Revisiting Taxi Driver

Revisiting Taxi Driver

* Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen Taxi Driver then there are spoilers in this post *

The new 4K restoration of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is another reminder of why it remains an enduring American classic.

A drama about an isolated New York cab driver named Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), it charts his relationships with a fellow driver (Peter Boyle), a political campaign volunteer (Cybil Shepherd), a young prostitute (Jodie Foster) and her pimp (Harvey Keitel) as he starts to see violence as a solution to his problems.

I first saw the film on video in 1992 and then caught it several times on television and DVD since but had never seen it on the big screen until last night at the BFI in central London.

This new version has been given an extensive 4K digital restoration under the supervision of Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures, which means that the basic resolution of the 35mm negative has been preserved, and it was done with the co-operation of Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman.

All of this was for a 35th anniversary release, which includes a short theatrical run from Park Circus ahead of a UK Blu-ray release in June.

First time viewers should be aware that the film captures mid-70s New York in all of its grimy glory, so don’t expect some crisp, shimmering artefact that you might get from a more modern production.

However, this version is faithful to the look of the original and is complemented by a restored soundtrack which does real justice to the sound design and Bernard Hermann’s classic score.

Many things have been written about the film since it opened in 1976, so what follows are some thoughts that struck me after watching the restored version last night.

The Hitchcock style fonts on the opening titles: Just before Hermann’s classic score kicks in you might notice that the font of the opening titles are vaguely reminiscent of those Saul Bass designed for Alfred Hitchcock and others.

Was Scorsese preparing us for the music from Hitch’s longtime composer? (Also look out for the vintage Columbia Pictures logo which Scorsese insisted be put on this restored version).

Bernard Hermann’s Score: The classic drums and brass that open the film as De Niro’s cab comes out of the smoke are broken beautifully by the contrasting saxophone, which serves as a motif throughout.

It was Hermann’s final score before he died and is a fitting swan song for one of the all-time great film composers.

General Image and Sound: The new 4K restoration is deeply impressive, although it should be noted that the slightly grainy film look has been preserved. There are numerous scenes which look cleaner and crisper but there are also sequences – especially the climax – in which the rougher, desaturated look has been preserved. It should be noted that the film was shot entirely on location in New York, which makes the sound work all the more impressive.

De Niro’s Legendary Performance: Given the dramatic artistic collapse of De Niro’s acting career over the past fifteen years, his golden years of the 1970s and 80s are almost painful to watch. In The Godfather Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Raging Bull (1980) he gave iconic performances, which were some of the finest in film history. Much has been made of his exhaustive research for the role, but look out for the layers he gives Travis.

Taxi Driver at MOVIECLIPS.com

There is the charming innocent who tries to politely communicate with women, the amiable cab driver and ultimately, the disturbing vigilante who sees guns as a solution to his urban hell. De Niro brilliantly juggles all of these elements and really sells his gradual descent into violence. The now legendary ‘You talkin to me’ monologue is not only bravura acting, but mesmerising because it mixes his psychotic impulses with a human desire to communicate (tellingly he is talking to himself).

The Supporting Cast: Because De Niro is so outstanding, it is easy to forget how good the supporting cast is. Boyle is a classic ‘leader of the pack’ in the cab office; Shepherd is charming as the object of Travis’ affections; Brooks is deliciously smarmy as her political campaign colleague; Leonard Harris is pitch-perfect as the political candidate; Foster is precocious in what must have been a hard role to play; and Keitel is brilliantly sleazy as her pimp.

Portrait of Urban Decay: The production design and use of locations is masterful and comes across strongly on this restored version. The dirt and grime of New York feels incredibly real and is important in establishing the urban squalor that helps drive Travis to desperate acts. There are careful shots of pimps, street criminals and crowds that subtly set the mood. But overall, you come out thinking there was something deeply rotten about the Big Apple in the 1970s and Travis Bickle – in an iconic yellow cab – is a perfect metaphor for the city in this period.

Scorsese’s Cameo(s): The director has a famous cameo in the back of a cab, as rather irate husband in a suit. But he can also be seen very briefly earlier on with a t-shirt and jeans sitting down as Betsy walks in the street.

Are they meant to be two different characters? Or was Scorsese just short of extras that day? But whenever I see a Scorsese cameo I can’t help but think of Hitchcock – a director deeply important to him – who also made several on-screen cameos.

