The Driver (1978) – A Review

Ryan O'Neal The Driver 1978 movie
Ryan O’Neal in The Driver

Ryan O’Neal is the best getaway driver in the city. He’s a man of few words and doesn’t have much of a life other than getting behind the wheel and tearing down the Los Angeles streets at night avoiding police. Oh he does enjoy listening to country music, but other than that everything he cares about is sitting in a drivers seat.

Because of his stellar reputation he’s high in demand for jobs and commands a high price. For all his notoriety however he has never been caught by the police. This is what drives ‘The Detective’ (Bruce Dern) to be the guy to take the ‘Cowboy’ down. He’s determined to be the one to finally bring the Driver in and put an end to his criminal career.

Writer/director Walter Hill crafts a minimalist action film yarn inhabited by archetypal characters. No one in the movie even has any name. It’s an extremely straight-forward cat and mouse game of the Driver and the Detective trying to outwit one another. The Detective wants to arrest him and the Driver doesn’t want to let him. Simple stuff. It’s not the most complicated story ever, but it’s the atmosphere and the neo-noir quality that makes its so unique and worth watching. Plus, it has some terrific car chases!

Ryan O'Neal Bruce Dern The Driver

The majority of the action takes place at night with unfriendly characters tough talking each other and always making clear their motivations and what they’re after. ‘The Driver’ however is a man of few words, he rarely speaks and let’s his driving and stares take care of business.

Literally I think O’Neal might have had like three pages of dialogue he says throughout the entire movie – if that. It’s not really the type of role one would equate with O’Neal, but he does a good job of playing the Driver’s unshakable, stoic demeanor in the most suspenseful situations.

Dern gets most of the dialogue as he sets a trap to catch the driver. He does a lot of explaining to his partner Red Plainsclothes (Matt Clark) and assuring him this plan will work. Isabelle Adjani drops in as The Player, a detached icy female that gets pulled in between the dueling men.

Of course as with most crime dramas, there’s the bag of cash that everyone is after, the drop-off, the betrayal, all that criminal story stuff. When that begins the story plays out in a rather clichéd fashion. It’s not original and we’ve seen that stuff before, but it’s the presentation of it that makes it feel fresher and more exciting than you’d expect.

Walter Hill The Driver 1978

Then we have the car chases and we get some real nail biters. They’re raw, rough and exciting as hell. They’re very simply handled and don’t get fancy with hyper editing or music drowning out the sounds of engines rumbling and wheels screeching.

There’s an all-out determination the Driver has when he gets behind the wheel and you can feel that pulsating all the way through the final car chase. Some have said the chases here are some of the best ever done. I’ll leave that for you to decide, but they are certainly really great.

The Driver is a relatively short film. It clocks in at about an hour and half. It may sound like a typical crime drama and granted it might not be for everyone, but while watching it I was never bored and was kept on the edge of my seat the entire time.

I also couldn’t help but think of 2011’s Drive while watching this and the similarities between the two films. I don’t know if The Driver was an influence on it or not, but I could envision O’Neal’s ‘Driver’ being the distant father of Ryan Gossling’s Driver. Or at least being a distant relative.


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4 Responses

  1. Nick Hughes says:

    …and yet I didn't care for Drive at all. O'Neal plays the Driver part cool and calculating, Gosling looks bored and detached but these days that's supposed to equate to cool and calculating. There's a good cause and effect through line with the narrative of Driver whereas Drive resorts to having its protagonist do extraordinary things (like take out a bad guy sneaking up on him without having to turn around or change facial expression) because it looks cool. I buy into the world of Driver, I didn't with Drive, which to me felt like it was trying too hard to be cool and existential.

  2. spaceodds says:

    When it comes to using the term neo-noir, I always tread carefully. For me neo-noir's are films like Chinatown, LA Confidential et al. The Driver is probably Hollywood's first bona fide example of the neon noir sub-genre which began in the late 60s with films like Le Samourai, Get Carter, and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (that film was more of a genre deconstruction)

    The Driver is a fantastic film, and in my humble opinion is the very definition of screen existentialism. The main characters in this film are nameless, and also, with the exception of Adjani's The Player, have no back story. These characters are walking representations of their professions and they try to maintain their professionalism, but at the end they succumb to their guilty greed.

    The little dialogue that Driver and Player have are almost seen as as antidote to the cynical musings of their antagonist (played sensationally by the ever great Bruce Dern) In fact I would go far as say the absence of dialogue almost plays as rejection of the noirs of yesteryear, with all the wit, charm and sadism being delivered through a glare. Whilst on the subject of genre, another genre that has to be made in connection with The Driver is the western. The Detective always calls his antagonist, desperado; The Driver only has a radio for company and even then he only listens to country and western music (and let's not forget the music used over the end credits which sounds like it a rejected theme of My Darling Clementine) not to mention also Driver's final car is a red pick up truck.

    The other valid point to make is the car chases, and they're phenomenal. In the recent years before The Driver, car chases had become common place, but The Driver very much could be the film that finally made this practice into the art form it truly is. Absolutely sensational work.

    Looking back at The Driver now, I can't help but feel a certain sadness. With the exception of 2011's Drive (which I adored and I still consider it the greatest film of 2011) a film which features car chases have been dumbed down (Need For Speed?!) The Driver is a prime example on how a simple story line can create good cinema, and to this day remains Walter Hill's best film. The car chases, the acting, and the brilliant score elevate this genre film into the jewel that it truly is.

    Also I'm glad you brought up the Driver, I have to pre-order the blu ray.

  3. Very nicely said spaceodds

  4. Anonymous says:

    I remember seeing this movie when it premiered on Cable TV back in '79 (Yep. Back in the day when you switched channels by hitting clunky buttons on a box. I'm old.). The crime thriller's key action scenes of cars racing through the night time streets of L.A. still sticks in the brain. It's the quintessential movie "sleeper" that, while being cool, unfortunately left audiences cold. A shame since, as your review illustrates, "The Driver" is not a classic but it is stylish and efficient- two words that perhaps sums of director Walter Hill's films as a whole.

    "The Driver" also harkens back to a forgotten time in America Cinema- a time when Ryan O'Neal was a movie star.

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