Walter Hill’s The Driver is the Golden Standard
When it comes to capturing the underworld of the getaway driver, no other film has been a bigger influence than Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978. A movie about a professional driver, regardless of make or model. Bullitt may have shown us the car chase, but The Driver took us for a spin.
I have a very specific obsession with driving thanks to this movie. When I saw it as a kid it left an imprint in my head which spread like mold into my growing obsession with cars. This movie is underrated for one simple reason, it is not a fast-paced action-drama. The Driver has a lot of slow moving drama that builds up around some of the grittiest driving scenes in cinema history. It’s a film designed to take you into the particular underworld of the getaway driver.
The Plot, a Game of Cat and Mouse
No names in this film. Ryan O’Neal plays The Driver, a quiet loner with a reputation as the best wheelman in the city. At the start of the movie the Driver is witnessed in action by The Player (played by Isabelle Adjani) when robbers knock over a poker parlor she gambles at. As a car chase terrorizes downtown Los Angles The Detective, Bruce Dern, listens in on the police scanner. The Detective has an ego larger than his arrest record and sees The Driver as “The Cowboy that’s never been caught.” A special opponent that will give the Detective a challenge for the job he loves, and sometimes sees as a game of cat and mouse.
After the Driver is brought in for questioning the Detective pokes the Driver by pouring hot coffee on his hands in order to bust him for assaulting a police officer. None of the witnesses are able to point out the Driver, but that’s because the Driver has already paid them off, including the Player who sees something in the Driver and the Detective. Being a gambler, who’s bored with life, she gets involved in the game between both legends.
Meanwhile, the Detective is hell bend on catching the Driver in the act. He is so confident that he enlists a crew of heist men to pull a bank job under one condition, they hire the Driver. It all comes down to who will out best the other.
Creating The Driver
When Walter Hill decided to write this movie he knew that it wasn’t going to be your typical action-drama. Hill wanted to make a film with a very specific focus. The script was written in 1975 with very little dialog. The Driver almost plays like a documentary where none of the characters look into the camera. Originally, Hill wanted to get Steve McQueen to play the Driver (How cool would that have been?). Charles Bronson was also considered, but not by Hill because they had a falling out prior to production of this film. Ryan O’Neal was interested and felt he could give the character justice.
What makes The Driver such an interesting film to watch, if you’re a fan of cars and driving, is the details. You see things in this film that you rarely see in other driving-focused films. Small scenes that turn the act of driving into a character, like: showing the Driver hotwire a car and then carefully wrap the wires together. Slamming both feet on the brake pedal before jumping back on the throttle. Throwing the vehicle’s weight around by turning the wheel to one side and back to push cars out of the way. Making a console automatic look cool but showing the Driver shift up and down between gears. It all works together to let the audience know how much skill is involved in driving at this level.
Walter Hill had worked as a second assistant on Bullitt in 1968, and was inspired by their use of inside shots where you see Bill Hickman and Steve McQueen driving and getting airborne through the streets of San Francisco. Hill wanted that same effect in his film, but better. In The Driver you see the action unfolding through the windshield. Scenes where Ryan O’Neal plays chicken with two police cars and seeing them part ways at the last second. Or during the final chase between the bad guy’s Firebird and the Driver’s C-10 pickup where you see both cars sliding around at high speed through nighttime LA.
Cameras placed on the bumper of the cars allow the viewer to experience the speed and controlled chaos of driving flat-out through city streets while avoiding traffic. Unlike other films, you can tell that the actors are actually driving themselves. They aren’t inside the car while it’s being pulled on a trailer or in a sound stage moving a fake steering wheel side to side.
The Car Chases, Realism is Key
There are three main driving scenes in The Driver. The first chase starts within the first 10 minutes of the film. The Driver steals a blue 1974 Ford Galaxie sedan for his job and takes it on a wild ride, destroying 5 police cars along the way. This movie taught me, “You can make any car go fast, if you’re brave enough.” Watching the heavy Ford being forced into 180 slides, drifts and ramming into police cars is motoring eye candy. Hill mentioned that he felt the first chase was failure because he wasn’t able to film the ending he wanted, but I think its prefect.
