1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

The Driver (1978)

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Director/Screenwriter: Walter Hill

By Roderick Heath

Night and the city. Sulphurous hues of street lamps and luminous neon hieroglyphs. Clammy sex in fetid hotel suites. Feverish gambling in the small back rooms. Bloody battles in grimy alleys and warehouses. Walter Hill’s filmography most readily calls to mind such textures, although he just as often ventured out into the dusty west or into the iron and concrete jungles of prisons. Hill seemed set for a major film career as he rose up the ranks as a screenwriter, penning films like The Getaway (1972) and The Mackintosh Man (1973) for classical hard-asses Sam Peckinpah and John Huston. Hill debuted as a director with Hard Times (1975), and scored big hits with The Warriors (1979) and 48 Hours (1982), as well as producing and penning instalments of the Alien series. Hill resembled some other filmmakers who emerged around the same time, including Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and John Milius, in his range of inspirations and stylistic reflexes, his love for old-school storytelling virtues and a love of tough guy mystique contradicted by an urge to search for instability behind the façade, mediated by an attempt to mate such reflexes with a sense of updated immediacy and realism, and a near-anthropological interest in people on the fringes of society. Hill loves tales of people trying to survive hostile landscapes be they rural or urban, exploring that theme overtly in The Warriors, Southern Comfort (1981), and Trespass (1992), often limiting the scope of his action to a brief and concentrated timespan redolent of classical drama: even Aliens (1986), although realised by James Cameron, took an essential Hill template for its story.

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The Warriors, almost certainly Hill’s best-known and most-loved film, manages to seem at once palpable and stylised, mating myth-history and comic book aesthetics with a pungent sense of place and physical immediacy in sustaining its own little cordoned world. Hill’s love of the textures of ‘50s noir and rock’n’roll flicks eventually drove him to make Streets of Fire (1984), a film conjured almost entirely in an argot of retro tropes. Despite what seemed to be Hill’s commercially amenable fascination with pulp fiction mores, he proved at odds with the increasingly fantastical tone of the evolving action blockbuster, rendering his box office touch scattershot. Like some of his fellows, Hill stumbled in the late 1980s. He made ill-received attempts to expand out of his genre comfort zone with the comedy Brewster’s Millions (1985) and the rock musical Crossroads (1986). Hill’s turn towards revisionist Westerns in the mid-1990s, with Geronimo: An American Legend (1994) and Wild Bill (1995), was also met with general apathy, but they were interesting and textured works that informed Hill’s later role in creating the cult TV show Deadwood. His attempt to reunite Yojimbo (1961) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with their American roots as Last Man Standing (1996) was unfortunately a distressingly dreary entry, and his first two films of the new millennium, Supernova (2000) and Undisputed (2002), were dumped in release. But Hill’s sporadic late-career efforts Bullet to the Head (2012) and The Assignment (2017) have their virtues as self-consciously trashy sketches of auteurist humour.

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Hill’s The Driver, his second film, sits at the intersection of filmic avenues, a gritty, terse, nasty chimera, part movie-brat assimilation of old film noir and westerns, part quintessential study in 1970s streetwise verisimilitude. In many ways it’s Hill’s most restrained and minimalist film, like its hero operating on a high-band wavelength often bordering on the subliminal, and it was met by general critical and audience bemusement upon release. But it’s become enshrined as an inescapable influence on subsequent neo-noir cinema. The Driver made an immediate and unmistakeable impact on Mann’s style as purveyed in his debut Thief (1981), and echoes in labours by filmmakers occupying the crossroads of independent and genre cinema, including Jim Jarmusch, Jeremy Saulnier, and Quentin Tarantino’s LA crime films, particularly Jackie Brown (1997). It’s received overt homages in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017), and some of its visual imprimatur can also be detected in films as disparate as Repo Man and The Terminator (both 1984). The Driver’s failure to connect in its day must have felt especially bitter and ironic given it seems to designed to at once ride the wave of popularity for action films built around car chases, borne out of the popularity of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), and to provide a sharply different approach to and anatomisation of the mystique of this certain kind of movie.

