2 February 2010

THE DRIVER (Dir. Walter Hill, 1978, US) – ‘The streets were dark with something more than night…’

Isabelle Adjani and Ryan O'Neal in 'The Driver'.

It was Kent Jones who claimed with great validity that John Carpenter was American cinema’s last great genre film maker. This might also have been true of Walter Hill when he was working at his peak in the eighties and for whom the western genre was a continuous source of inspiration for many of his films set in the contemporary milieu of the urban city as nightmarish metropolis (The Warriors). Of late, Walter Hill has become more synonymous for his association with the popular HBO western series ‘Deadwood’ which he helped to create, triggering a cycle of recent American revisionist westerns including the likes of ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’. If one was to surely mention his 1978 film ‘The Driver’ to an audience today then the likely response would be skewed into the direction of a popular video game which was based on the original film. Though the term existential crime thriller may sound vaguely pretentious it nevertheless provides one of the clearest ways in which to define Hill’s accomplished and taut 1978 mood piece. However, the moral uncertainty that unites the figures of the criminal and the cop in the film are not simply sustained by genre permutations.

A closer look at the film unveils a complex interconnected matrix of intertextual signifiers. Much of this is due to cinematic homage on part of Walter Hill yet the film’s connection to the past and it’s influence on the present provides what is a missing link in the evolution of the existential crime thriller, suggesting quite strongly how the parameters of mainstream American genres continue to be broached and appropriated for the expression of cinephile concerns. It would be worthwhile to dwell on these intertextual signifiers and explore how Hill’s film absorbs a range of influences, giving the film its minimalist style that reflexively echoes the work of European auteurs and classical Hollywood cinema.

It is not surprising that both John Carpenter and Walter Hill are in agreement on the influence of Howard Hawks as their male protagonists seem out of synch with contemporary society. Their mere existence is signified by an attachment to a nostalgic and primitive view of American society in which the resistance to conform was a potential source of male identity. Perhaps more so than Carpenter, Hill’s preoccupation with a moral code which his male characters in particular are absolutely dependent upon is also an aspect of the western genre that becomes conflated with a Hawksian regard for an innate belief in professionalism, integrity and most importantly, self respect. This is evident in the central character of ‘the cowboy’ (Ryan O’Neal) who treats the role of a getaway driver as one of great social defiance and non conformity. Not only does he invest a disconcerting level of professionalism and sincerity into his work as a driver but the distance he maintains from mainstream society positions him as a rebel. To defend the validity of the moral code upon which the driver depends also elevates his status beyond those around him including the insidious and troublesome police detective played by Bruce Dern.

Melville’s oeuvre was extensive and whilst he had considerable range, his specialism was undoubtedly the crime film genre and ‘Le Samourai’ is today the quintessential Melville film. Hill has said that ‘The Driver’ was a reworking of ‘Le Samourai’ and of course this is reflected in the virtually silent and enigmatic figure of the driver who similarly like Jef Costello (Alan Delon) in Melville’s film also espouses contempt for the law. We even find Ryan O’Neal’s character imitate the blank facial expressions of Delon and his alienation is an aspect of his life that he never wants to reject, instead viewing it as another means of appearing anonymous. In essence, none of the characters in Hill’s film are particularly appealing, in fact, one could argue that they are all flawed in some way and I guess this makes it infinitely more problematic in terms of audience identification. On many occasions, the references to ‘Le Samourai’ are very explicit and Hill’s control over the pace of the film, which unfolds eloquently, also mirrors the minimalism characterising Melville’s films.

Walter Hill started out his career as an assistant director to Peter Yates on the classic crime film ‘Bullitt’. In addition and perhaps more importantly his collaboration with Sam Peckinpah on the ‘Getaway’ in the 1970s established what would become a lifelong authorial fascination with the western genre. With ‘The Driver’, Walter Hill relocates many elements of the western to an urban city environment whilst the conflict between the cop and the criminal replicates a classical thematic collision of ideals. Ryan O’Neal is referred to as ‘the cowboy’ who by mocking his ability to outsmart the police also stresses his marginalized status in society. The film represents the driver as having no attachments whatsoever – the thrill for him resides purely in being able to outsmart the law and also oppose the establishment. The western origins resurface quite strongly in the final moments of the film as Ryan O’Neal succeeds in outsmarting the law and his walking away suggests how the cowboy may have faded from our screens but whose ideals of a solitary existence still remain visible in the image of urban modernity.

The influence of Walter Hill’s film on the work of Mann especially in regards to the construction of the alienated yet dedicated professional loner often goes unacknowledged. Though Hill inherits an austere tradition from Melville who in turn borrows liberally from Japanese samurai mythology, the driver’s adherence to a punishing moral code and lack of emotional attachments prefigures Mann’s morally ambiguous anti-heroes. Ryan O’Neal’s sharply suited, ice cold character is a virtual template for Vincent in ‘Collateral’ and also mirrors Frank in ‘Thief’. One could go back even further, tracing a linage to films like ‘Bullitt’, ‘The Getaway’ and ‘Point Blank’ in which the male characters seem prisoners of a system that offers minimal validation. However, the criminal in many of Mann’s crime films are punished for transgression. This is a very traditional and perhaps even conservative means of preserving social order but in Hill’s film, the criminal is offered a way out whilst the absence of sophistication or skill in the figure of the egocentric police detective makes the character of the driver/cowboy altogether more noble and revolutionary in his intent.

Having already touched upon the film’s relationship with the western, another explicit genre link is with the morally decrepit universe of film noir. The film adheres less to the thematic traits of noir and more to the stylistic signifiers in the form of downtown Los Angeles, neonesque bar rooms, grubby apartments and a fixation with the night. Particularly striking is the film’s use of the desolate city streets of downtown Los Angeles which acts as an impressive visual backdrop for many of the visceral car chases. Yet again, this echoes the work of Mann and especially ‘Collateral’ whilst also predating ‘The Terminator, another film which similarly transforms downtown Los Angeles into a dystopian urban nightmare. This was Walter Hill’s second film as a director and coming in under just ninety minutes; it is a superlative exercise in genre film making. As for Hill, the poor guy still hasn’t been given the recognition he deserves.

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