The Driver

(1978) *** 1/2 R
91 min. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Director: Walter Hill. Cast: Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani.

/content/films/4549/1.jpgThough he has never really risen in appreciation above cult status, Walter Hill has remained a steadily stylish presence in the idiom of action cinema. His genres of concern tend to be the Western and the urban crime drama, and the twain meet in neo-noir The Driver. A primary inspiration for Nicholas Winding Refn's 2011 picture Drive, Hill's well-oiled machine stars Ryan O'Neal as a laconic "cowboy desperado" locked in conflict with Bruce Dern's self-appointed sheriff.

The stripped-down quality of The Driver isn't avoidance: Hill is after blood-simplicity, an actions-speak-louder-than-words exhibition match of two men with personal codes that are at odds but also clearly twinned. O'Neal's The Driver and Dern's The Detective engage in a winner-take-all conflict for supremacy, a pissing contest—played for top-prize masculinity and intimate, implicative bragging rights—that Isabelle Adjani's Player calls a "sucker's game." The Player, a casino dealer, has witnessed O'Neal at his criminal work as a getaway driver, and so she is wanted by both men for non-sexual reasons. But men are men, and women are women, so the men's apparent lack of sexual interest ain't necessarily so (though certainly more possessive than passionate), and The Player's stated motivation of money (pointedly, to escape the control of another, unseen man) may not be the end of her interest, either.

Much goes unstated in The Driver, and it's an amusing irony that Hill trimmed from the film some unnecessary dialogue that says as much. In the film's alternate opening, Dern's character instructs his new partner, "When you're talkin', you're not thinkin'. Never talk—unless you have to." Both men place their pride in being the best at what they do, and they equally disdain the unprofessional and admire the professional in others. We don't see much in the way of bad police work (though The Detective's crew allow themselves to be ineffectual bystanders to Dern's alpha male), but the story does make room for foils to O'Neal's Driver: a terrible getaway driver and, later, a worthy opponent for the climactic car chase.

Though cat-and-mouse theatrics fill out the story, The Driver is not-surprisingly defined by its amazing driving sequences, one per act. Like Drive, The Driver begins with a job that involves evading multiple police cars and sets the plot in motion. The second scene fascinatingly involves one car chasing its tail to send a message: about the Driver's virtuosity and his unwillingness to be toyed with, at least on anyone else's terms. The climax returns to a literal chase dynamic as the Driver—with the Player at shotgun—dead-set on resolving his plan-gone-wrong. Hill gets evocative performances all around (also of note: Ronee Blakely's no-nonsense Connection), but it's the astonishing stunt work where the rubber meets the road.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono

Street date: 7/23/2013

Distributor: Twilight Time

California-based Twilight Time makes available classic films in editions strictly limited to 3,000 units (distributed exclusively by Screen Archives Entertainment). Overseen in large part by star archivists Nick Redman and Mike Matessino, these releases all feature fresh hi-def treatment that includes isolated score tracks and six-page color booklets with original publicity shots, poster art, and excellent liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo. Twilight Time selects neglected titles and makes the studio's home entertainment divisions offers they can't refuse: let Twilight Time handle the releases and cater to an audience of devoted film collectors. So far the strategy seems to be working out nicely: as the titles move toward selling out, they become hotter and hotter collectibles.

Twilight Time's rock-solid transfer of this Fox-sourced title is a beauty, carefully preserving a filmic look with unobtrusive grain, natural color, and excellent detail, even in the film's constant shadows. The source is entirely clean, despite the film's age, making for an entirely pleasurably viewing experience. There's nothing remotelty distracting about the sound, either, despite the inherent limits of a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track. It's nicely balanced, with potent screeching-brake and crunching-metal sound effects, and clear rendering of dialogue and music when they're around.

In addition to Kirgo's always sterling liner notes, the disc itself offers a few extras: the film's "Alternate Opening" (3:20, HD), which amounts to a couple of deleted scenes, and "Trailer" (2:26, SD), as well as an Isolated Score Track (HD) presenting Michael Small's dated but nevertheless effective score.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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