Walter Hill’s The Driver was a paragon of the genre that inspired countless other films
Following in the skid-marked tire tracks of Walter Hill’s cult 1978 film The Driver are a lot of films you’ve definitely seen: Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill: Vol II, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Edgar Wright’s latest heist flick Baby Driver, which beat out Transformers: Whichever One We’re On Now at the box office last weekend. Baby Driver is about a getaway driver, played by Ansel Elgort, who is inflicted with tinnitus. To combat the constant ringing in his ears, he drowns it out with music. The original Hill getaway flick that Baby Driver is loosely based on is a paragon of the car chase genre. The film owes so much to The Driver that Walter Hill has a voice cameo in Baby Driver.
In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega skids out with Mia Wallace in the passenger’s seat, having OD’ed on cocaine, in a facsimile of the opening chase scene in The Driver. Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill: Vol II is described as “the cowgirl (who) ain’t never been caught”; similarily, in The Driver, the main character is described as “the cowboy who could not be caught” in the script. “The difference between what I'm doing and what Hill did is that he plays his tough-guy existentialism straight, and I don’t have the guts to go all the way,” Tarantino is quoted as saying in Jason Bailey’s Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece.
As for Nicolas Winding Refn lifting the idea for his hit film Drive (2011), Hill addressed it in an interview, saying, “It’s a very different movie. It has certain things, as Nic has told me, that are homage and that’s fine. It’s very complimentary. I bear him no animosity or anything. I think he’s a remarkably talented guy and quite like him.” In a recent Reddit AMA, Edgar Wright nodded to his inspiration for Baby Driver by recommending fans check out Hill’s seminal film. “The Last of Sheila, The Driver, The Super Cops (1973)” he writes in response to the question: “What three films do you wish you could bring much wider attention?”
“The difference between what I'm doing and what Hill did is that he plays his tough-guy existentialism straight, and I don’t have the guts to go all the way” – Quentin Tarantino
This is the same Walter Hill who made actual cult film The Warriors (1979), about gangs in New York who have to move through the boroughs, battling it out with rival factions in order to get back to Coney Island. The same Walter Hill who made Hard Times – which some argue inspired Refn’s Bronson (2008) – about a drifter who becomes an illegal prize fighter. Or Southern Comfort (1981), where a group of National Guards have to fight off Cajuns after they jack their canoes. And despite lead actor Michael Paré’s bad acting, Streets of Fire (1984) is a much maligned work in Hill’s vast action oeuvre. (If you were ever to watch a film based solely on the poster, this one is it). What I’m saying is, this man laid the groundwork for many directors who have eaten his dust, so to speak.
None of the characters have names. This is how the Driver is described in the script. “The Driver: Lives alone. Chauffered getaways for 12 years. Best Wheelman in the city. Works off the street. Never asks a question. Always wears a dark suit. And never wears a tie.” Sounds badass, right? In The Driver, the Driver says 350 words. The Detective is always trying to pin him down, but like any decent chauffeur, he always gets away. The Driver is played by Ryan O’Neal of Paper Moon and Love Story fame, though the part was originally written for Steve McQueen.
The Driver was itself based loosely on Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Le Samouraï, which employs a similar set-up wherein an assassin is involved with a reluctant witness of the crime. The Driver is underrated, even within Hill’s own filmography, and its influence is still boosting the box office. I never stopped smiling throughout the runtime of Baby Driver. It’s insane to think how Wright planned out each scene, each shot, almost in reaction to the music. But as for the plot, the high-octane chases are running on fumes from Walter Hill’s early work. The Driver still holds up as one of the most exciting car chase films of all time, and it’s worth a watch.
Baby Driver is out in cinemas now