The Driver (1978)

The Driver. Walter Hill. The director’s best early work, an update on cops and robbers that favors the robber. The cop, in this case Bruce Dern at his most electrically frenzied as a detective gone bad, matches wits with the outlaw, the titular ‘driver’, played by Ryan O’Neal. The characters remain nameless archetypes. LA by night is lensed straight from the noir playbook in heavy chiaroscuro and what, especially in our current digital age, seems like especially luminous 35mm film; the late seventies décor is so harshly lit that everyone’s hair appears to be made of Brillo. Some of the best car chases ever filmed contrast with performances that remain opaque and stagey. O’Neal must have been going through an especially deep cocaine and Quaalude interlude: his performance is stiffer than his usual wooden caricatures. But it works. He personifies a man incapable of emotion,  a machine that only comes alive when he drives. As an exploration of the outlaw ethos, the movie remains unsurpassed in Hill’s oeuvre. Pop culture bonus: The femme fatale is played by stunning Isabelle Yasmine Adjani, who also plays Lucy in Werner Herzog’s visionary remake of Nosferatu AND stars in the Luc Besson/Christopher Lambert cult classic Subway. Wow!

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