The Driver Is the Best Getaway Driver Movie You’ve Never Seen

Movies Features Walter Hill
The Driver Is the Best Getaway Driver Movie You’ve Never Seen

Walter Hill’s The Driver is perhaps the best movie about a loner getaway driver that you may have never heard of.

Written and directed by that ornery genre master Walter Hill, his 1978 sophomore flick inspired contemporary films that most film bros consider badass. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, with Ryan Gosling as a lethal dude behind the wheel (and in general)? The Driver definitely influenced it. The same goes for Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, where Ansel Elgort served as an iPod-listening getaway man for alpha criminals Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal and Jamie Foxx. Wright even talked to Hill about Driver in a 2017 Empire piece. From Michael Mann to Quentin Tarantino to Luc Besson, who was supposed to remake The Driver in the mid-90s (he most likely ditched that project to write and produce the Driver-esque Transporter movies with Jason Statham), many of today’s filmmakers have lifted from this forgotten piece of high-speed pulp. The Driver has even influenced action driving video games like…Driver!

Just what makes this movie so awesome? Well, first off, no one has a full name.‘70s stud Ryan O’Neal is The Driver, a professional motorist who efficiently chauffeurs criminals away from their latest heist and, as demonstrated in the police car-obliterating opening, loses the cops who chase after them. His latest ride catches the attention of The Detective (Bruce Dern), an arrogant dick who is determined to catch the “cowboy desperado” in the act. The rest of the movie is pure cat-and-mouse, with The Detective trying to lure The Driver into a trap (which also involves shady, killer bank robbers The Detective ropes in) that The Driver is way too cautious to fall for. Since The Driver is a cool cat who’s easy on the eyes, he has a couple gals helping him: The Player (Isabelle Adjani, making her American film debut), a gambler who gets hired to not identify him in a lineup, and The Connection (Ronee Blakely), his longtime middleman and fence.

When The Driver came out, it was not a big success critically or commercially. The $4 million slow burner only made $4.9 million over here (and 1,102,183 admissions in France). The critics didn’t get it. Kevin Thomas slammed it all to hell in the Los Angeles Times, deeming it “ultraviolent trash” that “plays like a bad imitation of a gangster picture.” In his two-and-a-half-star review, Roger Ebert called it “a movie about people who are not real because they are symbols, and it’s a damned good thing there are great chase scenes or the movie would sink altogether.” He also said “the closing chase – two great Drivers in a final showdown – had me on the edge of my seat for two good reasons: I was thrilled. And I couldn’t wait to leave.” Some people dug it, like Boston Phoenix’s Sylviane Gold, who said “it manages to be charming despite everything.”

Hill has stated that The Driver is a bare-bones B-movie. Running at an easy-to-plow-through 91 minutes (man, I miss those days!), The Driver is a lean, spare crime picture that refuses to give you exposition or backstory. The less you know about these mysterious characters, the better. “This was not meant to be an everyday action movie,” Hill told Wright. “I was trying to do something a little more, or a little less, but I was trying to do something else.” 

In an era when car-chase movies were guaranteed box-office bangers, Hill (who was an uncredited, second assistant director on that Steve McQueen car-chase classic Bullitt) constructed one where most of the chases are done late at night, on the desolate streets of Los Angeles. Inspired by the nocturnal work of famed realist painter Edward Hopper, Hill really went about making a film noir where the setting is just as dark as the mood. To make sure of this, he got together with veteran cinematographer Philip H. Lathrop, who already knew how to luridly lens the City of Angels when he was DP on the John Boorman noir thriller Point Blank. Hill clearly modeled O’Neal’s quiet, impossible-to-intimidate protagonist (a role originally offered to McQueen and Charles Bronson, who starred in Hill’s feature debut Hard Times) after the cucumber-cool antiheroes that appeared in French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist crime yarns (especially Alain Delon’s silent-but-deadly hitman in Le Samourai). That may be the reason why it never took off over here; he basically made a foreign film on American soil. 

Along with the aforementioned filmmakers, various online film writers have given The Driver its flowers over the years. The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw wrote a five-star appreciation last year, praising it for being “a thoroughly watchable, hardboiled, thrillingly cynical and ruthless drama.” 

Now good luck finding this gotdamn film. It’s currently not on any streaming platform. I had to watch it on a streaming site based in Spain. (It’s also on YouTube, but that version is dubbed in German.) StudioCanal did release a 4K restoration of the movie late last year, which mostly played around U.K. repertory theaters. And it was eventually released on Blu-ray. Since it’s a European release, I don’t know if their copies will play on multi-region players.

Hopefully, at some point, somebody at a streamer, a rep house, or a home-video site will get wise to what’s happening overseas and bring back home the cool-ass, criminal car-driver movie that launched so many other cool-ass, criminal car-driver movies.

Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.

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