Walter Hill's spare, economical and heavily Melville influenced The Driver, his second film as director, is one of those films which looks a damn sight better now than it did when first released. That's partly because it's made with a visceral, stripped-down professionalism which is now rare in Hollywood and partly because it's lack of truck with sentimentality or audience expectations is something which we now consider a mark of American cinema from the 1970s. The characters are ciphers and the story is relatively straightforward - a trap set by an obsessive detective to catch a taciturn getaway driver - but the style is utterly stunning from start to finish and the car chases, though lesser known than the ones in Bullitt and The French Connection, are every bit their equal. The film's influence on Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive is probably incalculable and it's certainly very reminiscent of Michael Mann's work, especially Heat.
There are two reviews of this film on The Digital Fix so I direct you to those for more comment - one by Gary Couzens here and one by Kevin Gilvear here.
The Driver was released in 2013 as a limited edition release from the American company Twilight Time. Looking at the two transfers side by side, it's very hard to see any significant difference so I suspect they come from the same master. In particular, the slight greeinsh tinge to the colours is evident here, although I don't find it something to complain about, especially since the flesh tones are so accurate. It's important to say is that this was a grainy film from the outset and so anyone expecting anything else will be disappointed - it was shot on location in conditions of very low light by an absolute master cinematographer. The grain is beautifully reproduced in this transfer which has a film-like appearance throughout. The night exteriors are particularly striking with the vivid neons of downtown LA sometimes promising to burst off the screen. Detail is abundantly present. I'm not entirely sure about the blacks which occasionally seem to lose fine detail but this is a minor problem and certainly not a general one.
Thankfully, no unnecessary fiddling about has been done with the sound. Despite the limitations of the mono format, the sound effects make an incredible impact with squealing tyres and roaring engines often dominating the mix. The minimal dialogue is always clear and sharp.
The extras are brief. There are two trailers, one of them a brief teaser, and an alternative opening sequence. This is not dissimilar to the television opening for A Fistful of Dollars in that it gives completely unnecessary exposition. We find out a bit more about the main characters but that really isn't the point.
I first saw The Driver back in 1980 - at the late, lamented ABC in Harrogate in a double bill with Hooper of all things - and I enjoyed it then without having a clue who Walter Hill was. Watching it now, as a big fan of the director, I can see how its clean lines and ruthless efficiency feed in to his later, more ambitious work. He's still heavily under the influence of his forebears here - Jean-Pierre Melville's work, particularly Le Samourai, and certain key American noir films - but you can already see his interest in the edges and texture as much as the big picture, and his ability to direct action so breathtaking that you almost start to hyperventilate. It's too self-conscious to be a classic film but it's certainly a very good one.