Sunday, May 26, 2024


Spoiler Alert: Crucial plot points are revealed in the interest of critical analysis and discussion

Elizabeth Taylor as Lise
Ian Bannen as Bill
Mona Washbourne as Mrs. Helen Fiedke
Andy Warhol as The English Lord
Guido Mannari as Carlo the Mechanic
Maxence Mailfort as Pierre The Right Type

The Driver’s Seat (alternate title: Identikit) is a dreamlike, metaphysical grim fairy tale whose non-linear narrative—in its recounting—sounds a little like a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and David Lynch. This visually distinguished Italian production casts a game Elizabeth Taylor (during her quirky, art film phase) as Lise, a raven-haired Goldilocks who visits Rome on a determined quest to find a man who is not too hot, not too cold, but “just right” to serve as her Dark Destiny escort. 
Whereas Goldilocks’ curiosity led her to three domesticated bears, Lise’s schizophrenia-fueled search for her Wizard of Odd merely yields three unmitigated bores: one ideologically overbearing (Ian Bannen), the other sexually assaultive (Guido Mannari), and the third, empathetically apathetic (Andy Warhol).
But like Joseph in the Bible—the one who also favored the conspicuous masquerade of a coat of many colors—Lise, whose name means “Pledged to God,” isn’t one to let a few setbacks and disappointments shake her faith in the incorruptible purity of her morbid pilgrim’s progress.

Every detail of Lise’s journey is planned to be just so. She purchases a violent paperback novel (The Walter Syndrome by Richard Neely, a 1970 thriller about a serial killer) and throughout her trip, holds it in front of her like an airport greeter. 
"It's a whydunnit in q-sharp major and it has a lesson: never talk to the sort
of girls that you wouldn't leave lying about in your drawing-room
 for the servants to pick up" 
- from the novella "The Driver's Seat" 

As is the wont of fairy tales, Lise is assisted on her journey by a Fairy Godmother figure (Mona Washbourne) who supplies the crucial athame for Lise’s tryst of fate with her (literal) “man to die for.” It’s also traditionally fitting that through her guidance, Lise comes to the Dorothy Gale-esque realization that the very thing she has been searching for so intently, has been there all along, right under her nose, the entire time.
Getting to the Point
"It's in my mind, and I can't think of anything else but that 
you and my nephew were meant for each other."

A movie as confounding as it is compelling, The Driver’s Seat is based on the 1970 novella of the same name by author Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). Spark, who considered The Driver’s Seat to be her best-written novel, labeled the book a “whydunnit” murder mystery because the story begins in the middle (Lise’s madness is already full-blown...we know not its source or duration, only that she has reached the end of her tether) and calls on the reader to disregard the story’s openly divulged victim and killer, concerning themselves instead with the motive. 
Easier said than done.

The Driver’s Seat is a mesmerizingly loopy movie that, while leaving me with more questions than answers, is imbued with such a poignant air of despairing sadness that it impressed me as something of a distaff Death in Venice. Which brings me to note that thus far in this essay, I’ve been being needlessly coy about something the novel reveals right off the bat: that Lise—in a perverse distortion of the fairy tale trope of the heroine waiting to be rescued by the idealized man—is searching for the perfect man to kill her. 
As a damsel in emotional distress who’s more desirous of release than rescue, Lise is staunch in her belief that the right man will “Recognize me for the woman that I am right away,” but is willing to leave only so much to chance. To speed things along and better facilitate the precise outcome she seeks, it’s necessary for Lise, like a Grim Reaper Dolly Levi, to be a woman who arranges things. 
Indeed, in taking the driver’s seat and micromanaging her predestined demise with the fastidious attention to detail of an overconscientious party planner, Lise, in this identity-crisis puzzler, assumes the identity of both murderer and victim.
Mrs. Fiedke- Will you feel a presence? Is that how you'll know?
Lise- Not really a presence. A lack of absence. That's what it is.

