Gearhead Theater: The Driver (1978)

By Bradley Iger

April 07, 2014

Today we're watching Walter Hill's The Driver, a "neo-noir" style crime drama that centers around a wheelman for hire and the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the detective who wants to bring him to justice at any cost. But since this is Gearhead Theater, we're going to level with you - we're really here for the cars, and everything else beyond that is more or less an incidental bonus.
If you've seen the 2011 indie favorite Drive, you'll quickly realize how much that movie borrows from the one we're watching today - both revolve around a nameless, Los Angeles-based hot shoe with a fairly aloof approach to morality, a distaste for guns, and a penchant for American V8 power plants. Truth be told, both movies actually owe a great debt to the 1967 French-Italian crime film Le Samouraï, but that's a rabbit hole we'd prefer to go down at another time.
The Driver wastes no time satiating our hunger for wheel-to-wheel action - we're barely more than five minutes into the opening scene of the movie before the black and whites are screaming full throttle down the back streets of Downtown LA with sirens blaring, tailing the driver and a pair of unsavory characters in a 1974 Ford Galaxie 500. The driving and choreography in this opening chase are fantastic - enough to make us wonder how this film had slipped under our radar for so long. No sped up film or fast cuts that feebly attempt to trick you into a sense of speed - just massive American iron careening through all the classic car chase clichés - alleyways full of lightweight trash, narrow parking garages and city streets somehow almost completely devoid of slow-moving traffic.
Putting continuity issues aside - the Galaxie loses its trunk lid mid-chase, then regains it, only to lose it again when it is knocked off by a shotgun blast minutes later - the opening chase is masterfully executed in tradition of movies like Bullitt and the original Gone in Sixty Seconds and bodes well for what's to come.
Mid-70s F-bodies make a strong showing later in the movie, with two different Pontiac Firebirds making getting driven in anger in separate chases. A 1970 Mercedes-Benz 280 S in a particularly fetching shade of orange also gets put through the ringer as well - though in retrospect, vintage MB fans might want to cover their eyes during that scene. The biggest oddball of the group is a modified, manual-shift Chevy stepside pickup that finds its way into the mix toward the tail end of the film. Considering what Detroit and the rest of the world had to offer in North America in 1978, you could do a lot worse than the selection of vehicles found here.
Like most crime dramas, there's an inevitable ebb and flow to action to ratchet up the sense of tension, and in between chase scenes, film buffs will have plenty of symbolism and film noir tropes to pick up on. In fact, it's said that Quentin Tarantino is such a huge fan of The Driver that he makes direct reference to it in both Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Vol. 2, and he has been quoted as saying that The Driver is one of the "coolest movies of all time."
That said, viewers who lack a vested interest in the minutiae of filmmaking might find the distinct style of The Driver a little bit tricky to get in sync with, as the lack of character names, along with a protagonist of very few words and no clear delineation between "good guys" and "bad guys" could be slightly off-putting to some. But even for those individuals in the audience the truly intense chase scenes found here will more than make for it, and with a 91-minute total run time, The Driver also makes a point of not overstaying its welcome, either.
A highly recommended popcorn car-guy flick that might've flown under your radar. You can pick up The Driver on DVD in the Winding Road Racing store