Friday, January 28, 2011

Good At What He Does

“I’ve always thought that all good movies are westerns in one way or another,” Walter Hill told the sold out crowd at the New Beverly Cinema on January 24. Maybe not the exact quote but that’s close enough, although he allowed for the caveat that he’s not as sure about that theory as he used to be. But even if that statement is something of an exaggeration, don’t you want your action films directed by somebody willing to draw that kind of line in the sand? Isn’t that what love of pure cinema is all about? It was another night of the Edgar Wright-hosted The Wright Stuff II series and the occasion was a screening of his 1978 action film—considering what he said I suppose we should call it an urban western—THE DRIVER. Looking out at the large crowd, Hill commented that it was the largest audience in America the movie ever had, there to see the film with writer/director Hill in attendance along with associate producer Frank Marshall and stars Bruce Dern and Ronee Blakley. Whether it was or not, what got screened was an absolutely beautiful print of a movie that didn't get much attention at the time and deserves to be better known today, one of those seventies films that have undeservedly fallen through the cracks, but survives as a genuine example of individual style from that period. Only his second film as director from a screenplay he wrote himself his skill and confidence as a filmmaker, his own innate Walter Hillness shall we say, is already there, present and accounted for. The effect the movie gives off hangs like smoke in the air through much of its running time as you are simultaneously gripped by the action and hypnotized by the vaguely defined story of characters whose names are never revealed but whose actions say everything we ever need to know about them. It seems deliberately designed to strip everything you’re going to get from this storyline down to its essentials and then once it is as bare as it could possibly be Hill strips it down some more. Supposedly the title character played by Ryan O’Neal only speaks 350 words in the entire film but I’ll bet that if Hill could have figured out a way to make it even less he would have done so.

A nameless getaway driver (“The Driver” – Ryan O’Neal) pulls a job in which he’s seen by a mysterious woman (“The Player” – Isabelle Adjani) but his expertise allows him and his fellow crooks to elude the police. However, the detective hot on his trail (“The Detective” – Bruce Dern) is certain The Driver is the one he’s looking for and is willing to do anything he can to take him down. When The Player refuses to identify The Driver for reasons of her own, The Detective comes up with a plan to enlist certain crooks to pull off a bank robbery he is engineering just so he can take him down once and for all. But The Driver just might be a few steps ahead of their never-ending game of cat and mouse.

It’s easy to see some of the influences beginning with the French crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville and maybe a little of Richard Stark’s Parker in the character of The Driver with the trashing of a bright orange Mercedes playing like a distinctive touch out of POINT BLANK. Some of the elements also feel like they come from different parts of Hill’s own career, including being on the crew of BULLITT—he downplayed this during the discussion, saying he was really just involved with crowd control during the shooting of the famous chase—and some of the train station locker stuff here recalls certain plot machinations of THE GETAWAY which he wrote the screenplay for. With these various influences part of the mix it’s clear that Hill’s unique approach to making action movies is clearly still developing here so it’s not the ultimate Walter Hill film that he might have made out of the basic concept a few years later when there was more confidence in how far he would try to take his stylistic risks. But regardless, there’s still something addictive out of moving through the evocative downtown L.A. of the 70s which has that naturalistic feel of films from the era while seemingly defiant about having nothing to do with reality--The Driver seems to drift alone from job to job, room to room, doing nothing but listening to a little tape recorder playing cowboy music (until the very end, Dern only refers to him as things like ‘cowboy’ and ‘desperado’), waiting for that next time he can prove once again that he’s the best getaway driver around as if forced to exist in some kind of purgatory where he’s the only one who matters. The dumb thugs who actually pull these jobs are never portrayed as the type of true professional he is and the movie seems totally disinterested in the actual robberies anyway—for the most part we just the tail end of them as the crooks in question begin to make their getaways, instead focusing on the driver waiting outside. The movie seems to thrive on that sort of thwarting of expectations—considering how dynamic the chase scenes are and how at one point Dern tells him, “I really like chasing you,” it seems somewhat perverse that the movie is about his pursuit of O’Neal but the two of them are never involved in one of those action scenes together. Just as The Driver spends much of his down time in tiny rooms doing nothing this grinning Cheshire Cat of a cop who believes that the sports page is the best part of the paper because it tells you the winners and losers seems to do all his business out of Torchy’s Bar, waiting to figure out the best way to make his move, to take down this cowboy who’s never been caught, as he puts it.