Directed and written with idiosyncratic assurance by Guiseppe Patroni Griffi (screenplay co-written by Raffaele La Capria), The Driver’s Seat is a dark (occasionally darkly comic) and melancholy portrait of a woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown. 
Faithfully adapted from Spark’s oblique novella, the filmmakers have crafted an equally abstruse, illusory film that combines elements of a road movie (Lise’s journey being both literal and psychological), murder mystery (again, the why, not the who), and character study (everything that’s not presented as part of a police investigation into events that have yet to occur, is seen from Lise’s point of view). Along the way, The Driver’s Seat toys with concepts of perception-interpretation/identity-self as they relate to one of my longstanding favorite “human condition” themes: emotional alienation and the innate need to forge a connection with others.   
Our introduction to Lise is abrupt and totally lacking in qualifiers. First, encountered mid-argument with a saleswoman over a stain-resistant dress: “Do I look like the kind of person who spills things on my clothing?”… then Medusa-maned and mascaraed within an inch of her life as she embarks upon her gloomy Roman Holiday dressed like a color TV test pattern. 

The film takes the novel’s starts-in-the-middle story and future-intrudes-upon-the-present narrative structure and translates it into a deliberately fragmented, disorienting cinematic style that forces the audience to filter reality through Lise's alternatingly distracted/laser-focused gaze. Potentially mirroring Lise’s intensifying sense of isolation, the vision of the world we’re given feels lacking in warmth, subtly hostile, and ever on the brink of some sudden outbreak of violence. In this paranoid landscape of shadowy faces and elliptical conversations, everything and everyone feels just a little bit off.
Not the least, Lise herself, who, when her eccentrically flamboyant appearance isn’t drawing stares, eliciting giggles, or the haughty disdain of near-identical coil-coiffed salesgirls, moves about in an almost trancelike haze.
Lise, the Kook Magnet
Scottish actor Ian Bannen is positively brilliant as the macrobiotic food nut whose diet requires an orgasm a day. Nearly everyone Lise comes into contact with either fuels or feeds off of her erratic mood swings and neurotic compulsions. 

It’s ultimately revealed that there is a method behind Lise’s behavioral madness and that everything from her provocative appearance (we've seen that in her day-to-day life she dresses very conservatively) to her attention-getting conduct is calculated for deliberate effect. She’s seeking to make an impression, to leave a mark, to be remembered, to be identified. An attempt, conceivably, to achieve in death something she lacked in life.  
The Driver's Seat was released as Identikit everywhere but in the US. An Identikit is a system of criminal identification that collects facial feature details from witness descriptions and combines them to create a composite portrait of the individual they are seeking.  

The Driver's Seat narrative unfolds in a time-warp fashion, with Lise and the Italian police engaged in a simultaneous, dual manhunt. Both are in search of a killer, Lise before, and the police after. 

The first time I became aware of The Driver’s Seat was in 1973 (was I the only kid who read Weekly Variety in high school?). At the time, Taylor and Burton were in the throes of the first of their eventual two divorces, so despite Taylor’s comparative irrelevance vis-à-vis the New Hollywood, both she and the film were generating plenty of publicity traction. With Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, Karen Black, and Faye Dunaway crowding my movie infatuations back then, Elizabeth Taylor was more a gossip magazine stalwart and movie star for my parents than an actress I paid much attention to. 
Taylor had been effectively off my radar since 1968’s Secret Ceremony (which would make a great double bill with The Driver’s Seat, by the way), but my interest was reignited when she starred in the surprisingly effective mystery thriller Night Watch (1973). When I read that the forthcoming The Driver’s Seat (made between the movies Ash Wednesday and The Bluebird) was also to be a thriller, I was seriously stoked and eagerly anticipated its release. 
But like several other ‘70s releases that pinned their hopes on the Nostalgia Craze appeal of faded-luster Classic Hollywood (Mae West’s Sextette; Billy Wilder’s Fedora; Marlene Dietrich and Kim Novak in Just A Gigolo), The Driver’s Seat opened in theaters with all the fanfare of an ex-mobster entering the witness protection program. Despite Elizabeth Taylor’s star power, The Driver’s Seat (Taylor’s first completely foreign-made film) struggled to get American distribution and was barely shown outside of a handful of major cities. In fact, it wasn’t released in my neck of the woods (San Francisco) until 1978, by which time I had graduated from high school and moved to Los Angeles. 
Instead of opening in arthouses where it belonged, when The Driver's Seat finally had its San Francisco release in August of 1978, it played at one of the grindhouse theaters on Market Street on a double bill with a Sophia Loren movie I'd never heard of.

