The B-movie form begins and ends with Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). It’s the blueprint genre picture; a year zero for the modern cult canon. When the French Nouvelle Vague repurposed the American genres of the thirties and forties for the intellectual classes of the Parisian sixties, they gave the forms a new lease of life by burdening them with existential malaise and a heavy sense of ennui. While these elements carried over to New Hollywood, Hill brought the grit back to the B-movie. The Driver is a film of types and trends; a cinematic expression of our basest narrative impulses. Directed with remarkable economy, the seasoned Hill keeps everything as tight as possible.
In the beginning of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), text appears on screen from Bushido, the Book of the Samurai: “There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle”. This is the basis of Ryan O’Neal’s driver in Hill’s picture. He steals cars and is hired to drive them as getaway vehicles in heists across Los Angeles. Pursued by an increasingly desperate detective (Bruce Dern), The Driver becomes embroiled in an elaborate set-up intended to trap him. There are no names, just types; The Driver, The Detective, The Player. It’s entirely in keeping with the film’s no-frills manifesto, but it also suggests a more ambitious purpose for Hill. Structurally, the film plays out as an instruction manual for the B-movie, a by-product of which is some incisive genre commentary.
The characters are outlines that sublimate their cinematic predecessors. But, as Hill relies on audience familiarity with genre history to fill the gaps, they feel fully-formed. We project our own expectations onto them, emphasising the dichotomy between the film the director makes and the one we see. His is as lean as they come; ours is loaded with decades of viewing experience. Hill is quoted as saying that every film he’s made is a Western. He called it “a stripped down moral universe that is, whatever the dramatic problems are, beyond the normal avenues of social control and social alleviation of the problem, and I like to do that even within contemporary stories”. It’s exactly how The Driver plays out, with its countless western allusions and sheriff/outlaw narrative arc, but Hill sells himself somewhat short.
There’s also a pulsating thriller at the heart of the picture. Indeed, The Driver boasts two of the finest car chases this side of The French Connection (1971). It’s testament to Hill’s directorial ability that the tensest of these chases happens when both cars are actually in second gear. There’s no music in these scenes; just engine roars and burning rubber. It’s a film constructed for new directors to re-fashion and re-purpose. In 2011, Danish enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn did just that with Drive. What would O’Neal have looked like in that satin jacket?