn't really give many clues about how she fits into the picture; she's just there to help connect one plot point to the next. If the audience wants to fill in the blanks, that's up to them.
Twilight Time presents The Driver in a limited Blu-ray release of 3,000 units. The 1.85:1/1080p video presentation is excellent. It has a weirdly fascinating visual aesthetic that relies heavily on the hypnotic glow of fluorescent lights punching through grimy urban darkness (it's as alluring as it is off-putting). Cinematographer Philip Lathrop's work is captured well, with the film's many low-lit scenes sufficiently black. While the age of the master comes through, the picture is sharp and well-detailed. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono (1.0) track is also clean and clear, overall, though there are a few points where the dialogue is almost indistinguishable (thank goodness for a good subtitle track!). Twilight Time also includes a four-page essay on the film from film historian Julie Kirgo, the film's original trailer, an unnecessary (yet entertaining) alternate opening that introduces several key characters, and composer Michael Small's ambient score on an isolated track.
The Driver helped provide a template for countless better-known films. Twilight Time gives this cult classic an excellent (limited) release that's definitely worth seeking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
• Alternate Scene
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