A long shot is of the human body in full view, a medium from torso up, a close-up the face or equivalent part. Humanly derived, these delineations buckle when applied elsewhere. A car in side profile is in long shot, but front on it becomes both a long shot and a close-up of the face of the car – and, when we see the driver inside, a mid shot. The Driver builds its structure from this categorical conflation as the driver’s (Ryan O’Neal) affectless psyche, his steely exterior, intersects with the plot’s crumpling of metal.

All the characters are polished abstractions – the nameless Driver, the Player (Isabelle Adjani), the Detective (Bruce Dern) – and they are brought into alignment through a near linear plot that follows the Driver as he carries out a heist, is set up by the Detective to be caught on another heist, then, knowing it’s a fix, matches the detective and completes the heist. Both are double-crossed by their partner punk villains, leading to violence; then the Driver is betrayed by his money launderer, saving him from arrest by the Detective. There is a situation, a complication, an execution, a resolution. The Detective’s amoral means make him the Driver’s equivalent; their interactions become a game.1 When warned by the Player, the Driver says he’s on a streak; when she claims he’d do it even if no money was at stake, he agrees. When the money is stolen, it confirms this, unwinding the plot. The negative qualities of the punk villains are not so much greed and selfishness, but psychology and the concrete chaos it implies, distracting us from the linear drive of the film.

And this structure, this car frame, lets Walter Hill, in his second film, reach the peak of his austere stylised purifications of Hollywood genres. The car acts as a form of catalyst that allows European art influences to be integrated, synthesised within Hollywood action norms. Its conflation of vehicle and driver, exterior and interior, marries action and thought. In the centrifugal land of road movies, the car becomes a platform for vernacular meditation: avoiding the conceptual shortcuts of the abstracted motorway or flight, the protagonists’ probing exploration of byways and hidden roads mirrors the probing of a mind, the windscreen mediating contact with the presence of the real. In the centripetal environments of urban buildup, the car forms a psychic skin; it both acts as an extension of the body and mediates the relationship between the interiority of the driver and exteriority of the outside world. Foreign objects entering the car mark the intrusion, contagion of the psyche by new or unwelcome thought. When The Player steps, slides into his car, she is penetrating his mind. As interiority becomes incarnate in the exteriority of the car, objectivity and subjectivity become folded together, crumpled together, so that they exist simultaneously on the surface rather than in any depths.

The characters’ affectless visages deny us the sense that we can probe their shifting features for cues towards interiority; instead our attempts slide off onto the surface of the film. Hill’s European, artistic antecedent is Robert Bresson, as mediated by the works of Jean-Pierre Melville. Bresson’s pared-down procedural filmmaking uses the physical to make contact with the metaphysical, his stylised staging, editing and non-acting models drawing attention to the surface of reality. Melville marries this aesthetic with American genre filmmaking. He systematises Bresson’s use of procedure, the unpacking of action, as a means of meditation and focus: the monastic quietude of Bresson’s models becomes a representation of repression. Mirroring Melville,2 Hill borrows these tactics for representing metaphysics and applies them to his genre work. He takes this French amalgam of action and makes it American.

The car POV shots merge the car, the Driver and our perspective into one compound view that takes in the city,3 the Driver’s environment, and our mastery of space, as nooks are explored, vehicles exploited, and maneuvers executed, in Hill’s tautly-constructed car chase sequences. Syncopated editing, pushing forward or against the expected beat of the cut. Linear like funk, the film emphasises rhythm, attack, and the possibility of infinitiely extendable sequences. Bar the occasional brief intervention of astringent jazz horns and light synth pads, the movie is almost entirely absent a soundtrack, or rather its soundtrack is constructed from the squeal of tyre on concrete or the crunch of collapsing metal and brake pads. Dialogue is similarly pared back, bridging sound and staging: though The Driver might not seem like a writer’s film, Hill’s background is as a genre scriptwriter. But rather than work in a maximalist register, his staccato script re-orientates the word in a clipped, minimalist manner. As Dave Kehr observes, the repeated utterance of “Go Home” carefully shifts in meaning in accordance with the context.4 Hill’s careful pauses mirror the syncopated editing of the film; the film’s stripped nature creates the space for moments to be moved around, held, delayed or expanded until the limits of action have been marked out.

* * *

The American Shot, the plan américain, depicts from knees, thighs upwards, clipping away the extraneous elements to focus on the mobility of the human form, its capacity for action, and its potential for expressiveness, and in doing so articulates a French conceptualisation of a Hollywood ideal. A shot of a car, existing as both close-up and long shot, expressive and action shot, acts as an analogue to this ideal. The Driver carries this ideal with him, both in and outside of the car.

 

The Driver (1978 USA 91 mins)

Prod. Co: Twentieth Century Fox Prod: Lawrence Gordon Dir: Walter Hill Scr: Walter Hill Phot: Philip H. Lathrop Ed: Tina Hirsch, Robert K. Lambert Mus: Michael Small Prod Des: Harry Horner Snd: William Hartman, Michael Hilkene, John Kline

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley, Matt Clark, Felice Orlandi, Joseph Walsh, Rudy Ramos, Denny Macko

 

Endnotes

  1. As Dave Kehr astutely observes, the Detective “is a manipulator of ends where O’Neal is an artist of methods” turning the film in someways into an allegory about technique and the poetics of limitations. In: “The Driver” When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 68.
  2. Most noticeably, The Driver recreates multiple scenes from Melville’s perfectionist hitman thriller Le Samuraï (1967).
  3. The City is downtown Los Angeles. But this is the Bunker Hill of after its redevelopment, the downtown Bunker Hill repeatedly seen in noirs is being referenced, but as a ghost, replaced by Spartan towers and space. Marshall Deutelbaum “Harry Horner’s Visual Design Program for Walter Hill’s ‘The Driver’” 16-9 (2012) http://www.16-9.dk/2012-09/side11_inenglish.htm
  4. Kehr, When Movies Mattered pp 67, 69.

About The Author

John Edmond is the Co-Director of the Queensland Film Festival and an Associate Curator (film) at UQ Art Museum. Having completed his thesis on vehicle landscapes at the University of Queensland, he is now working on a forthcoming monograph on Ken Russell’s Altered States.