Taxi Driver Special Edition Review
There have been millions of words spent on discussing Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, virtually all of which agree that it's an absolute masterwork. I don't have anything very new to say but I do want to take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts about this extraordinary piece of filmmaking; a film which, three decades after its first release, is still provocative and deeply disturbing to watch.
Although a basic summary would make the film sound like a hundred vigilante flicks, it’s so much more than that. A traumatised Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle (De Niro), suffering from chronic insomnia, takes up cab driving to while away the endless nights alone. Becoming obsessed by the filth and sleaze of New York City, he tries to find some kind of panacea for his disgust. First, he tries love, in the form of Betsy (Shepherd), a beautiful campaign worker for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Harris). When this relationship immediately fails during the first date, when he takes her to a pornographic movie, he looks for another cure for his misanthropy, and when he meets a 13 year old prostitute, Iris (Foster), he decides to become her saviour in whatever way he can. This leads to an sickeningly violent conclusion, and one of the most chillingly ambiguous final scenes in film history.
The intense, almost claustrophobic focus on Travis Bickle turns what could have been another Death Wish clone – or something as empty as Paul Schrader’s script for Rolling Thunder - into a compassionate, perceptive and despairing study of social isolation, which leads to alienation. His self-hatred becomes confused with his loathing for the decadant streets of the city - and as Paul Schrader points out, this is not a New York film per se, but an urban film - and in retrospect, it's clear that his eruption into some kind of avenging angel/demon at the end is inevitable from the first moments of the film. De Niro's performance is one of his real career highlights since it's so psychologically convincing - cliched as it may sound, he becomes Travis, to an unnerving extreme. His preparation, driving taxis in New York for two weeks, wasn’t wasted because he looks like a cab driver and drives a car like one. It's a great physical performance, with much of the character evoked in the stares and constant sideways glances, the use of the rear-view mirror to look at himself and his interlocutor simultaneously and the small birdlike head movements that tell us so much about Travis's encroaching paranoia. This is famously embodied in the legendary "mirror scene", with the refrain of "You talkin' to me" becoming increasingly sinister with each repetition, but it's actually there throughout the film, with the exceptions of the first conversation with Betsy in the coffee shop, and the breakfast meeting with Iris. In other words, when he connects with someone, he becomes a relatively normal person, but that connection is tenuous at best, and when it's broken there's nowhere for him to turn except inwards. All too aware of his chronic and self-perpetuating loneliness, Travis looks desperately to make connections, but can't quite do it - the abortive attempt to bond with the cab driver Wizard (Boyle) being the most poignant example - and when he's rejected, the humiliation is just too much to bear, Scorsese's camera moving sideways so we don't have to see this most uncomfortable of moments. You see, Travis is terrifying but he's also incredibly sad. That scene in the coffee shop is desperately touching; the monologue sounding like a teenager on his first date with the girl of his dreams, saying "She could have had anything she wanted". And he means it - that's the tragedy. In having something to give, he has something to lose. Virtually all of the film is seen from Travis's perspective, and the achievement of both actor and director is to immerse the viewer in a point of view which is both recognisable and yet frighteningly strange.
This is the sort of film in which the leading performance is so powerful it could have been a one-man show, but fortunately the supporting cast is well chosen and adds a layer of exterior reality that puts Travis into a believable context. Cybill Shepherd has never been a favourite actress of mine, but her air of vain presumption is ideal for the part of Betsy, and she has some good scenes with Albert Brooks as Tom, her fellow campaign worker which capture perfectly the inane chatter of work colleagues. Harvey Keitel is totally inspired as Sport, Iris's pimp, and he's right in saying that the key to the performance is the handkerchief, not to mention the outrageous hat. He makes Sport tender and humane as well as odious, a difficult combination to pull off. He’s also very funny and no director caught this side of Keitel again until Tarantino showed up. Jodie Foster is unnervingly convincing as Iris, despite her past (and future) as a Disney star, and the line "I don't know who's weirder, you or me" is an obvious reminder of her "Weird !" catchphrase in Scorsese's previous film, the delightful Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. My favourite of the supporting cast is Peter Boyle, as the avuncular Wizard, since he's just so damn right for the part, and his dirty jokes and corny nuggets of wisdom are great. That scene between him and Travis is a perfect vignette of the ramblingly inarticulate talking to the doomed.
However, the other real star of the film is the director, Martin Scorsese. I'm not going to rhapsodise about his work, since it's pretty well known that he's one of the most skilled film artists of the last century, but I will just point out his range of talents. Not only is he a master at putting his camera in exactly the right place to wring every ounce of effectiveness out of a scene, but he's also brilliant with his cast, even inexperienced performers like Leonard Harris. Every shot in this film is just right, and that's a major compliment, since many great films have moments of sloppy direction, as do some of Scorsese's other works. But this is just about perfect on every level, not least because in Paul Schrader, Scorsese found the perfect collaborator. Schrader's puritan zeal and Scorsese's tortured Catholicism seemed an odd combination, but in fact they blend very well, producing harsh moral tales that are presented with the visual richness of a Catholic Easter service. Schrader's dialogue is great, and he writes intense psychotic stream-of-consciousness with a worrying degree of realism. Travis’ endless, maniacal monologues are like the hectoring rants of some deranged evangelist preacher.