For the longest time The Driver’s Seat existed as one of those movies more talked about than actually seen. And, as so often happens in such cases, its unavailability gave it a cult cachet. When I finally saw it in the mid-to-late ‘80s (a VHS rental, I think), The Driver’s Seat had earned the reputation of being one of Taylor’s so-bad-it’s-good camp-fests, surpassing even BOOM! (1968) in outlandishness. 
Armed with little else to go on, that's the perspective through which I approached it and enjoyed it. But as I’ve learned in the years since—after several revisits and reading the novella—watching The Driver’s Seat exclusively through the prism of its arthouse camp appeal is like not really seeing it at all.
Nothing goes well for Lise when she's not in the driver's seat

If the tenets of camp embrace artifice, stylistic excess, and a preoccupation with offbeat sex, then The Driver’s Seat more than qualifies for the classification. With its dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: “When I diet, I diet. When I orgasm, I orgasm. I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures,”; Neely O’Hara-suitable outbursts: (Lise) “Well then, don’t just stand there staring at me like a chicken with one eye! Help me!”; and scenes of Taylor writhing around on a bed clutching her breasts, or Andy Warhol popping up like he’s en route to his Love Boat cameo, 12 years early…there’s no denying that The Driver’s Seat can be a delightfully kitschy howl.
I've never been sure if the bandage on Lise's left wrist is a character clue related to what was briefly disclosed early in the film regarding her history of mental illness, or merely evidence of the famously accident-prone actress' latest mishap.

But I contend—and this goes back to my interpreting the movie as something of a fractured fairy tale about a lonely and unbalanced woman’s romantic obsession with death—that The Driver’s Seat is such an unusual, even impenetrable story told with so few narrative guardrails that responding to it purely as camp was just the easiest, most entry-level route of access for me (laughter often being the go-to when one is confused or made uncomfortable by something ). But when I stopped trying to laugh at The Driver’s Seat, it surprised me how much I was moved and disturbed by it.
Lise-  I feel homesick.
Bill- Homesick for what?
Lise- My loneliness. I want to go back home to feel all my loneliness again.

Okay, I admit it. That exchange gave me waterworks. 

While the results of her efforts tended to vary significantly, I nevertheless have to hand it to Elizabeth Taylor for not taking the predictable career path her global motion picture celebrity afforded. She could easily have gone on churning out formulaic, commercially successful potboilers like The Sandpiper and The V.I.Ps, but throughout the late '60s and ‘70s, she instead pursued daring, unconventional roles in often aggressively offbeat films.
I rank Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in The Driver’s Seat as one of her most emotionally resonant of this period, especially in the film’s latter third. It's then that the heretofore performative aspects of Lise’s madness grow more internal, evoking a weary despondency that’s truly heartbreaking. 
But paradoxically speaking, while I think Taylor is definitely the best thing in the film and its principal driving force (see what I did there?), I also think she’s its biggest liability—or rather, her inescapable Taylor-ness is. The Driver’s Seat is one of my favorite ‘70s films, capturing the darkness of Nixon-era nihilism, post-Women’s Lib uncertainty, and “Me Era” selective self-delusions. But how accessible can any of this be when the most significant obstacle anyone watching The Driver’s Seat is faced with is trying to forget you’re watching Elizabeth Taylor? 

I'd read that at one time, director Luchino Visconti had once hoped to make The Driver’s Seat with Glenda Jackson. Oh, my God! Jackson's casting would have been ideal, what with her talent and no-nonsense gravitas making the film easily imaginable as a totally camp-free experience (as much as a Visconti film can be divested of camp, I suppose). While I'm sure Taylor's participation was integral to financing and getting the film green-lit, I can't help but mourn the subtleties lost. Take, for example, the dramatic significance of Lise's adoption of such a luridly flashy appearance for her sojourn in Italy. Signaling as it does Lise's identity crisis and mental disintegration, its impact was considerably defanged by the fact that by the 1980s--when I saw it---Taylor had adopted this very look as her personal style during her José “Shake your head, darling!” Eber, big hair, big-makeup period.
Lise's "madwoman" eye makeup was all the rage by 1980 (Brooke Shields, Vogue, 1980).
No wonder the only thing I thought about the first time I saw The Driver's Seat
was how incredibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor's eyes are.

