The Driver (Ryan O'Neal) is the best getaway man in the business, and at $10,000 a job – plus 15 percent of the take – the most expensive. On his trail is The Cop (Bruce Dern), who is willing to break any rule in his bid to catch his quarry.
Walter Hill had already proved he was a dab hand with the car chase thriller by writing the screenplay for Peckinpah’s The Getaway in 1972, but while that film was lengthy and somewhat rambling, The Driver is a tight 90 minutes without an ounce of fat on its bones. This was Hill’s second film as director and remains one of the seventies’ most enigmatic thrillers, its tone pitched somewhere between classic noir and French new wave.
None of the characters are given names – the credits reveal them to be The Driver, The Cop, The Player and so on – and there’s no background or build-up to any of the relationships. The Cop wants to catch The Driver because he is constantly eluded – it’s the chase that excites him, and he considers the whole business a game. The Driver drives simply because he is good at it – we know nothing about him, other than the fact that he moves from one shabby hotel to another and has no acquaintances outside of the criminal underworld. The Player is a beautiful young woman with her own agenda played by Isabelle Adjani, who gets drawn into The Driver’s world after refusing to name him in a police line-up, while other characters include ‘Glasses’ and ‘Teeth’, a pair of shady hoods who are blackmailed by The Cop into setting a trap for The Driver.
Steve McQueen may have looked pretty good behind the wheel in Bullitt and The Getaway, but no one drives a car like Ryan O'Neal – the guy barely breaks a sweat while racing straight into on-coming traffic, and performs some ridiculously tricky manoeuvres with the nonchalance of man walking his dog. O'Neal has very few lines but acres of cool, while Dern cuts a hilariously creepy figure has his motor-mouthed nemesis – the guy has so little regard for proper police procedure that you start to wonder how he’s ever kept his job.
There have been longer and more spectacular car chases on film, but few with the sheer level of breathless verve as the ones Hill orchestrates here. They’re expertly edited, constantly cutting between driver close-ups, overhead and POV shots, and Hill refrains from setting them to music; the roar of the engines and screeching of tyres provide their own soundtrack. It’s rare for a thriller to put action and atmosphere ahead of plot and still manage to thrill, but The Driver does so comprehensively.