"The Driver" is a chase melodrama abstracted to the verge of pointlessness.

Insufficently dramatized but often skillfully filmed, the film confirms the talent of writer-director Walter Hill, who made an auspicious debut three years ago with "Hard Times," while also exposing the pitfalls in his over-intellectualized approach to genre talespinning.

Ryan O'Neal seems an unlikely first choice as the protagonist, a professional getaway driver of great physical dexterity and self-possession. The role requires fantastic force of personality, a blend of Bruce Lee with Charles Bronson. O'Neal lacks precisely the kind of personal authority that Bronson brought to the role of Hill's indomitable, unflappable street-fighter in "Hard Times." His best characterization have been boyish, agreeable types. Required to be impassive and taciturn through "The Driver," O'Neal seems, ill at ease, rather than quietly commanding.

As the relentless, unscrupulous cop attempting to set up the driver for a fall, Bruce Dern is relaxed and casually entertaining. Although once again playing a reptiltian type, Dern is spared the psychotic excesses that have frequently forced his characters around the bend. He doesn't have to go psycho in "The Driver." He's just arrogant and sneaky, and on Dern this assignment looks almost like a lighthearted change of pace.

From a filmmaker's point of view it may be easy to imagine that a flimsy pretext is being transcended through the elaboration and perfection of one's technique. "The Driver" is conceived in the silk-purse-from-a-sow's-ear tradition, but it remains to be seen it if will be appreciated as a marginal triumph of style over content. Spectators may be less inclined to agree that style is its own reward, although it's certainly a reward of sorts.

Hill begs as much indulgence of his audience as Brian De Palma did earlier this year with "The Fury," also released by 20th Century-Fox, which might now offer a double-bill of neofilm noir exercise to college and repertory movie programmers. In each case it would have been more satisfying to watch these adroit young filmmakers work out on story equipment less prone to collapse under the pressure of common-sense questions about dramatic motives, cause-and-effect relationships and similar minor details. Perhaps a director who can finesse a scenario like "The Driver" or "The Fury" deserves comparison to an aerialist working without a net, but Hill and De Palma performed better with the nets of "Hard Times" and "Carrie," respectively, beneath them.

The major characters in "The Driver" are supposed to be personification.They may have nicknames, but thy don't have proper names or detailed identities. Hill depicts them as players in an abstract game of cat-and-mouse that is apparently meant to imply something profound about the mysteries of human destiny or the psychic bond between the hunted and the hunter, the outlaw and the lawman. But the game would have more dramatic interest if one thought of it as a conflict rooted in authenticity rather than a clever filmmaker's pretext for stylistic experimentation.

Despite its faults, the recent crime melodrama "Straight Time" rested on firmer ground than "The Driver," since it never lost sight of the impulses driving its criminal protagonist and even helped to illuminate them. O'Neal's character is supposed to transcend impulse, but in celebrating his sheer mechanical proficiency and glossing over the ruthlessness that underlies his criminal professionalism, Hill leaves himself on crumbling dramatic and ethical ground. Perhaps without realizing it, he equates himself with his getaway man by asking to be judged on craftsmanship alone and excused his thematic and conceptual vagaries.

Slick and thrilling as they are as exercises in cinematography, stunt driving and montage, even the car chases, staged at night on the streets of Los Angeles and Long Beach, might have been better if one had an emotional stake in the future of one of the passengers.

Hill stages a murder that makes your blood run cold, an encounter between Ronee Blakely, cast as O'Neal's go-between, and Rudy Ramos, cast as an armored robber who wants to know O'Neal's whereabouts. Hill actually carries through on the sort of depiction one kept dreading at the climax of "In Cold Blood." Ramos threatens and then mercilessly kills Blakely in a sequence of events that looks at once horrifying and utterly convincing.

It's the kind of pretend murder that arouses fearful and vengeful instincts in one's breast. Oddly enough, this horror doesn't intensity the atmosphere when O'Neal and Ramos eventually face off at gunpoint, because there's so littly emotional connection between the characters to begin with.

Hill sacrifies the sort of carry-over impact that worked for "The Big Sleep" when Humphrey Bogart plugged Bob Steele, who had earlier established his inhumanity by poisoning Elisha Cook, Jr. in cold blood, as Bogart eavesdropped in the next room. One understood and to some extent shared the combination of fear, shame and rage that impelled Bogart when he caught up with Steel. The comparable conflicts in "The Driver" are too showdy and gratuitions to take hold.

Walter Hill knows how to make movies but on this occasion he's wasting his virtuosity.