Every scene is packed with visual imagination - kudos to the DP Michael Chapman, who also shot Raging Bull - from the slow motion opening in which the yellow cabs look like mythical beasts to the extraordinary tracking shot towards the end which turns a show-off camera trick into a gut-wrenching emotional tour-de-force. It’s an ugly film in some ways, shot in a grainy, almost cinema-verite style, but it can also be disarmingly lovely at times notably in the first, dreamy shot of Cybill Shepherd. And sleaze has its own glamour, even if that glamour is a neon-fuelled delusion. The final standout contribution to this film is that of the composer Bernard Herrmann. Yes, his music score to this film is florid and even old-fashioned, but it's entirely appropriate to the film, not least because the movie is packed with memories of other films - the most interesting being certain narrative resemblances to one of Scorsese's favourite films, John Ford's The Searchers, another film in which a misanthropic, racist character goes on a journey of vengeance, but finds that coming home again doesn't necessarily equal redemption. The ending, by the way, strikes me as about as far from catharsis as you could possibly get. In fact, I find it very hard to see how anyone could regard it as anything but deeply ambivalent. As both Scorsese and Schrader have commented, Travis is a ticking time bomb who could go off again at any second.
Taxi Driver is an immensely important and influential film - the visual style has been copied in numerous films, and the graphic violence which was unusual at the time has now become commonplace, although few other directors know how to film violence so it is actually disturbing rather than merely window-dressing. The actual on-screen bloodletting is crammed into a very short section of the film and what disturbs is Travis’ potential for explosive violence at any point; it’s like watching a pressure cooker. Look at any film by Abel Ferrara or Schrader himself, and the shadow of Taxi Driver looms over them. But few other great films are this entertaining or as rewarding to come back to time and time again. If you haven't seen it, what the hell have you been doing with your time ? If you've ever wondered why Robert De Niro is so highly regarded as an actor, following so much duff recent work, then this is your answer. Even if it can’t quite overcome Mean Streets as my favourite Scorsese film, it is, without a doubt, one of the finest films of the seventies.
This 2007 Special Edition offers a new transfer of the film. Like the earlier disc, it is anamorphic and framed at 1.85:1. However, the image is considerably different, being consistently lighter in tone and with more vibrant colours for the most part, although not in the final shootout where the image remains desaturated – the fully saturated version no longer exists as the original negative has deteriorated beyond the point of no return. The final scenes are brighter but there’s a reddish tint to the whole image not just the blood. While the new version undoubtedly shows more detail than the old one and is sharper, I’m not sure that the brighter colours entirely serve the gritty style of Michael Chapman’s cinematography. It’s good to see the print damage of earlier releases gone and there are no problems with artifacting here but each viewer will have to decide which version they prefer. The following pictures illustrate the differences.
1999 R2 DVD
2007 R2 DVD
1999 R2 DVD
2007 R2 DVD
1999 R2 DVD
2007 R2 DVD
1999 R2 DVD
2007 R2 DVD
There are three audio tracks in English, German and Spanish; all of which are in Dolby Digital 5.1. When the film was re-released in the early 1990s, Martin Scorsese produced a Dolby SR mix and this is the basis of the 5.1 track here. As remixes go, it’s not bad and at least it has the benefit of some directorial authority. The music is the main beneficiary as it spreads luxuriantly across the channels while dialogue is occasionally directional with Travis’ monologues inhabiting the central channel like some malevolent preacher. Ideally, one would wish to have the original 1976 mono track but what we do get is more than acceptable.
This is a two-disc special edition but we were only provided with the first disc of the package for the purposes of this review. Hopefully, I will be able to come back and look at the second disc of extras in due course. I know that it includes the superb "Making Taxi Driver" feature which is essential viewing. Anyway, the first disc contains a selection of trailers - Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Punisher, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3. Although there’s a connection in the case of CE3K – Paul Schrader worked on both films as scriptwriter - what any of the others have to do with Taxi Driver is a mystery.
We also get two commentaries; one good, one hopeless. The good one is provided by screenwriter Paul Schrader. Although he doesn’t talk constantly, everything he has to say is of interest, from the origins of the name Travis Bickle – it’s iambic, which had never occurred to me – to the reasons why Albert Brooks was cast in the minor role of Tom – it was to make a character who doesn’t exist on the page come alive. He discusses the different locations and the casting – extending his range of reference to his own film Blue Collar - while having a lot of illuminating things to say about how a good director works with what’s on the page to make a great movie which reflects the contributions of writer and actors. Some of what he has to say can be found in the “Making Taxi Driver” documentary which was on the old DVD and is on the second disc of this release, but there’s a lot of new stuff too.
The other commentary is by an academic, Professor Robert Kolker, and it’s a bit of a dud. I’m not a fan of academic commentaries on films unless said academic has something interesting to say which goes beyond interpreting the film itself – those provided by Professor Christopher Frayling, for example, which are based on a lifetime of studying Sergio Leone. But Kolker keeps telling us what we’re seeing and makes such jejune comments that one wonders why he was employed to do this. He even manages to get things mixed up – Travis doesn’t, of course, kick over the TV during the Jackson Browne song but later. Kolker helpfully tells us that the Jackson Browne song ‘Late For The Sky’ is a lot more gentle than the Bernard Herrmann score – that’s a good example of the complexity of his observations. In addition, apparently, Bernard Herrmann’s music provides ‘a good deal of the structure for the image making’ but since it was written after the film was shot, I’m not sure how that was possible. This really is poor stuff and I suggest you ignore it. The real missed opportunity here was the failure to licence Martin Scorsese’s fabled commentary from the Criterion Laserdisc.
Subtitles are helpfully provided for both the film and for the commentaries.
Taxi Driver is a masterpiece, one of Scorsese’s two or three best films, and it deserves to be seen again and again. This new transfer will have its adherents and detractors but at the very least, it gets this film right back in the middle of public debate, where it belongs.