- Rated R
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All photos © Sony Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
he first shot of "Taxi Driver" is meant to remind us of hell. Steam billows out of a manhole. Then, a yellow cab emerges from it like a monster from a radioactive swamp. The man in the cab is, of course, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). A 26 year-old war veteran, he is not merely alienated but estranged from the universe.
We hear Travis's moralistic narration about a cleansing rain that will redeem a Manhattan besmirched by crime and sexual depravity, but he spends his time transporting prostitutes and sitting in porno theaters. We see him popping pills to ensure his continued insomnia and pouring schnapps over breakfast cereal, but the driver talks about getting healthy. We hear his self-obsession and his delusions of heroism but he also provides a prescription for mental hygiene: "I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that one should become a person like other people."
The cabbie's self-doomed attempt at becoming a person first leads him to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a WASP goddess working on the presidential campaign of a prominent senator (Leonard Harris). Tentatively attracted by his looks and oddball charm, she is quickly repulsed when Travis takes her to a high-end pornographic movie theater. Less abortive is a burgeoning friendship with Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old runaway prostitute conducting business pretty much out in the open.
Travis needs to rain down destruction on someone and so he buys some guns, bones up on his marksmanship, and decides to exercise his violent power on the only U.S. Presidential candidate he's ever thought about, who also happens to be Betty's boss. If that doesn't work out, however, it might prove to be extremely bad news for Iris's pimp (Harvey Keitel) and anyone else nearby.
It's an acknowledged classic now, but this fourth feature from director Martin Scorsese and the third produced screenplay from critic turned master screenwriter Paul Schrader was as controversial in the bicentennial year of 1976 as successful movies get. Attacked for its ultra-violent climax and Jodie Foster's inherently disturbing role, "Taxi Driver” was also the winner of the Cannes Palm D'Or and nominated for four Oscars, including nods to both De Niro and Foster. 35 years later, its status as a work of cinematic art and a solid piece of problematic entertainment is more assured than ever.
The most striking thing about watching the new 4K digital restoration of "Taxi Driver" is that, as psychically and physically brutal as it is, it shows mercy for the viewer. Though it identifies a modern day sickness we all know exists, was made without any thought that it could be a commercial success, and was actually written by Paul Schrader as a form of therapy, we are nevertheless provided with plenty of suspense, beauty, humor, and entertaining oddness. A great deal of the latter two elements is provided by the less crucial supporting characters, particularly the late Peter Boyle as a clueless cabby acquaintance of Travis's, and comedian Albert Brooks as an Albert Brooks-like campaign worker. Scorsese pal Steven Prince is just as much fun improvising as a gun/drug dealer. His bit may remind you of another contraband-purchasing scene from "Pulp Fiction."
Although Paul Schrader had written a film he believed was entirely from the point of view of its half-mad protagonist, Scorsese decides to loosen the screws by breaking away from Travis's grip on a few occasions. There is the intimate scene between Jody Foster and a bone-chillingly tender Harvey Keitel set in the pimp's apartment, which was a point of contention between the director and the writer. (Scorsese and editor Marcia Lucas cut in a brief shot of De Niro outside the hotel as a P.O.V. fig-leaf.) Less often noticed are a series of low-key comic scenes between Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks, which hint at another movie entirely – a comedy-satire that would have foreshadowed "Broadcast News," perhaps. These scenes happen as Bickle is watching from outside the office, but they are not in any way from his point of view. There is a world around him of more normal people with more normal problems that Travis will never know anything about.
"Taxi Driver" isn't only a masterpiece for director Scorsese, it's a masterpiece composed of contributions that are themselves masterpieces, starting with Schrader's legendary screenplay and Michael Chapman's breathtaking photography. Composer Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho," "Citizen Kane") was arguably the greatest of all film music composers. A departure from his primarily orchestral work, his jazz-based score was as great as any of his other works. It was also the last music he would ever write.
Speaking of masterpiece-level contributions to "Taxi Driver," Travis Bickle easily remains one of De Niro's three or four greatest performances. It's a role filled with contradictory notes, allowing us to see the cabbie's cheerily goofy side as he chats up a Secret Service agent (Richard Higgs) or struggles to make connections with the females he obsesses over. De Niro always makes sense in his senselessness. He improvises the film's signature line ("You talkin' to me?") out of the sheer logic of what a guy would say to himself in a mirror while playing at being a gun-toting badass. No less remarkable is the very young Foster as the tragic Iris. It's a brilliant role about a victim who never realizes she is one, until, at last, Travis rescues her in a hellish rain of blood, gunfire and murder.
Single Disc Blu-ray Review:
The visual quality of this disc, restored with the participation of Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman, is as perfect as you could possibly hope for. The sound is also as perfect as you could ask for with Bernard Herrmann's brass-based selections being a revelation in lossless HD sound. There are also enough special features left over from past discs to keep a filmic obsessive as disconnected from everyday life as any crazed cab driver. That starts with three commentaries: one by Paul Schrader and one by academic Robert Kolker from the 2007 DVD, plus a terrific commentary from the 1986 Criterion laser disc featuring Schrader and Scorsese. There are also seven – count 'em, seven – documentaries from past discs about various aspects of the production of "Taxi Driver" and its ongoing legacy. That includes the feature length "Making Taxi Driver" documentary. It's not a great work of art, but it's absolutely invaluable historically and features interviews with all of the key players, including Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks, all otherwise absent from the extras.
Other features include a brief then-and-now ("now" being 2007) look at locations with a cameo by former New York mayor Ed Koch. We are also treated to Scorsese's unusual DIY approach to storyboarding. Some of the theoretically snazzy Internet-based features, however, remain a mystery to me. The disc I received apparently is not in cosmic harmony with my Samsung Blu-ray player's web connection. Also, loading this Blu-ray is generally a bit wonky on my player in ways too boring to describe. As the ex-seminarian Martin Scorsese and the lapsed Calvinist Paul Schrader would, I'm sure, agree, we live in fallen world. Ain't nothing perfect.