The Clint Eastwood Connection: Before the screening began I was comparing De Niro’s career to Eastwood to someone sitting next to me as they make for an interesting case study. In the 1970s De Niro was the respected leading man every serious actor aspired to be, whilst Eastwood was the commercial star of the Dirty Harry series and mainstream fodder like The Gauntlet (1977) and Every Which Way But Loose (1978). But today Eastwood is the hugely respected director of films like Mystic River (2003) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), whilst De Niro is the comedy dad-for-hire in commercial gunk like Little Fockers (2010) or horror crap such as Godsend (2004).

Coincidentally, as Taxi Driver progressed I noticed the presence of Eastwood in more ways than one. For a start his 1975 film The Eiger Sanction is showing opposite the cinema where Travis takes Betsy to see a Swedish sex film. Then there is Scorsese’s speech about the 44 Magnum and what it can do to the female anatomy. Could this possibly be a riff on Dirty Harry’s famous speech about the handgun? Or is it all just a coincidence? (Just a thought. Can you even imagine a contemporary director like Christopher Nolan or David Fincher doing this kind of cameo?)

The Political Dimension: The political campaign that hovers in the background of the film is shrewdly judged. Palantine’s slogan (‘We are the people’) typifies the calculated insincerity of politics so brilliantly that I’m surprised real campaigns haven’t used it more often.

The scene where the senator gets in the back of the cab is wonderfully played. Leonard Harris, who plays Senator Palantine, was actually better known as a TV cultural commentator but his natural gravitas and diction make him perfectly suited for the role.

His dialogue with Travis is funny but also splendidly awkward, showing the gulf between politicians and the people they represent, even though the illusion is that they have something in common. Isn’t this modern politics in a nutshell? It also foreshadows a key later sequence.

Bickle as Assassin: You could read Bickle as a thinly veiled version of loner assassins like Arthur Bremer or Lee Harvey Oswald in his frustration with life and desire to make a name for himself. But at the same time screenwriter Paul Schrader has admitted that his own personal troubles inspired the character and even Oliver Stone (a pupil of Scorsese’s at NYU film school) has said he could have been an influence on Bickle. Like Travis, Stone was a Vietnam vet who, during the mid-70s, wore a green combat jacket whilst driving a cab in New York. Bickle is thus a complex protagonist: a dangerous outsider who we can sympathise with up to a point. Certainly the original trailer sold the film on the danger of the central character:

But he is more layered than the traditional movie monster. In fact he is a disturbing character precisely because we get to know him. He ironically ends up a ‘hero’ in the press and it could be this quality which gave the film an unfortunate real life legacy when real life loner John Hinckley Jnr became obsessed with it and Jodie Foster, before trying to shoot President Regan in 1981. In his mind, did Hinckley think that he would end up like Travis does? This suggests a creepy relevance to Taxi Driver, which is perhaps a testament to how well it taps in to a certain mindset.

The Easy Andy Scene: The scene where Travis purchases guns from an illegal dealer, “Easy Andy” (Steven Prince) is a memorable one. The windows of the apartment room provide a great backdrop with their views of the Hudson, contrasting with the more claustrophobic scenes in the film. Guns here are a form of release for Bickle. Notice how he pointedly refuses any illegal drugs but buys as many weapons as possible. It seems hand guns are his real drug of choice. Incidentally, Scorsese later made a short film about Prince called American Boy. (Note the prescient mention of Crystal Meth at the end of the scene, a drug which spread in the US over the next thirty years).

Compassion Amidst The Murder: It is worth noting that Bickle throughout shows an unusual level of compassion towards others. Betsy is initially attracted to him because his honest compliments and sincerity contrast nicely to her smarmy co-worker, whilst his attempts to help Iris get out of child prostitution are similarly laudable. This prepares us for the end where the press and Iris’ parents see him as a hero, although not the one they think he is. It also shows us that even bad people can do good things – again, this is unusual in a mainstream Hollywood film.

The Racism of the 1970s: Maybe in retrospect, we like to think that racism is a ghost of the past exorcised by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But Taxi Driver doesn’t shy away from the racial tensions of a large city. Notice the looks Travis gives to black characters (especially black pimps) and he freely uses racist terms. Scorsese’s cameo as the ‘sick’ passenger in Travis’ taxi features a use of the n-word that younger audiences might find objectionable. When Travis first shoots the robber in the convenience store, the owner carries on beating the man with a savagery that suggests a racial dimension. The pimp played by Harvey Keitel was black in the first draft of the script, but that was later changed as they wanted to avoid the stereotype and accusations that the film itself had racist overtones. So, the film is still a powerful and uncomfortable reminder of how racism lingers just under the surface of ‘regular’ society.