The next scene involves a 1970 Mercedes Benz 280 S, sporting an orange paint job I’ve yet to see on another Merc. Takes place in a massive, empty, parking garage. This scene involves the heist men who are looking for a new wheelman because their current one, who knows the Driver, has lost his nerve behind the wheel. The Driver keeps his poker face on and states his price, “Ten thousand, up front, against 15% percent.” A high price for just a driver, which provokes one of the bad guys to ask, “How do we know you’re that good?” The Driver’s eyes dart, “…Get in.”
What follows is the Driver taking all 3 men on a cosmic ride through the parking garage. The Driver destroys the Mercedes in the process with surgical precision. Ripping the bumpers, door handles, and driver side door, off before driving out of the garage and going under a semi-truck. The entire time you hear the men screaming for him to stop.
The final chase is the longest and stars a 1976 Pontiac Firebird being driven by another unnamed wheelman and the last bad guy. The Driver, and the Player, chase them down in a 1973 Chevy C-10 truck. The Firebird spends half the chase going sideways or being chased by a cloud of its own tire smoke, while the truck sticks to it like glue and rams the car when it gets close.
The climax of the chase takes place in a huge warehouse. Both cars are battered and smashed as they creep through the building looking for each other in a maze of inventory. The Firebird makes a break for the exit but the C-10 is waiting for it and launches forward with its high-beams on full blast. Both cars play the game but the Firebird loses when it swerves, hits a ramp, and goes flying into the air before smashing itself to pieces on a loading dock. It looks extremely violent.
Driver Series, Drive, Baby Driver, and More
The Driver has gone on to inspire many people into creating their own projects about wheelmen. Each one takes specific details from Walter Hill’s version and have created some great stuff. Like the Driver video game series. A video game franchise starring an ex-race car driver named John Tanner turned cop who gets assigned to work undercover as a wheelman. The title of the first game is called Driver: You are the Wheelman. followed by Driver 2: The Wheelman is Back and has gone on to several sequels, including a spin off called Driver Parallel Lines which is set in 1978.
The first game was released in 1999 and is known for capturing the driving style of 70’s car chases. Cars that handle with soft suspension and can’t make a turn without entering sideways. The first mission of the game is a tribute to the Mercedes Benz scene in The Driver. The goal was to show your employer that you can drive by performing a list of tasks in under a minute. These tasks are written on the corner of the screen: Burnout, handbrake, slalom, 180, 360, reverse 180, speed, brake test, and lap. I remember this mission being a real challenge for most players because we didn’t understanding driving jargon. “What does it mean by 360? What’s a reverse 180?”
Remember Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, from 2011? Remember how we all expected to see Die Hard on wheels but only got Gosling silently staring at people and stomping a guy’s face in with his foot? Well, guess where it got its inspiration from? If you view both movies back to back you see the similarities between them. Both star is deadpan Driver who hides all emotion behind a poker face, and focuses on the lifestyle of a wheelman. Granted, Drive looks a lot better as far as style, but the first time I saw this film I thought, “Is this an unofficial reboot?”
Baby Driver (2017) was also, partially, inspired by The Driver when Edgar Wright wanted to make his version of a car chase set to music a reality. Both films are miles apart with the only key elements being that Wright places the actors inside the car and made them do some of their own driving. Wright wanted to make a car chase that looked real because it was real, and he nailed it.
Genesis of the Wheelman
The Driver wasn’t the first film to showcase a main character who solves his problems with a lead foot. (Thunder Road, Le Mans, Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds, Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry, to name a few.) What The Driver did was create the genesis of a wheelman. How they dress, act, handle themselves, and how they drive. Since then all “badass drivers” in films have followed a similar format.
They all look cool, speak very little or not at all, know how to fight or handle a weapon, and they are all gifted with god-like reflexes when it comes to handling a vehicle (regardless of what it is). It’s created a spectrum. On one end you have Ryan O’Neil’s Cowboy, who can wheel a pickup truck like a drift king, and at the other extreme is Dom Toretto, who can stop a nuclear submarine with an indestructible Dodge Charger.
If you are a fan of gritty crime dramas, realism, precision driving, or Isabelle Adjani, I highly recommend watching Walter Hill’s masterpiece, The Driver (1978).
Here are video links to the three chase scenes in the film. Enjoy.
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