Documents in the Muriel Spark Archives at the National Library of Scotland reveal that the author was happy with the casting of Elizabeth Taylor, and the two exchanged Mutual Admiration Society letters before production began.
In later years, Spark has maintained that she thinks Taylor did a good job in the film, only that she was perhaps miscast: “Elizabeth Taylor was very good, but she looked too healthy to be the neurotic girl. 
There was no way in which Elizabeth Taylor could look as if she wanted to die. She looked as if she wanted to drink.”   Muriel Spark -  SF Examiner May 21, 1986
It's unclear whether Lise is pursuing or following her destiny, but I love how
the film signifies her being on the right path by its use of a glowing orb of light.

Dangerous Women. 
Lise’s last words in The Driver’s Seat are “Kill me!” Gloria’s (Jane Fonda) last words in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? are “I’m ready.” Theresa’s (Diane Keaton) last words in Looking for Mr. Goodbar are “Do it!” 
Was this a trend or something? I kinda think so.

To me, these films, with their tragically bleak conclusions, form a trilogy that encapsulates the male-centric New Hollywood's perception of what I call the 'Dangerous Woman.' This character, a contemporary, post-The Feminine Mystique iteration of the disillusioned Angry Young Man of ‘50s New Wave cinema, is seen as a threat to the established order, and her only 'out' or 'Happy Ending' is often depicted as self-destruction.
"It was as though something came out of her--some force that all women feel latent in themselves...stifled. A potential for catastrophe. In her, it was terrible. Terrifying." 
- A witness describing Lise to the police

What connects The Driver’s Seat to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Looking for Mr. Goodbar is that they are all about women…angry, frustrated, or rebellious women…who, for one reason or another, have reached the frayed end of what Alexandre Dumas called “the slender thread” by which life and fortune hang. 
 Movies in the '70s gave us literal armies of angry, disillusioned, and rebellious men who were perceived to be heroic in their discontent. Not so much with women. 
Female characters embodying the same disillusionment were viewed differently onscreen. Maybe because there are audiences, male and female alike, who can identify with the male desire to stick it to "The Man" easier than they can get behind a woman sticking it to "Men" in general. 
I like to think that the time has passed when death is seen as the only recourse and outcome for cinema’s 'Dangerous Women.' But provocatively, in this day and age where the fundamental human right of body autonomy is still a debated subject, it gives me food for thought to ponder how The Driver’s Seat presents Lise’s suicide (or assisted suicide, if you will)—the kind of act traditionally associated with the loss of control—as something so controlled and plotted that it takes on an air of self-actualization. As though Lise is exercising the only power she may feel she has, the power to do with herself as she pleases. The ultimate exercising of her right to choose. Even if it's death.

And if that doesn't sound like a Grim(m) Fairy Tale, I don't know what does.

Into The Woods


In 2015, The National Theater of Scotland staged a theatrical version of The Driver's Seat adapted and directed by Laurie Sansom. Starring Morven Christie as Lise. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2024


  1. Merci beaucoup for this post! I had never heard about this film and got a sudden urge to see it. Your review ringed the Roman Spring of Mrs Stone bell in me. Now, I just ordered the BFI Blu-ray because I'm sure it's a keeper. Thanks again!

    1. Bonjour, Tom! I'm thrilled that I introduced you to this fascinating and divisive curio in Elizabeth's Taylor's filmography. The new Blu-ray is stunning and the best I've ever seen this film look.
      And while I hope this essay didn't completely spoil all the surprises for you (not to worry, there are still many more I didn't make mention of) your instincts are sharp in referencing "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" ...there were several book and newspaper reviews at the time that picked up on the same thing.
      Based on the little I know of you, I am certain you will find your BFI purchase to be money well spent.
      Thanks for reading my post so soon and contributing your kind comments!