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Anticipating The Warriors in depicting the flotsam of a nocturnal existence engaged in primal battles the sunlit world never knows, The Driver also retained Hard Times’ portrayal of exile-in-society antiheroes, whilst moving beyond the immediate sway of Peckinpah and Huston. The Driver saw Hill emulating Jean-Pierre Melville and his particularly Gallic brand of crime movie with its glaze of existential cool and alienation chic as exemplified by Le Samouraï (1967), and his inclusion of French actress Isabelle Adjani tipped a hat to the influence. It made sense then that just about the only film market The Driver initially scored a hit in was France. Hill’s efforts in marrying high-powered chase action with a spare, existential, rather European vibe had also been strongly anticipated by Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run (1971), but Hill brought the style back home and rooted it firmly in a bracingly intense and intimate feel for the seamy backwaters of Los Angeles and the traditions of American underworld portraiture. Often it feels as much informed by the likes of Nelson Algren and Edward Hopper as classic noir. The first glimpse of the film’s antihero, known only as The Driver (Ryan O’Neal), comes with a mythopoeic note, as we see him rising out of the underworld – riding an escalator up into a car park where he selects a car to break into with a specially-made key, and drives out into the Los Angeles night.

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Hill cuts to the interior of a casino, a space of phony-plush cool where Adjani’s character, known as The Player, plays as the dealer in a card game with an expression of intense ennui, waiting out the night’s games with fellow gamblers seeking the elusive charge of fortune but currently only receiving static. These two disparate citizens of the nocturnal world soon prove to be linked, as a pair of masked hoodlums (Nick Dimitri and Bob Minor) burst into the casino, assault a security guard, and make off with the bank. The Player, leaving the casino, hovers near the rear entrance and seems to fix on The Driver as he sits parked and waiting, having already smashed through a wooden barrier to access the rear of the building. The robbers dash out and climb aboard with The Driver, who begins a dash through the LA downtown, streets close to deserted in the wee small hours save cop cars that come blazing out of the shadows and give chase. The Driver’s innate genius is proven as he eludes, outruns, and wrecks his pursuers, as well as his bullish refusal to be cornered or intimidated, as he charges headlong at a pair of oncoming cruisers, defying the bullets that glance off the windscreen, and forces them to swerve and crash, much to the chagrin of his charges. After being sure of their escape, The Driver dumps the stolen car in a car graveyard, and curtly informs the thieves, after they’ve given him his share of the loot, that they won’t be working together again: “You were late.”

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The Driver’s latest escapade stirs the city’s most fearsome hunting dog out of his kennel: The Detective (Bruce Dern) is first glimpsed playing pool by himself in a tavern, itching for an opponent worth of his mettle. The Detective scarcely conceals his delight when he finds The Driver has left behind his fashioned key as a taunting calling card: “Cowboy,” one his partners notes, to The Detective’s reply, “No shit.” The Detective knows well who The Driver is and his desire to nab him ratchets up to an obsessive register: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” The Detective has The Driver brought in and shown off to witnesses from the casino: most state they didn’t get a good look at him, except for The Player, who states categorically that he isn’t the man. The Player, it soon turns out, was specifically courted to play the misdirecting witness by The Connection (Ronee Blakely), The Driver’s agent who finds him jobs, and The Driver breaks with his usual hygienic protocols to pay The Player off personally, perhaps because he’s attracted to her but also perhaps sensing she’s to play some unknown role in his looming battle with The Detective.

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This link seems to be confirmed by the Fates as The Detective comes to call on The Player in her upscale apartment whilst The Driver is speaking with her. The Detective leans on The Player, knowing full well what her function in the game is, and rattling her cage when she defies him with all her languid cool: “Of course there was that one little scrape. That kind of nasty one. The one that got swept under the rug?” True to the roguish proclivities of the 1970s zeitgeist (and now?) as well as to Hill’s efforts to blend schools old and revisionist, Hill offers The Driver as an admirable figure despite his criminal profession, a man who operates definitively according to a silently enforced code of behaviour both in himself and expected of others, whilst The Detective is a ripe bastard in representing law and order. O’Neal’s inhabiting of a stern, taciturn, rigorously professional persona is pitted against Dern’s depiction of a man who likes talking, if to specific effect. The Detective’s pleasure in goading and provoking and showing off his mastery manifests with sadistic concision as he tries to fracture The Driver’s hard shell by tossing hot coffee on his hands whilst they converse, and then daring his foe to punch him at the cost of two years in prison. The Driver’s bone-deep self-control asserts itself and he pulls back from landing the blow.

