Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Possibly the watershed experimental film of the '70s mainstream, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver emerged as a hot-ticket must-see combo of artistic and commercial merit. Student filmmakers went gaga over Scorsese's masterful direction, which looked nothing like normal Hollywood styles yet didn't simply ape the spirit of a Fellini or a Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard. Scorsese instead adapted the arts 'n' crafts creativity of Michael Powell (throwing away most of the "pretty pictures") to get to the heart of Paul Schrader's intense and morbidly obsessive screenplay. For his inspiration, ex- film critic Schrader tapped into the classic art cinema of Robert Bresson as well as his own personal psychological conflicts and frustrations. Schrader's Travis Bickle is a film noir loser hero, the kind that subconsciously wills his own failures. He's a self-made psycho.
Plenty of '70s films journeyed into the decaying corners of New York City to tell stories of drug addicts and criminals. Taxi Driver is about an alienated misfit who takes a job driving a New York Cab to escape his own misery. He sees himself as a pathetic loser and despite service in the Marine Corps has not found a way to connect with other people or a personal ambition. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) descends into the sleazy nightlife of Time Square porn theaters even as he professes to despise the ugliness, crime, degradation and hopelessness he sees on the streets. Perceiving himself as an unappreciated Galahad, he tries to connect with two very different women. The stunningly beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) is a campaign worker for a pushy political candidate. Travis's judgment is so maladroit that he alienates her completely on their first and last date. She continues to reject his pleas for a second chance. Travis then takes note of Iris (Jodie Foster), an almost pre-teen prostitute kept on the street by a nervy pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). Unable to convince Iris to return to her parents, Travis undertakes a grotesque and violent personal quest, transforming himself into a murderous killing machine for a different kind of jungle fighting. If he can't impress Betsy with his force of will, he'll go down fighting the sleazy Mafiosi that guard the underage sex worker Iris.
Anyone interested in Taxi Driver has already read and heard plenty of details about every aspect of its making. Paul Schrader was already published in the serious film criticism magazines on subjects from Samurai films to film noir to his theory of transcendent cinema; he was a critical studies major at UCLA but returned to talk to screenwriting classes. Schrader was very serious about film structure and delivered (I believe he explains this in his commentary or interview on the disc) a script that Martin Scorsese and his actors could alter and improvise upon without damaging as long as the skeleton stayed intact. Schrader was open in admitting that The Wild Bunch was a formative influence. Unlike John Milius, Schrader didn't seek to praise Peckinpah as much as to examine the way that the desire of frustrated young men to act out their aggressions could be enhanced by heroic screen violence. Travis Bickle seeks redemption by walking through hell. Even with a Mohawk haircut and his maniacal behavior, Travis gives off a positive charge: this is an American picture and American heroes overcome perceived enemies by direct, violent action.
Since they knew Schrader's proclivities so well, more than one critical studies student at UCLA told me that Schrader patterned Taxi Driver after the classic Robert Bresson film Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson's grim stories became classics for their intellectual purity and uncompromisingly unsentimental perspective on ... guess ... lonely, alienated heroes who may be good-hearted or corrupt, but never in control of their lives. Bresson's priest takes over a rural parish and presides over one failure after another, as various locals take advantage of his efforts to do good work. He's isolated, ignored, marginalized and humiliated. His one possible success turns out entirely wrong, making him look like a meddling incompetent. Deciding that the fault is with his faith, the priest becomes an ascetic and changes his diet so radically that he develops a chronic stomach ulcer. It's a clear case of taking the world, and heaven, on one's shoulders: he's literally God's lonely man. 1 Taxi Driver clearly uses some of Bresson's devices. Both protagonists write diaries, and the priest's meals of wine and bread become Travis's bread with liquor. Schrader mixed aspects of Diary with his own experiences of rejection and isolation -- he even cites the one-two punch of his own romantic disasters -- to come up with Travis, who feels so alien to the city around him that he loses the ability to communicate with his fellow hack drivers and takes off down several avenues of dangerous, anti-social behavior.
