Having experienced his screenwriting debut with Hickey & Boggs in 1972, Walter Hill went on to pen several thematically diverse films – from the Ryan O’Neal and Jacqueline Bisset comedy The Thief Who Came to Dinner to John Huston’s neo-noir spy thriller The Mackintosh Man, the most prominent of which was definitely Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway. The Steve McQueen-powered action thriller made a substantial box office splash, and its success not only further strengthened Walter Hill’s screenwriting credentials, but it also came in handy regarding the scriptwriter’s ambition to step under the spotlight and start directing films. “I think in casual conversation I would have told anybody I wanted to direct,” he revisited this period in his interview for the Directors Guild of America. “At the same time I knew Hollywood was a closed-off place… It was much harder to get it. (…) If I was going to direct, I was going to write my way in. No TV, no play, I was simply somebody who said I have a sensibility, I think I can do this, based on nothing other than my scripts basically.” When he met producer Lawrence Gordon back in 1973, a window of opportunity soon opened: Gordon agreed to give him a chance in the director’s chair if he wrote a screenplay for him. Knowing the possible consequences of blowing his first chance, Hill soon came up with Hard Times, a crime neo-noir film about a drifter in the Great Depression era who starts competing in illegal bare-knuckled boxing. After five or six rewrites the script was ready, and Charles Bronson seized the lead role: the stage was set for Hill’s career twist. The film was a hit, with the likes of Roger Ebert calling it “a powerful, brutal film containing a definitive Charles Bronson performance”, but this is actually not the time to delve deeper into the picture. The reason why Hard Times is so consequential in the context of this little write-up is the fact that it gave birth to another classic, initially much disputed. It was during the production of Hard Times that Lawrence Gordon suggested to Hill that they should maybe make a film about a getaway driver. “That started the wheels turning,” Hill recalled with a suitable pun. In the summer of 1975, in the hiatus between the finished production of Hard Times and its scheduled premiere, Hill wrote The Driver, a minimalistic action film about a professional getaway driver and his cat-and-mouse game with a determined detective eager to put him behind bars. One of the most iconic movies of the seventies was thus conceived under unusual circumstances and ended up in the hands of its directorially inexperienced author, but what’s unusual about Hill’s second directing job isn’t its timing – it’s the freshness and peculiarity of Hill’s idea and execution.
During that time, Britain-stationed production company EMI Films started to co-finance Hollywood films intended for international distribution and they gave The Driver the green light under the condition a film star with a resonant reputation comes on board. Since Hill wrote the screenplay with his The Getaway man, Steve McQueen, in mind, the American actor was naturally approached immediately, but declined to participate in another car-themed picture. The second choice was Charles Bronson, but it seems he held a grudge against his Hard Times director. “We had kind of a falling out over the film,” Hill explained. “He thought I’d been a little too… how do I put this? Too draconian in my editing of his wife’s (Jill Ireland) scenes.” Years later, Hill acknowledged the script failed to attract any big names for about a year and a half. Luckily enough, the Hail Mary play came from none other than Ryan O’Neal. Even though O’Neal built a name for himself within the specific fields of comedy and romance movies, he wanted a shot and urged Hill to a meeting. He felt he could do it and understood the minimalistic, stylistically specific approach Hill wanted to use, and the director agreed because they “got comfortable with each other”. Of course, the fact that O’Neal’s name on the cover was a one-way ticket to production certainly didn’t hurt. The Driver’s destiny was finally kickstarted.
The two other central pieces of the casting puzzle were soon solved with the inclusion of Isabelle Adjani and Bruce Dern. Adjani gained international fame with The Story of Adele H and was immediately bombarded with offers from the States, but turned all of them down. The reason she agreed to finally make her transition to Hollywood was Hill himself, as she turned out to be a fan of Hard Times. “I think he is wonderful, very much in the tradition of Howard Hawks, lean and spare,” she explained at the time what attracted her to Hill. “The story is contemporary but also very stylized, and the roles that Ryan and I play are like Bogart and Bacall.” After Robert Mitchum passed on the offer to play The Driver’s main antagonist, Hill landed on Bruce Dern, and it was by no accident. “I wanted Bruce’s personality. Audiences get nervous about movies that don’t have a lot of dialogue. (…) They like a balance. I wanted Bruce to very much offset the distance of The Driver.” The budget was approved, the cast was assembled and the time has come for Hill to direct his sophomore film.