It’s made all the more odd by the casting—the legendary Dern of course fits perfectly into this mileau, but O’Neal is an odd fit, almost deliberately so. In spite of what his reputation might be to some, I say he’s a good enough actor that I can buy him when he doesn’t flinch as shotguns are being fired at the getaway car he’s driving but he’s still got that lightweight Ryan O’Neal face, making it all the more fascinating how little he really does say and, as Edgar Wright himself pointed out in the discussion, it’s refreshing to see a lead in an action movie who refrains from tossing out a one-liner after blowing somebody away. O’Neal seems to spend almost half his screen time responding to something said to him with just a silent glance followed by him turning and walking away--maybe the best example of that is when asked if he wants to pay an extra dollar for a TV in his crummy hotel room. The very French Adjani feels just as out of place in this environment but the fact that you wonder what she’s doing here makes her that much more intriguing while the honey-voiced Ronee Blakley (as “The Connection”) also doesn’t seem like who would normally be playing this part considering her sweet, down home Shelley Duvall-like demeanor but maybe because I connect her with that 70s Altman aesthetic it seems to fit a little better than O’Neal, one more unexplained quirk that makes the film that much more unique.

Supposedly Steve McQueen was somebody Hill tried to get for the role of The Driver, which is really no surprise at all, but then the whole thing might have come off as somewhat more normal, not quite so idiosyncratic it is now. It plays more than a little like an odd work that is partly European and partly American, partly arthouse and partly drive-in but really, I suppose, just kind of uncut Walter Hill, a pure examination of these fascinating characters who live in a world that occupies his own head. At 91 minutes it’s very short—I’ve seen the film before but on this viewing I was so caught up in the plot that I was actually surprised when I realized we were about to arrive at the conclusion—and it does maybe feel like it’s building to one final chase that doesn’t get to happen, probably the one between the two leads we never get, but its quiet mood lingers in the brain with a cool vibe that you don’t ever want to shake. The guys are cool. The women are cool. For once in a movie, I kind of want to be like Ryan O’Neal, encountering all the elegance that Isabelle Adjani exudes as she wanders around the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. It’s all surrounded by some of the best car chase action through the empty streets of downtown L.A. you can imagine, showing both how good Walter Hill was at doing this sort of thing and how much more effective it was back in those pre-CGI days when it felt like there was actual danger in these stunts—one in particular near the end looks genuinely dangerous. The chases are mostly unscored but the evocative, largely atonal music by Michael Small still feels different from a lot of action films of the time. Either way, THE DRIVER is a deliberately stylized adult fantasy land, framed within that 70s feel so it almost has a feel like nothing else, a world of people who always wear the same outfits, of men who say little, elegantly-dressed women in slacks keeping their attractiveness at play while letting their eyes tell everything. Some of it is about this style that the director puts onscreen more than anything, infusing the characters with that style but some of the Melville films have a similarly unexplainable vibe to them that I remember more than anything else long after I’ve seen them as well. It’s pure cinema in some ways, always willing to express its coolness as an extension of how its maker sees his world. The end hints that this is all going to be a never-ending cycle for these guys and maybe for the director that’s just the way it should be.

While speaking about his star during the discussion Hill had nothing but praise for O’Neal’s performance but allowed that his presence was maybe something the movie was never able to overcome for people, which frankly isn’t at all invalid considering how when Ryan O’Neal shows up you almost automatically expect something else than what’s here. Regardless, there’s not a moment where he betrays the character, letting his eyes do the talking as much as possible and it results in a strong portrayal. As for Dern, holy cow, is he a joy in the film. He’s the one who gets the dialogue and he has a blast with it, talking as much as he can, totally cocky, but still trying to figure things out so he can finally get his man. He clearly loves playing this part and you can tell the audience loved him as well. At one point during the train sequence he takes somebody down and everybody cheered. Why? Because it’s Bruce fucking Dern, that’s why. Adjani exudes a cool sophistication and genuine elegance with just a single glance within scenes while Blakley pops off the screen with her off-kilter nature. Even though she only has a few scenes her last, which trades off a certain kind of deadly silence, is one of the very best and most purely ruthless moments in the entire film. Also appearing as Dern’s fellow cops are the very familiar Matt Clark from BUCKAROO BANZAI as well as a million other things and Felice Orlandi, probably most recognizable from playing Renick in BULLITT.