  2. This film occupies a very odd place amongst the "firsts" of my life. It's the first film I ever watched entirely online. This is back in the early days of video streaming (1999? around that time). I don't remember the website but someone had uploaded this film (copyright lapsed maybe?) But I watched it sheerly from the novelty of watching a movie online. Of course, the quality was nothing like what we have today. I think the size of the film on the screen was about that of a matchbox. But I was watching a MOVIE on the INTERNET! My mind boggled. I'm not sure I would have watched the entire thing under any other conditions. I do remember Taylor's character constantly saying something like "Are you the one?" and contemptuously telling one of the characters (the mechanic I think) "Sex? You think I want sex?" (or something along those lines.) I remember Ian Bannen's bizarre diet and recognizing Mona Washbourne from "My Fair Lady" as the seemingly only normal person in the entire film. It was indeed a "mesmerizingly loopy film" as you say. But it's fun to remember that what we now take for granted was incredibly new and cool at one time.

    1. Hi Rob - In a weird way, I can't think of a better movie to be your streaming (was it called that, back then?) introduction to the internet. For all that watching movies at home on "devices" has taken away from the classic movie theater experience, it has made it possible for people to be exposed to and take risks on more obscure and overlooked movies than ever before.

      That's wonderful you can recall your first internet movie experience! You describe it well. I'd forgotten how poor video quality was inn those days and how small the screens and playback frames were.
      Given that I can remember well the first movies I saw when cable TV was new and the phenomenon of movies at home seemed too good to be true, it's weird that I can't remember my first internet movie.

      Your hazy memory of The Driver's Seat is remarkably good, as you cite two of the most totemic of Lise's declarations--she does go around asking men "Are you my boyfriend" or "Are you the one?" (I'm probably the only one who finds this one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the character), and says more than once to different males "I'm not interested in sex! I'm interested in other things."

      It's a hard film to parse, and definitely not worth the effort for many, but it pleases me to know it bears the distinction of being part of your internet "firsts."
      Thanks for sharing that, Rick!

  3. As your screencaps demonstrate, the movie can now be seen as it was meant to be versus the deplorably blurry, cropped, adulterated renditions that were previously out there (on VHS and DVD.) The pics you selected show that there was an effort for composition and color, etc... that those old copies couldn't hope to show. I so agree with you that La Liz could easily have copped out and done only undemanding commercial fare (and succeeded nicely!), but instead sought out properties that were more challenging and complicated. 'Course, being shallow as a new pothole, my favorite sequence was with the auto mechanic in the white zip-up (or down?) coveralls...! Ha ha! Thanks for the wonderful, thoughtful post. Great to see you writing again.

    1. Hello, Jon - You and I have a similar history with this movie. I was getting the feeling that “The Driver’s Seat” was never going to get the Blu-ray treatment (like “Andy Warhol’s BAD,” it was a movie I had grown used to seeing only as a fuzzy, blurry haze), so I was overjoyed when it FINALLY got he kind of release it deserved. The improved visual quality and proper framing was like watching an entirely different film.

      It's still a movie that is essentially a matter of taste, so it’s not one I readily recommend to people. But as I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (or head) for it, I’m glad someone gave Liz and this obscurity their moment.

      I laughed at “shallow as a new pothole,” and made a point to revisit your terrific (and terrifically funny) August 2023 post about “The Drivers Seat” before responding to your kind comment here.

      Since my own tastes also lean to the appreciation of the often lacking male pulchritude in so many movies about women (I still shudder at what was considered a desirable male in movies like “Valley of the Dolls”) the beautiful Guido Mannari and his anything-but-zipless encounter with Liz is memorable for any number of reasons.
      Not the least of them being that his mechanics outfit reminds of when those zippered jumpers were all the rage in the disco wear for men. Ah Men catalogues and the back pages of After Dark Magazine were loaded with them!
      Thanks so much for reading this and commenting, Jon. Great to hear from you again!

  4. The great Stephen Rubello and the late, great Ed Margulies once said it best in their immortal tome, Bad Movies We Love: "But soon, she meets a stranger, whom she lures to a park and begs him to stab her to death, which he does. Repeatedly. Roll credits. End of movie. End of movie career."

    1. Ha! I wouldn't say they said it best, but I give it points for succinctness and humor. I love that book!