A quiet, blonde man with a determined look steals a car and at the arranged time arrives in front of a casino. A couple of moments later, two armed men wearing masks jump into his car and they drive off, soon followed by a bunch of police vehicles. Without saying a single word or basically changing his facial expression, the driver swirls the car around the streets of Los Angeles, elegantly avoiding traffic at high speed and disregarding every possible driving regulation. One by one he gets rid of the police escort, usually by making them crash into a wall or a container. He seems emotionless, driving not so much by instinct but by routine, leaving the impression he knows every corner of the city by heart. He’s a coldblooded professional. During the narrow escape from the law, however, the two criminals in the back seat are representing us in the audience: excited, kind of scared and in awe of the driver’s undeniable skill. The first words from The Driver’s mouth hit us somewhere at the 16th minute. Luckily for us, we’re introduced to a detective squad who quickly give us a wider context and we get some expositional information that the driver’s not that generous with: he’s done it again, the “cowboy” successfully pulled another job and got away with it, further cementing his reputation as the uncatchable fantom. But The Detective doesn’t even think about giving up; utterly determined to catch The Driver, he doesn’t mind bending and breaking the law to finish his mission. This stubborn, relentless Art Garfunkel keen on holding a grudge wants his trophy: he’ll be the man who takes the cowboy’s hat and he’s willing to bet everything on it, risking his badge in the process. He comes up with a risky plan of pulling a bank job to catch The Driver in the act and starts a thrilling game of cat and mouse, with The Player, a young woman willing to help out The Driver for financial purposes, stuck in between as the heat rises and the stakes become higher by the minute.
The brilliantly directed action sequences aside, what makes this movie a great one is the intense relationship that lies in its center, perfectly summed up when The Detective tells The Driver how he “really likes chasing him”. In another scene, when his colleague rightfully objects to his methods and the shady plan of capturing The Driver, The Detective remains as determined as ever. “It wouldn’t be any fun if the cowboy walked right into it, would it?” he asks with a smile on his face. He enjoys the hunt, wants it to last, lives for the thrill of it, and rushes onward as stubbornly as Ahab, seeing all of it as nothing more than a game in which he must prevail over his opponent. The Driver, to no surprise, may not say it explicitly, but finds just as much satisfaction as his hunter. He sees it as a new challenge, an additional test of his abilities. He doesn’t even care about the money. “I might even send it to him,” he tells the concerned Player. It’s a wonderfully crafted, adrenaline-pumped clash of two insurmountable egos.
“Had I not been shooting The Warriors at the time, I don’t think my career would have survived,” the filmmaker commented much later when asked to look back at the film. The American audience wasn’t ready for Hill’s experiment, but as much of a failure as it was perceived back then, The Driver still successfully navigates the lists of the most important and influential films of the period.
Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Walter Hill’s screenplay for The Driver [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Page one of Walter Hill’s screenplay for ‘The Driver.’ Dated May 23rd 1977
In the downtown Los Angeles of the late 1970s, a man known only as the Driver picks up criminals and drops them off for a living. A man known only as the Detective puts guys like the Driver away for a living. The Driver finds the two locked in a near-abstract battle of will and technique, no meaning asked, none given, casting the city in its most basic elements—its roads, its bank, its flophouse, its train station, its outlaws in the form of sheriff, gambler, and cowboy—as a modernized yet archetypal western setting. The video essays of Los Angeles, the City in Cinema examine the variety of Los Angeleses revealed in the films set there, both those new and old, mainstream and obscure, respectable and schlocky, appealing and unappealing—just like the city itself. —Colin Marshall
A vintage making-of featurette, Making of The Driver.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Walter Hill’s The Driver.