I’ve seen Bruce Dern speak before at the New Beverly and it’s such a thrill to get to see him again. I could listen to him talk about, well, anything for hours. But Walter Hill? Walter friggin’ Hill? Walter Hill walks the earth? He takes off his sunglasses? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hugely excited to see him there and I doubt that even a complete transcript of the discussion (it doesn’t seem to be on Youtube—wasn’t somebody there taping it?) would adequately indicate the sheer joy of getting to hear these guys talk about how they work together. Even if everything Hill said didn’t totally shed light on things (“I’m not sure I’m smart enough to answer that,” he replied to one of Wright’s penetrating questions about the film’s style) sometimes what he did say was enough. And as the post-film Q&A went on he did seem to warm up to things, speaking of his love for actors, the way the car chases were intricately laid out, the perils of shooting in downtown L.A. back in the 70s. Early on the studio wanted Robert Mitchum to play Bruce Dern’s role and Hill met with the star for about six hours once over some vodka to discuss it and one of Hill’s most emphatic speeches of the night was a long dissection of why Mitchum would have been wrong for both the part and the film. As for Dern, just about every single thing he said spoke of his love for working with Hill and his filmmaking style, sometimes offering praise for a few films that he wasn’t even in and pointing out how at one point in THE DRIVER he holds on an actor during a particularly tense moment, essentially yelling with all the passion of a love for this film imaginable how any other director would have cut the camera right then. Frank Marshall mentioned how he gave up a relaxing summer in Malibu for night shoots downtown and Ronee Blakley spoke about how thrilled she was to see the film again, telling a story about how she felt The Connection should always carry a gun though her director disagreed but I just spent most of the time amazed that Barbara Jean from NASHVILLE was right there. I think I had to restrain myself from going up and bowing down before her because of that. At one point Wright even asked Hill about a certain shot he particularly admired, one where Bruce Dern is waiting for something that isn’t coming with some of his fellow cops in the background, and Hill complimented him for noticing. In some ways, it’s a perfect example of the director’s skill, how he can pack in a huge amount of narrative economy into just a few seconds. In terms of the film’s realism, Hill made no bones about it--the characters never-changing outfits are very much meant to be uniforms that reveal who they are as much as anything and since The Detective’s actions were never meant to represent actual law enforcement procedure there was no advisement along those lines from the police on the film either. The director also wanted Tuesday Weld for the part Isabelle Adjani played but EMI, who had put up half the money, wanted a European name in there and Hill wound up removing some of her dialogue when she had trouble with the English. He offered that it’s her casting as much as anything which he feels contributes to people getting a European vibe from the finished film. Due to its incessantly stark nature I say they would have gotten it anyway, but never mind. Maybe it is a combination of the elements. Maybe it’s just pure, uncut Walter Hill, pure style, pure character, pure cinema.

And it’s clear that the film has itself been imitated more than a few times—Wright pointed out that Hill could probably get some money out of the video game simply called DRIVER and I also couldn’t help but wonder about the similarity between Ryan O'Neal's jacket-and-shirt-no-tie thing and Robert De Niro's look in HEAT--granted, O’Neal keeps a few more of the buttons undone, but still. While looking up stuff on the film afterwards I couldn’t help but notice that Tara King, the frizzy haired hotel clerk here, plays a similar role in 48 HRS. but her hair isn’t quite so frizzy in that film and elements like that along with the recurring use of Torchy’s Bar (according to Hill in the Q&A it was only the real place two of the times he used it) provides a glimpse into the eccentricities in Hill’s work that I think have gone overlooked in people focusing on their sheer kickassness which they do have, no question about it.