Should you see the grim Diary of a Country Priest you may be dismayed to learn that it's one of Bresson's most optimistic films. Martin Scorsese says that he was heavily influenced by Bresson's Pickpocket, which refuses to become emotional about a character that we want very much to see get away with his crimes, or at least find a way to stop stealing. Bresson uses various visual ideas to simultaneously keep his pickpocket in our face, without extending a 'cinematic hand of approval' in his direction. Scorsese uses similar techniques but he can't keep us from liking Travis Bickle, as Robert De Niro is just too charismatic. No matter what squeamishly awkward things Bickle does, we can tell that he sees himself as a decent guy. He'd like to do right if he could only find out what that was.
Scorsese's program of alienation shows up in quizzical shots that seem "just right". Travis exits the taxi garage but the camera pans away from him across the cars, meeting up with him again at the door. The first time we see this, we might suddenly think there are two Travis Bickles. I'm sure someone can find a previous use of this gag, but its simplicity is overpowering. It says, "None of these shots is arbitrary, so pay attention".
Scorsese dissolves from Travis on the sidewalk to Travis closer on the sidewalk. Is it an offhand trick to bridge time quickly, related perhaps to Godard's short-cut dialogue scenes that simply leave jump-cuts where he's cut out his own prompts to the actors? Or does the dissolve show Travis's disconnection to time and place ... he's not really there, he didn't really think anything while walking so it doesn't matter if the slack is snipped out? Note that when Travis walks he mostly stares at the sidewalk ahead of him. In rooms with other people, he constantly looks around as if there might be a Viet Cong hiding in the corner. But in his Taxi, Travis thinks he's invisible, separate from his environment and able to observe it at his leisure, like someone watching a movie.
Travis drops some Alka-seltzer into a glass and Scorsese zooms into a fizzy close-up. This seems to correlate with Edgar Ulmer's key loser noir Detour, only instead of just showing a big coffee cup, we mimic the disoriented Travis fixating on the fizz, like Carly Simon's "Clouds in my coffee". The shot is held longer than normal, which makes it more than a random cutaway detail. Also, there seem to be little black bits in the glass ... does the cafeteria have dirty glasses, or is all New York water like this?
Travis is on a pay phone desperately trying to prevent (Betsy?) from hanging up. The camera trucks mechanically to the right (the eye of fate) and stares down a depressing hall toward the traffic outside. This one's easy -- it's telling us that Travis can talk himself blue in the face but all that awaits him is the anonymous and loveless night on the street. Consciously, Travis is trying to connect -- but somehow he knows that he's really pushing the world away and demonizing it. It's him against everybody.
Taxi Driver was released on February 8 of 1976, and I had to miss a screening at UCLA. I don't know what version of the film was shown there but it is possible that they screened a print made before the bloodbath section of the movie was turned into one long desaturated color special effect. It's obvious that a crimson blood version would look 100% better but I'd have to see it to know -- in stills the blood looks real, and not like poster paint. The desaturated version has always been screwed up, looking like it was filmed in 8mm and the blood looking like the building had a backup in its sewer line. Knowing that the rating folk are protecting us makes the whole conclusion seem like a porn movie: "bad quality" = "we're ashamed to be showing you this". I'm really surprised that Scorsese didn't isolate, back up and protect the original negative for this reel, but nobody's perfect. And it needs to be said that we should be grateful that he's not going back and improving, re-cutting or CGI-altering his old movies like Mr. Lucas. Taxi Driver will remain a powerful film of its year, that belongs to the history of it's year. We won't have to put up with a revision where "Sport shoots first."
1976 was such a lean year for exciting movies (film-student exciting) that I remember doing back to Taxi Driver three or four times over the summer, whenever it played at a decent theater. We never quite made up our minds what exactly the ending was supposed to mean. Was some part of the conclusion meant to be a fantasy, or a moment-of-death hallucination as in Borges or Ambrose Bierce? The dreamy abandon of the final "Betsy" music made it seem as if Travis achieved his desired goal of impressing her. The little taxicab scene is weird, not just because of the "contradictory" flash of a fierce Travis eye that finishes it, but because Travis for the first time seems a whole person, cured of his psychoses and carrying a genuine sense of self-worth in his relaxed attitude. Since the whole idea of him being made a hero seems like starting another movie, we wonder how much of this is some kind of wish fulfillment. We wouldn't change a frame of the ending, which seems rewarding even if we can't solve it.