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The Detective has two partners in his roving crime squad, the ‘Red Plainclothesman’ (Matt Clark) and the ‘Gold Plainclothesman’ (Felice Orlandi). The former is a relative newcomer to the team who feels uneasy when confronted by The Detective’s methods and attitude, making plays at challenging The Detective’s confidence and assurance as it becomes clear the senior cop will contemplate breaking rules and laws to achieve his objective as well as abusing and humiliating people. The Detective responds to Red’s weak resistance with a mix of disdainful amusement and friendly-aggressive mentorship: “You’re a loser. But I think you’d like to be a winner.” The Detective eventually decides the best and most efficient way to catch The Driver red-handed is to set up a bank robbery himself. He fixes on a pair of sleazy stick-up men, ‘Glasses’ (Joseph Walsh) and ‘Teeth’ (Rudy Ramos), whose most recent job was robbing a pharmacy, and are in need of a new getaway driver because their current one, Fingers (Will Walker) has become erratic, despite having once been good enough to have been in on another job with The Driver as his back-up. The glimpse Hill offers of Glasses, Teeth, and Fingers in action together summarises their essential natures and potential dangers in deft strokes: Glasses loses him temper for little good reason, Teeth shoots out the windows of the pharmacy to make a big noise and intimidate for equally little reason, and the rattled Fingers speeds away in crazed style, almost careening into an oncoming truck and sideswiping a parked car.

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The Driver neither entirely adheres to old-school generic niceties nor strains to deflower them in the manner of something like Chinatown (1974). The characters operate according to their natures and functions, signalled by their reduction to systemised generic titles rather than names and the disinterest in defining them according to their biographies. But are ultimately all forced to confront the hollowness of their actions. Not for the last time in his oeuvre, Hill’s characters here resemble honed metaphors for life as an on-the-make Hollywood creative. Plotting colossal projects and living transfiguring dreams whilst subsisting in ratty apartments, trying to retain maverick ethics whilst surrounded by sharks and lowlifes, to smuggle through personal statements under the nose of authority. Hill’s most recent film The Assignment tweaked the figuration to offer the mad scientist villain as the easily bored and maliciously talented artist figure, but here The Driver’s ethic as a practitioner of a rarefied art accords perfectly with Hill’s method in his, trying to hone every shot, word, and gesture down to a pure and essential form. Most of the characters and their interactions embody Hill’s screenwriting precepts. Relevant information, no chit-chat; gestures and skills mean more than words. The Detective’s privilege is indicated as the relative spendthrift with talk, although his use of them likewise has a sense of effect.

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A year before Werner Herzog cast her in his remake of Nosferatu, Adjani seems present in a different kind of vampiric drama and similarly cast for the almost hallucinatory quality of her beauty rather than the volatility that had made her an instant star in Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). The Player, like The Driver, is someone entirely immersed in a hardboiled world although she occupies a higher end of the scale for the time being, her apartment a sleek and pricey abode that seems to hover high above the LA night, albeit one just as sparsely furnished and almost shell-like as any of the dives The Driver inhabits, signalling she’s another one ready to flee at a second’s notice. The first glimpse of The Player, dealing in a poker game in the casino, registers her as both an uncommon presence and one utterly bored, compelling the eye and deflecting it at once. The Player explains her motives for getting mixed up with his business to The Driver when he visits her with casual, almost fatalistic concision, stating that the apartment is paid for by some occasional high-roller lover but “lately the cheques haven’t been so regular.” Her and The Driver’s relationship is transactional in stated terms, as The Detective’s threats oblige The Player to push The Driver in turn to make sure he can make it worth her while to maintain his alibi.

