Monday, June 6, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Driver" (1978)

The late 1970s was an interesting time for American cars, and movies.

The 1974 oil embargo, plus new pollution standards, hit the automotive industry like a bag of bricks. Literally within a year or two, big-block engines had almost entirely disappeared from American show rooms, replaced by smaller, more efficient and often bag-over-head-ugly styles. But by 1978 or so, though, Pontiac Firebird and a few other models dared to become loud and large again.

The result was a rolling smorgasbord of modernism and throwback, muscle cars and horsepower pipsqueaks, flashy and forgettable, all occupying the same road.

Watching a movie like "The Driver," you see everything from early-1960s Cadillacs and other aging midcentury land yachts to pre-embargo beasts and newer econo-boxes.

The local movie theater was much the same. The blockbuster era was just launching, but you still had auteurs making small personal films and the burgeoning influence of foreign cinema on American movies.

"The Driver" was Walter Hill's second film as a director after the success of "Hard Times," a boxing movie with Charles Bronson. He adopted a similar spare style for this one starring Ryan O'Neal as a professional getaway driver. I admired it, but it goes too far in its taciturn tone, with its protagonist crossing over from cool reserve to seeming disinterest.

"Less is more" is mantra in Hollywood, but this film could've used a little less less.

One of Hill's conceits is that nobody in the movie even gets a name. O'Neal is simply "the Driver," while Bruce Dern as the rule-bending cop obsessed with busting him is simply "the Detective." This makes for some odd-sounding dialogue, with Dern referring to his quarry as "driver" or "cowboy."

Similarly, the card-playing quasi-hooker -- she lets a rich guy bankroll her lifestyle in exchange for occasional sex -- played by French star Isabelle Adjani in her American debut is simply "the Player." A secondary villain, a gun-happy robber (Joseph Walsh) wearing gaudy octagonal eye-wear is "Glasses"; the woman (Ronee Blakely) who sets up jobs for the driver is "the Connection"; a toothy antagonist (Rudy Ramos) is "Teeth;" and so on.

It's a microcosm of the film's major flaw of withholding too much. If you decline to name the main character, it makes him more mysterious. If nobody has a name, everybody talks like an idiot.

But the film has many admirable aspects, and you can see the stylistic flourishes that Hill would go on to display in "The Warriors," "The Long Riders," "48 Hours" and other movies. North of age 70, he's still active today as a producer and writer, and is attached to direct a thriller due next year.

This movie marked the beginning of the end of Ryan O'Neal's brief, hot career as a leading man. The same year would see the (wisely) forgotten sequel to "Love Story," followed by a romantic comedy with Barbra Streisand, a sci-fi disaster, and oblivion.

He was dismissed as being too pretty (and blond, a perpetual problem in Hollywood), arrogant and unreliable. I think it was more the classic case of writers and directors not knowing what to do with an actor of considerable skill but narrow range. As the passive, nearly wordless Driver, O'Neal just wanders around looking glum.

(I kept wondering: what if O'Neal and Dern had switched roles?)

Driver passes on jobs that involve a high risk of violence -- "I don't like shooters" is all he'll say -- and refuses to work with anyone who's even a minute late. Yet he's adept at guns and fists when called upon, and seems to operate by his own schedule and rules. The driver is a ronin, a masterless samurai who gives his ultimate fealty to his craft.

(The influences on the 2011 film "Drive" seem pretty obvious, right down to evoking the same era.)

At various times Driver pilots a Trans Am, a Ford big-block sedan, a first-generation Mustang pony car, a hot-rodded 1973 Chevy truck and a late model Mercedes-Benz -- the latter of which he completely trashes during a contemptuous "tryout" for Glasses' gang.

The driving stunts were reasonably impressive for a low-budget film in 1978, though they're a bit dated now. Turns, burnouts, controlled crashes, driving into oncoming traffic, etc. A whole lot of "extras" cars going 25 m.p.h. so the lead cars look fast doing 55. Compared to the jumps and flips in the previous year's "Smokey and the Bandit," it was fairly tame stuff.

The plot is spare as can be: Detective has been chasing Driver for some time now, but can't catch him in the act. He puts the pressure on Glasses to stage a bank robbery of $200,000 with Driver so they can pop him at the meetup. Of course, things don't go so smoothly.

It winds up as a game of chicken, with both the cop and the criminal aware of the setup, but still insisting on playing the game for its own sake.

Adjani is pretty well wasted in the movie, never showing any kind of expression even as she becomes romantically involved with Driver. (We assume; their coupling is only alluded to.) She was not happy with the resulting film, and complained that it stymied her chance to cross over into mainstream Hollywood.

Dern is obviously having a lot of fun, flashing that famous horsey smile and using his wiles to intimidate and needle everyone he encounters, including a by-the-book cop (Matt Clark) who objects to the risks he takes.

Detective's verbosity lies in obvious contrast to Driver's near silence: One's a talker, one's a doer.

The ending is funny and fitting for a heist flick, as the cop trying to con the con man finds himself out of his depth. After a long chase involving a bait-and-switch of the bank money, Detective corners Driver in a bus station with the bag of loot. He opens it to reveal the exchange man (dirty money for clean) robbed them both -- leaving Driver with an alibi and Detective with a career-ending mistake.

He offers Driver the empty satchel, but is refused, then tries to give it to the other cops, and finally just drops it on the floor on his walk of shame out of the station.

It's a wry, dry joke: You don't want to be the one left holding the bag.

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