Sony's Blu-ray of Taxi Driver is a major improvement over earlier transfers. The film's original cinematography varies greatly in texture, but the added contrast range of HD pulls sharper and better-defined images out of what was frequently a greenish murk on earlier DVDs. This transfer is dark and rich.
The color and contrast are often high, which keeps shots like the first close-ups of Travis Bickle's eyes from looking much better than they did on DVD. In fact, the entire title opening looks degraded compared to the rest of the film. It looks as if optical dupe work was used, in addition to make dissolves, to obtain specific color effects here and there. Elsewhere we're almost startled by how much better the image "pops" on screen. Where before there was grainy murk, we now perceive the textures of lights in the background and details around Travis's apartment. I'm not sure that I've previously noted that Travis has several baskets of flowers on his floor, because Betsy refused delivery.
The uncompressed Master Audio adds quite a bit of punch to the soundtrack, making Bernard Herrmann's deeper menacing passages sound even more like a slow procession into hell. Music fans thinking that Herrmann had only one "sound" were forced to appreciate his lyrical saxophone main theme for Betsy ... on the musical plane the film is instantly recognizable as a blending of experimental, noir and horror influences.
Taxi Driver receives fond attention in the extras department. The old making-of docu is here along with a variety of featurettes that add to the experience and understanding of the movie. The new featurettes are interviews illustrated with a few stills but mostly with footage from the movie. Studios want something more 'entertaining' than straight interviews as one might see on a Criterion disc, but won't pay to license the materials to do them right. Scorsese will talk about films that influenced him, but we keep seeing random images from Taxi Driver. Dialogue snippets from the movie don't really relate to the speaker's words, while nicely edited montages act as buffers. When the interviews are good, I tend to close my eyes and just listen.
Director Scorsese makes an effort to explain "where he was coming from" in creating his obsessive ode to violent alienation, while producer Michael Phillips drops a few anecdotes about the events that led him and Julia Phillips to simultaneously produce both this movie and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. An "influence and appreciation" featurette has newer directors telling us how Taxi Driver made life worth living for them and their art.
The best featurettes offer interesting new ideas and angles about the film. In God's Lonely Man Paul Schrader and professor Robert Kolker analyze the Travis Bickle character, but Schrader also gives us a fascinating rundown on his own personal history as a disaffected loner film critic in Los Angeles. The piece eventually segues into some okay production stories. Travis's New York brings on cameraman Michael Chapman and ex- mayor Koch to explain what Times Square was like in the 1950s, how it turned into a real hellhole in the '70s, and the process by which it was later cleaned up and gentrified. Its sister feature is a location comparison showing that almost all of the run-down key locations in the film now look much better. Either that, or they have been demolished and replaced with newer buildings.
The most compelling extra is Taxi Driver Stories, an interview piece with taxi drivers, association reps, and a lady official from the Taxi Limousine Commission, who regale us with tales of the exhausting job of driving a hack in New York, and how the job has changed over time. Extras producer Greg Carson doesn't have to use movie clips in this one, and his shots of taxis cruising and working at all hours of the day and night are an excellent accompaniment to the words of the veteran drivers.
The disc also has elaborate Storyboard extras, a trailer and several galleries, including an animated montage of film stills. The tasteful book packaging reveals a pocket with a selection of photo and poster cards.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Taxi Driver Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: 3 commentaries, original making-of docu, new featurettes, storyboard comparisons, animated photo galleries, Location comparisons
Packaging: Folding book-style disc holding case
Reviewed: March 29, 2011
1. The priest goes into classic "imitation of Christ" mode, hoping to overcome his perceived spiritual faults by ruining his body. He directs his torment and frustration inward, whereas the American Bickle turns outward against his self-determined enemies. Paul Schrader made a similar observation about the nature of Yankee violence in his script for The Yakuza. A Boston gangster arrived in Tokyo is intrigued by the fact that when a Japanese goes crazy, he kills himself, while an American kills others. "An American saw cuts on the push stroke, but a Japanese saw cuts on the pull stroke."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson
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