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But some arc of attraction seems to also spark between the pair, sufficient to draw The Driver to her and vice versa in risky ventures, each cognisant of the other as both a danger and also a bird of the same feather, intense and disinclined to large gestures, speaking language through their piercing gazes instead. “Cowboy music,” The Player notes as she visits The Driver’s seamy flat: “Always tells a story. Drunks, whores, broken hearts.” Hill’s thumbnail for the appeal of genre storytelling, a certain brand thereof at least, one preoccupied by the losers and outsiders amidst American life. The Driver, despite being in a lucrative line of work who’s been working heavily, subsists in the crummy grandeur of cheap hotel rooms with inexpressibly hideous peeling teal paintwork. It’s a lifestyle The Detective notes with a certain level of approval as a sign of The Driver’s dedication and intelligence, living in a manner that offers no hint of secret wealth or indeed any signs of actual life: “Boy, you’ve got it down real tight. So tight there’s no room for anything else.” Despite his seemingly unswerving realism and professionalism The Driver nonetheless eventually reveals motives fuelled by something more elusive, including a belief in a run of luck – “I’m riding a wave” – that must be followed to its end as if he too is a gambler, one playing his game with the universe.

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The criminals The Detective selects to play out the necessary roles in his master plan immediately irritate The Driver when they try to commission him, seeing in them the precise qualities The Driver disdains. “How do we know you’re that good?” Teeth demands when The Driver names his high price when he meets with them in a car park. The Driver immediately and vengefully demonstrates to them his quality by taking over the criminals’ Mercedes and driving it pell-mell around the car park, slamming it against walls and columns, terrifying his passengers and leaving the car a battered wreck, before turning down their offer. The Driver’s antagonism with Teeth ratchets still higher when the criminal turns up on the landing outside his apartment, brandishing a massive revolver to bully him into signing on. The Driver nonetheless remains profoundly unimpressed, at first challenging Teeth to pull the trigger and then, after meeting his gaze for many moments in a staring contest, socking him in the jaw and throwing him down the stairs. “I just wanted to talk,” Teeth groans to The Driver’s cold reply, “You did.” Glasses goes to meet with The Detective to confess failure in obtaining The Driver’s services, whereupon The Detective calmly sets about arranging it himself by visiting The Driver in his apartment and challenging him to engage in the contest, even returning to him his lock pick.

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This key confrontation sees the two characters conversing in hard glares, the stakes and connections unspoken and yet stated through semaphore of body language and attitude, with The Driver signalling his acceptance of the game by taking the key. O’Neal had emerged as a major star with the success of Love Story (1970) and he followed it up with hits like What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973), and stretched himself to great effect with Barry Lyndon (1975). O’Neal had a peculiar screen persona, appearing very much the blandly handsome everyman imbued with a limpidly romantic cast, contradicted by eyes that harboured a hue of wounded animal ruefulness and shrewdness, blended qualities that informed his best roles and performances. Hill had written one of O’Neal’s earlier vehicles, The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973), and The Driver plays in a fashion as a more self-serious iteration of that film, and suggests Hill saw unrealised dimensions in the actor. Although he signalled a move in that direction with A Bridge Too Far (1977), O’Neal wasn’t associated with tough guy parts, and after The Driver’s failure no-one would again. Which was a real pity, as O’Neal’s career was left with no place to go, and yet he inhabits the part of The Driver perfectly, with his squared-off poise and air of physical competence held on a tight leash of hard-learnt restraint, and when The Driver resorts to direct acts of violence it’s both blindsiding and convincing.

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The air of caginess, of some private reserve O’Neal was keeping locked away from the world, became a potent reservoir when it came to projecting The Driver’s borderline maniacal commitment to a private ethic and project of asocial resistance. The Driver seems less motivated to engage in criminal activity for money but to thumb his nose at people who live by less concerted ways, an aspect of his character The Detective readily grasps because it’s an attitude he shares, if whilst expressing and actualising in quite different ways. Dern, by contrast, had almost become synonymous with a certain kind of role, callow creeps and unstable outcasts, like his Vietnam veteran-turned-terrorist in Black Sunday (1977) and his infamous part as a psycho who kills John Wayne in The Cowboys (1972). Hill readily tapped Dern’s ability to play galvanising assholes but also showed cheekiness in making him the representative of authority. The Detective compares his own approach to his job as one rooted in the same presumptions as newspaper sports results – points on the boards neatly demarcating all players as winners and losers, the nominal task of upholding a public responsibility and enforcing community laws subordinated to the needs of ego and simple equations of power.