The second film of the night was another 70s auto special—Steven Spielberg’s DUEL. That film’s director of course didn’t show up although Wright did read an email he had received from him that day. But as good as that was it was really THE DRIVER which made the impression on me that night along with the experience of hearing what the man who made it had to say. Hill came off as laconic as I sort of expected he would be based on his films and to be honest—I don’t mean this in a bad way at all—I got the feeling that if you got to have dinner with him and had a conversation about life or anything else he wanted to talk about, you’d get some better answers to questions about his films than if you asked him directly. Maybe it’s something I think about more as I get older but I think there’s something to be said about films—any kind of films—that reveal parts of the people who made them and we don’t have to be specifically told why that is. At the least the people at the New Beverly got a small inkling of what a conversation with him would be like so it says something about the genuine admiration from Edgar Wright and that audience I was a part of that he made the decision to return to the theater several nights later for THE WARRIORS, also part of Wright’s series. I don’t know if every good film really is a western or not but there’s something about the experience of getting to see a movie like THE DRIVER with a big crowd that makes you believe that every good film is made by somebody with the kind of passion somebody like Walter Hill can bring to them. Something like that reminds me how much I absolutely love movies.


Blake said...

Damn, sorry I missed this screening--sounds like a lot of fun. Haven't seen this one, it's so hard to track down, but guess I'll have to make more of an effort. Incidentally, I've long admired that poster art. Gorgeous. Ah, the lost art of movie poster illustration.

Unknown said...

Love this film and I'm glad you drew comparisons to Mann and HEAT. Hill's film really feels like it might've been on Mann's fave films and its Spartan aesthetic and no-nonsense attitude and attention to detail about the professions of the characters had a huge impression on Mann. Never heard him talk about Hill in an interview but who knows?

Bruce Dern is a national treasure and he is so good in this film. Nobody motormouths dialogue quite like him and his character acts as a nice contrast to the almost-mute Driver character that Ryan O'Neal plays.

Vic Arpeggio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vic Arpeggio said...

Like I said to you that night, I hope Fox lets this out for a Criterion edition (which has only happened a handful of times, but one can dream) and they do a now-and-then tour of downtown LA, which here, looks a lot like every other generic city you've ever seen. It could be Oakland or Detroit or Wichita. I'm sorry I missed THE WARRIORS. When is the Egyptian going to do a proper Hill tribute? -- Mark

le0pard13 said...

What a great night that must have been, Mr. Peel! THE DRIVER remains one of my fave Walter Hill film's (which means one of fave films... period). I also think this is the best use of Ryan O’Neal as an actor on film... ever. I'm probably being too rough on the guy, but he's alway been limited, IMO. Here, Hill makes that an asset. And yes, McQueen would have made it something altogether different. Perhaps cooler, but different in a way than what distinguishes the film now. I also think Robert Mitchum would not have worked in the cop role (maybe a young Mitchum for the driver would have been the better choice). All in all, this film works just fine as it is. Another of wonderful examinations, my friend (though I remain envious of your attendance at this event). Thanks.

raykilroy said...

great post! I love The Driver... some of my favourite car chase scenes. Would have loved to have heard Dern talk.

Ned Merrill said...

Oy, it's events like this, which make me think I'm on the wrong coast. Love Walter Hill, love Westerns, and I love those films that John Carpenter has dubbed "disguised Westerns," a group, which Hill would likely say THE DRIVER belongs to (this undeniable pervasiveness of the Western is what makes me HATE it when I hear people inanely say, "I like every kind of movies except Westerns.").

For me, THE DRIVER is another of many that gets better with age. The odd casting of O'Neal and Adjani, as you note, has probably worked out in the long run.

And, Dern, man oh man. Gotta love his scenes with CALIFORNIA SPLIT writer Joseph Walsh (as "Glasses"). Dern's dialogue is just so off the wall as when he comments on Walsh's "nice brown corduroy jacket." I have to believe some of this was Dern just riffing as the cameras rolled.

Did Hill make any mention of the supposed longer cut (over 2 hours) that has supposedly played (once) in Hollywood?

Anyone else reminded of classic '70s video game covers, particularly those for Intellivision, when looking at that great one-sheet for THE DRIVER? :

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

These are some terrific comments. Great to know that there are other fans of THE DRIVER out there. It was such a thrill to be there that night and to be in a theater filled with other Walter Hill fans!