Owing to the cynicism and bitterness brought out by the Vietnam War, American cinema in the 1970s saw a new type of hero emerge that had never been witnessed before. Typified by the likes of Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Peter Fonda’s Wyatt in Easy Rider and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the ‘anti-hero’ became a common fixture in the world of filmed storytelling. In the genre of car movies, The Driver (1978) featured a most memorable lead protagonist of the anti-hero type, and is the subject of this month’s edition of Rob’s Car Movie Review!
Released by EMI Pictures on the heels of their recent hit films Convoy and The Deer Hunter, The Driver stars Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, and Isabelle Adjani, and was directed by Walter Hill, of Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., The Warriors and the Alien franchise fame. O’Neal plays the Driver, an unnamed man of few words and prodigious driving skills whose vocation is stealing fast cars and using them while serving as a freelance getaway driver for bank robbery crews in Los Angeles.
Bruce Dern portrays the Detective, an arrogant and ruthless cop bent on capturing the Driver and bringing him to justice. As each trap he sets fails, the Detective’s methods become more and more outrageous, until he illegally enlists a robbery crew to set up a high-dollar bank heist in hopes of baiting the Driver into taking the getaway job.
Between the two is the Player (Adjani) a woman of dubious morals, whom O’Neal uses as an asset on various jobs. Dern leans heavily on her through the film to set the Driver up, but she manages to hold up the crime’s code of never ratting out.
While the cop-chases-bad-guy plot is as conventional as can be, the characterizations of both the Driver and the Detective are not. Dern unusually plays the Detective as a haughty, loud and obnoxious obsessive, the exact opposite of how most cops-on-the-hunt are portrayed; but it is O’Neal’s Driver that is so surprising.
Quiet and aloof, O’Neal plays the film’s protagonist as a loner whose whole life revolves around his vocation as a criminal and driver. In one five-minute scene, O’Neal demonstrates his car control to a robbery crew while in an underground garage.
The Driver does not utter one word throughout the scene as he shows off his ability to negotiate through the obstacle course of support columns in the garage. In another scene, the Driver quietly beats up a fellow criminal who has threatened him with a gun.
Yet another sequence shows us the Driver’s proclivity to shoot first and not ask questions later, as he remorselessly guns down a criminal who has double-crossed him. This portrayal as an alienated, sardonic lone wolf makes the Driver a quintessential anti-hero character in the 1970s mold.
As far as the action is concerned, The Driver gives us a number of lengthy car chases, including one at the beginning through the streets of Downtown LA that seems to last a wonderful eternity. A special kudos should be given to the film’s stunt drivers and coordinators, as the chase sequences in The Driver are on par with those of other car cult classic car films such as The Vanishing Point and Bullitt.
As for the cars of The Driver, there are plenty of good ones. The film begins with the Driver stealing a blue, 1974 Ford Galaxie 500 four door pillared sedan with a thumpin’ 460 V8 on board, which he promptly uses to escape the police with a crew of casino robbers on board. He is seen using the automatic transmission shifter like a three-on-the-tree manual, downshifting for corners, and throwing the car into reverse to perform evasive maneuvers.
Perhaps the coolest vehicle used by the Driver is a cherry red 1974 Chevy C10 half-ton stepside pickup with a massive 454ci, side pipes, and a manual transmission. Some serious chases take place with the Driver using this vehicle, including one that takes place within the confines of a stocked warehouse!
The Driver isn’t the only one with cool cars in the film. One crew of baddies tool around in a black 1965 Mustang with a 289, another crew sports a 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit, and yet another rolls in a silver 1974 Pontiac Trans-Am, blighted by some truly horrendous custom side striping. The best bad-guy car of all, however, has to be the Racing Orange 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280S that the Driver destroys in the aforementioned driving demonstration in the underground garage. It’s a gorgeous car, and hurts to see it get wrecked!
The Driver is a bit dated in some respects, and some of the supporting cast, including Isabelle Adjani put in some noticeably wooden performances. These flaws are ameliorated though by the strong acting efforts of O’Neal and Dern, as well as the splendid car chase action throughout. In my final analysis, The Driver is well worth watching, and really should be a selection for Hollywood’s penchant these days for remaking films. Not to be mistaken for Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, The Driver would definitely make for an excellent modern car movie classic. I give The Driver 6.5 out of 10 pistons.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.