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The Detective sees himself as the winner in a job for a society that values only winners, a proto-Trump figure in extolling an exclusively Darwinian sense of the world where the rules are only incumbent upon those not naturally chosen for success, for status, for the right to self-identify with the spine of the establishment. On the other hand The Driver is contrasted by Glasses and Teeth as well as the two stick-up men he taxis at the outset, bandits who almost by definition will possess or foster traits that work against The Driver’s professional sensibility as well as his distrust of violence as people quick to temper and irresponsible. Glasses seems like a reasonable and steady captain for gangland activities in comparison to Teeth, who The Driver immediately pins as a potential hazard with his attitude and delight in violence and provocation, and soon gets all the evidence he needs to back up the assessment. Glasses eventually proves to have his own explosive and duplicitous streak. The Driver’s habit of talking a hard line with flaky colleagues despite not carrying a gun is a test he liberally applies, quickly revealing hotheads and reactive fools, a point of character that feels reminiscent of some Western heroes like Barry Sullivan’s character in Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), presenting the truest tough guy as one who can maintain a pacifist demeanour but doesn’t flinch from speaking cold truth and laying down the law, or from action when absolutely necessary.

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And as in such a model, this trait makes antithetical characters underestimate The Driver, something Teeth learns when The Driver easily disarms him and beats him up. Glasses falls into the same trap. When The Driver eventually takes on the job, he demands that Teeth sit out the robbery, so Glasses uses Fingers as his accomplice, only for Fingers to foul up during the heist and allow an alarm to sound: Glasses is so infuriated he guns Fingers down. Once The Driver delivers him to their rendezvous point in an empty warehouse, Glasses points his pistol at The Driver and makes it clear he’s going to kill him too, mocking him for not killing a gun, only for The Driver to suddenly swing up a pistol from where he’s nursed it out of sight and blow Glasses away. A great, jolting surprise that again obliges both viewers and characters to revise their understanding of The Driver, one reminiscent in a way of Tuco’s “shoot, shoot – don’t talk” quip from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), but without the lilt of black humour, instead striking a bleak, rueing note in confirming The Driver, despite his dislike of guns and violence, knows damn well he has to be good at both in his world. Glasses’ attempt at a double-cross relieves The Driver of any burden to split the take and he heads off to arrange with The Player to swap dirty money for clean.

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Hill’s infusing style on The Driver mimics his writing in trying to film and frame to an essentialist credo. Relatively little of the movie takes place in open daylight, and when it does this is clearly offered as The Detective’s realm rather than The Driver’s, The Detective and his crew hovering around backstreets and rooftops and car parks awaiting calls to action just as The Driver and his ilk parse away time in dim, interior, almost claustrophobic environs. Hill often frames The Driver in relation to faded and battered artworks and fancily framed mirrors on walls in hotels and bars, hinting at the tattered romantic textures lurking behind his life-hardened façade. Cinematographer Philip Lathrop’s photography unfolds in earthy tones of grey, brown, and green, usually only broken up by odd flashes of bolder colour like a cop car’s lights or the balls on a pool table, and relatively colourful locales like the various taverns and the casino have their gaudier colourings muted. The Driver’s visit to pay off The Player at her glitzy, modernist apartment complex feels particularly vital as a thumbnail for Mann’s aesthetic. The duo meet in the sickly greenish glow of fluorescent tube lighting along a blank concrete catwalk that looks like infrastructure for a space centre, and ascend by elevator to hover high above the gleaming cityscape, lowlifes become astronauts by dint of living amidst but not as part of modern American life.

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The inherent visual tension helps draw out Hill’s backdrop thesis regarding American success as release from relationship to history and environment, whereas the losers in The Detective’s parlance must persist in spaces where such things reign over them. Hill’s expect use of Lathrop’s widescreen pictures nudges the edges of Hopper-like abstraction throughout, often moving in for flashes of action and then returning for deadpan medium-long shots scanning corpses and wrecked cars with the equanimity of a classical landscape painter. Hill had to make his driving action scenes feel novel and distinct from famous precursors. It’s been said the template Hill hit upon has proven particularly influential on video games, presumably in the smooth and gliding sense of speed and motion he captures in the key chase sequences, getting close enough to generate immediate intensity but avoiding chaotic freneticism through excessive editing. Often his camera stands relatively aloof from the vehicles, noting their arcs of motion, straining against earth and gravity, so their lines of motion become dance-like, and often framing O’Neal and his passengers, including Adjani in the climax, in a manner that clearly shows them amidst the action. The fact that most of the chase scenes take place in the very early morning allows Hill to let the cars rip with little to stall or frustrate them, instead turning the chases into contests of pure driving skill, tearing through downtown avenues and seamy factory spaces.