The Colour of the Climax: The violence of the climactic shootout freaked out the MPAA and they threatened to give the film an X rating if changes weren’t made (which would have meant commercial death for the film). As part of the changes Scorsese toned down the colour of the climax in order to get an R-rating, so that the blood looks less red. For this restored version Grover Crisp explained in a lengthy interview with The Digital Bits why they didn’t colour correct this sequence:

Q: Much has been made of the decision to alter the color of the shooting scene at the end of the film to get an R rating in 1976. Why didn’t you restore it to the originally-shot, more colorful scene?
A: There are a couple of answers to this. One, which we discussed, was the goal of presenting the film as it was released, which is the version everyone basically knows. This comes up every now and then, but the director feels it best to leave the film as it is. That decision is fine with me. However, there is an impression from some who think we could easily “pump” the color back into that scene and that is not as easy as it sounds. The film was not just printed darker, or with muted colors, as some think. There are two sections of the original negative that were removed from the cut and assembled camera negative. One is the long shot where the cab pulls up, Bickle walks over to Sport, they argue, he shoots him, then he walks back and sits on a stoop. That is all one shot that was removed. The second section removed begins with the shot of the interior of the apartment building where he shoots the hood in the hand and all the shots following this down to the final one of the overhead crowd shot outside – that entire sequence was removed as assembled. These two sections of original camera negative were then sent to TVC, a small lab in New York, where it went through a Chemtone process, a chemical treatment that somewhat opens shadows allowing for greater density and lower contrast, for the most part. The exact process was a bit clouded by TVC as a proprietary service, but it usually involved original processing and, at this point, the negative was already finished. Whatever the actual processes, what I can say is that they delivered back duplicate negatives of these two sections, with the long sequence, in effect, now an optical dupe and with the desired color and density built into it. So, literally, when printing this film at a lab then (or now), there was no way to grade it and print it the way it was shot. Those muted colors are built into the dupe negative and it doesn’t work to try to print it otherwise. We also searched many times over the years for the original negative that was removed, but to no avail. Likely, it was junked at TVC at the time.

Q: What about for the Blu-ray – couldn’t you just re-do the color with today’s technology?
A: No, the same situation exists in that environment. You can’t really successfully pump a color into a film that isn’t there. There were attempts, to some degree, to put more red into that scene on older transfers of the film (the most recent almost ten years ago, and without talent involvement) and you can see those results in DVDs that were released. There is more red than should be there, but the red is everywhere, in the walls, clothing, skin, hair, etc., and that is what happens when you try to force a color into an image that really isn’t present. This Blu-ray release is actually closer to what it looked like in 1976 than any previous home video release, and not just for the color. The well-know “you talkin’ to me” scene, for example, was seriously cropped on older editions. All those shots are actually from the camera looking at his reflection in the mirror, not straight on of him while he talks, and they cropped out the side of the mirror and zoomed in to the point where he had slightly more headroom, but you could barely see the gun he’s holding. We don’t agree with that kind of framing manipulation, so we framed it properly for 1.85 SMPTE standards for projection and now you will see the image as you would in a theater, which is the way it should be.

You can read the full interview with Crisp here.

The Final Shot: The ambiguous final shot of the film, which involves Travis looking suddenly in his rear view mirror has always been intriguing. It suggests that he has seen something (although it isn’t clear what) and that he is disturbed. Or is it all just a fantasy? On the audio commentary for the Laserdisc Scorsese revealed that the last scene implies that he might slip back into rage in the future, and is like “a ticking time bomb.” Schrader has also said that Travis “is not cured by the movie’s end” and that “he’s not going to be a hero next time.” Again the ambiguity is startling and fascinating and provides a great talking point in any post-screening discussion.

Some classic films can lose something when you revisit them but Taxi Driver stands up remarkably well.

Part of its  power lies in how well it taps in to urban alienation, the haunting power of Schrader’s script, the brilliance of Scorsese’s direction and the unforgettable central performance from De Niro.

Scorsese’s explores the dark heart of America like few other filmmakers.

It is no coincidence that his best films – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas – have central characters who represent a side of the American psyche that Hollywood wasn’t always comfortable with.

Taxi Driver is re-released at UK cinemas from Friday 13 May in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and other cities

> Taxi Driver at the IMDb, Wikipedia and AllMovie
> Scorsese and Schrader discuss the restored version in a Q&A last month
> Scorsese interview about Taxi Driver
> The Digital Bits interview with Grover Crisp about the 4K restoration of Taxi Driver

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