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Hill also spurned any music accompanying the chases, employing Michael Small’s mostly electronic scoring with its eerie drones and squiggles strictly for brief passages of atmosphere. Blakely, contrasting her best-known role as the beloved but damaged diva in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), plays The Connection with a veneer of tight-wrapped proficiency, breathy voice and bright red lips contrasting her rather asexual dress style, a fitting partner in free enterprise for The Driver and one he seems tight with, and yet she keeps a wary distance, making clear to The Driver she has no intention of getting killed for his sake when he gets her to dig up a fence for the cash. Hill’s more ruthless brand of humour shades into horror as Teeth corners The Connection in her apartment and makes her reveal where the money handover is to take place by inserting the barrel of his huge pistol deep in her mouth. The Connection quickly coughs up the required information and tells Teeth she told The Driver she wouldn’t die for him, only for Teeth to push a pillow over her face and shoot her through it, as if delivering his own, cold punchline to a cosmic joke. The brutal, quasi-sexual violence here renders the games of dominance throughout the film at their most palpable and disturbing extreme, underlining for Teeth as Glasses’ killing of Fingers did for him that he’s truly dangerous, like a rabid animal that must be put down, and the hard lesson The Connection doesn’t live long enough to learn its no-one can stand neutral from the fate of their allies in such a world.

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The climax is set up as The Driver has The Player meet The Exchange Man (Denny Macko) at Union Station only for Teeth to pounce and snatch the purse containing the key to the locker containing the clean money. The Detective chases down the fence and shoots him as he tries to elude the cop on a train rolling out of the station, whilst The Driver, with The Player in tow, chases after Teeth and his new driver ‘The Kid’ (Frank Bruno) in a careening duel of speed and skill, with The Driver behind the wheel of a sturdy pick-up truck he’s stolen opposed to The Kid’s flashy muscle car, which just cannot shake him. Hill’s choice of vehicles in this scene works both as a visual joke inverting marketable images, the streamlined and fearsome lifestyle accoutrement unable to outrun the boxy and utilitarian machine, and as a metaphor for Hill’s preference for plebeian solidity over flash, and with The Driver and The Player remaining perfectly pokerfaced throughout. The battle resolves in a warehouse where the two vehicles stalk each-other before The Driver’s nerveless way with a game of chicken causes his opponent to crash spectacularly (and finally cracks The Player’s stoic veneer), and Teeth finds himself beaten again, this time more finally, as the contest between him and The Driver winnows down to the more elemental and classical art with a gun, an epic moment that gains a moment of salutary humour as The Kid hightails away, happy to survive his first and probably last tilt at the criminal big leagues.

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This battle seems to finally anoint The Driver as the Western hero reborn, chasing down varmints, equally accomplished on his steed and at the draw, existing outside civilised norms but imposing cohesion on a wild landscape through sheer force of will and discipline. There’s one last part of the game to play out, however, as he and The Player return to Union Station to retrieve the money only to find The Detective and a line of cops ready to nab him. The bag he takes out of the locker proves however to be empty, part of a rip-off intended by the deceased Exchange Man, leaving The Detective without the necessary evidence to arrest The Driver. The Player and The Driver both stride in their separate directions, dissolving into the dark, whilst The Detective finds himself the butt of a droll and queasy gag as he’s quite literally left holding the bag. A denouement that deflates multiple balloons, validating neither the lawman nor the outlaw, official and rebellious perspective each found wanting, at least on the scoreboard level The Detective so eloquently extols. But The Driver, having ridden his wave to the end and come out clean, has emerged with a more rarefied form of capital, his creed fulfilled, his body intact and free, even if perhaps destined only to continue on his sharklike way a few more nights.

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2000s, Blogathon, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

Miami Vice (2006)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowskis’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.

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Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.

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Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.

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Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.

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Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.

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The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.

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A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.

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Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects. Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Montoya can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive.

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Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.

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What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Montoya, and even some of the white supremacists.

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That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources. Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Montoya to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans.

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The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.

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Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.

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After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists. Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated, but with Montoya having escaped.

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Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.

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