Taxi Driver (1976)
By: Stuart Giesel July 26, 2012  | 
Sony Pictures | Region Free | 1.85:1, 1080p | English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 | 114 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Country: USA
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Quick: think of the best movie of the 1970s. Got it? No, it's not Godfather I or II. It's not Chinatown or Jaws or Close Encounters or Deliverance. It might very well be Apocalypse Now...but it's not. The correct answer is Taxi Driver, of course.

You know the deal: Robert De Niro's most famous role as the unhinged Travis Bickle; director Martin Scorsese still flying high from the critical success of Mean Streets; a Paul Schrader screenplay written when the writer was experiencing some angst of his own; alienation; Vietnam commentary; gore-soaked finale; "you talkin' to me?". What else can be said about this iconic 70s film about disillusionment, urban decay and vigilantism? Arguably Scorsese's best film (which is saying a lot, coming from the man who made Mean Streets, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas, Casino, etc) and Robert De Niro's defining role, Taxi Driver remains as bleak, shocking and relevant as ever, despite the fact it's now more than 35 - Jesus, 35! - years old. If anything, its commentary about urban isolation is possibly even more relevant in this era of everything being done via iPhones and through Facebook and Twitter bullshit.

For the two of you who haven't seen this masterpiece, Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a tad unhinged, struggling to integrate back into society, and disgusted by the decay, crime and corruption surrounding him. Plagued by insomnia, he finds work as a late-night taxi driver, willing to work "anytime, anywhere". He becomes obsessed with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker and, later, a teenage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), who works for sleazy pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). Eventually, after a falling out with Betsy, Bickle comes to the realisation that killing Presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) will provide him with some semblance of meaning in his otherwise aimless life.

So what is Taxi Driver, exactly? It doesn't really fit into any one genre, although a case could be made for it as a sort of noir-ish urban crime drama. It is most certainly a vigilante film, but you could hardly put it in the same exploitative mould as something like Death Wish II. However you categorise it, Taxi Driver is a genuine classic and remains as powerful today as it must have been on its release. There's something grotesquely thrilling and powerful about seeing the mean streets of New York in that particular time, watching Bickle's taxi prowl like a lion amongst the wildlife. It's as much a snapshot of the times as it is a character study. It's amazing to see the bowels of New York through Bickle's eyes - the grotesque fashions, porno cinemas and dangerous nutjobs are a sight to behold.

Everything about this film is perfect. The screenplay by Paul Schrader is a masterclass in beautifully efficient screenwriting, and his creation of Travis Bickle is a fully-formed character. This isn't some two-dimensional channel for Schrader to funnel his resentment and rage; Bickle feels real. Apparently Schrader wrote the script after suffering a nervous breakdown, and facets of Bickle's character and experiences are autobiographical (scary). Of course, a lot of the character's success is also to do with De Niro's remarkable performance. He oscillates between true contempt for his surroundings to a place of hope with his introduction to Betsy. Of course, being such a social reject, he sabotages his chances with her by taking her to a porn film, thinking that is what normal couples do. Does he do this intentionally or is he, in a way, self-fulfilling his own destruction? His late-night cab rides sees him interact with all walks of life, and if he doesn't have much to say a lot of the time it's because De Niro's eyes tell us what the character is thinking. As Bickle's life slowly spirals downwards you can read the stress, the isolation and the insomnia on his face. Famously a Method actor, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that De Niro so inhabited the role of Bickle during the shoot that he probably experienced much of what the character was feeling (minus the cathartic violence of the ending). It's one of the best performances of De Niro's career, possibly even better than Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta, and if it's a sad fact that De Niro's latter career has taken a nosedive in quality, at least we can take a look back at roles like Bickle and revel in what once was. You only need to see the famous "you talkin' to me?" scene to get a sense of this - the scene in the script was allegedly one line ("Travis looks in the mirror") and yet De Niro improvised his entire monologue with Scorsese's rabid encouragement, resulting in one of the most famous scenes in movie history.

Other classic scenes abound. The scene where Bickle sits in his taxi with a spiteful husband, played by Scorsese, who plans to kill his wife with a Magnum is truly chilling. Bickle tries to act smoothly with a secret service agent at a Palantine rally, warning him of a lot of suspicious people hanging around without realising he has effectively painted a target on his back. A salesman played by Steven Prince (and while you're at it, check out Scorsese's brilliant documentary American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince) sells Bickle a bunch of weapons and reveals himself to be the sort of guy who can get anyone anything, from downers to crystal meth to Cadillacs.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast is peerless, even Cybill Shepherd who I normally couldn't care less for. Albert Brooks makes a memorable appearance as a campaign worker who wants Betsy for his own despite Bickle's advances. Peter Boyle is terrific as fellow taxi driver 'Wizard' who acts as Bickle's sounding board and dispenses sage-like advice, But it's Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel who truly bring the quality of the acting up to De Niro's level. Simultaneously creepy and charismatic, Keitel's Sport is a sleazebag of the highest order, yet there's something inherently charming about him even as he's talking about selling his girls off like pieces of chicken. Foster absolutely sells her controversial role as Iris the prostitute; she seems older than her years suggest, yet at the same time there's a naivety and a sweetness to her when she begins to let her guard down.

The majority of Taxi Driver is seen through Bickle's eyes, so it's surprising that the film isn't more unsavoury than it already is. After all, Bickle is emotionally traumatised, a seriously damaged character, and it's hinted on numerous occasions that he's racist (though apparently Scorsese changed the race of the pimps from African Americans to white, as to leave it would prove too incendiary). But it's to the credit of all involved, especially De Niro, that we understand - to a point - Bickle's frustrations and rage against the ever-worsening condition of the city. Of course, rather than shrug his shoulders, accept the situation and try to better himself, Bickle takes a less agreeable route.

The haunting, jazz-infused score by the legendary Bernard Herrmann (his final score, he died literally hours after the recording sessions) is sublime; somehow it manages to be haunting, creepy and beautiful at the same time. The cinematography by Michael Chapman is equally as good - the opening shot of a yellow taxi breaking through rising steam from the streets like a wild beast is a most remarkable way to open a film. And of course Scorsese is on top form here. He paints a terrifying picture of loneliness in New York and punctuates the film with memorable shots, not to mention the blood-soaked finale which is still shocking in its raw depiction of violence, even today in an age of endless Saw films. Some of Scorsese's camera shots were, for the time, quite against the norm - witness the camera cutting away from Bickle to pan across the garage and then settle back on Bickle again, or how the camera cut away from Bickle to an empty corridor whilst he's on the phone with Betsy struggling to heal their relationship. When the violence comes, it's typical Scorsese: explosive, shocking but somehow not exploitative the way some of the films from the 70's tended to be. There are so many memorable moments: the aftermath of Bickle's rampage slowly presented in a series of overhead tracking shots, Travis's commitment to purging his body of toxins, a shot of aspirin dissolving in a glass of water, the moment that Bickle first sets his eyes on Betsy (including a brief appearance by Scorsese). It'd be easier to list the scenes and shots that aren't memorable or aren't shot in an interesting way.

Seriously, I could pontificate all day on the merits of Taxi Driver. For those who haven't seen it it's an absolute must-see, unless you like your films sugar-coated and neatly packaged with an unambiguous and happy ending. For those who have seen it, why not watch it again?
I was shocked when I saw the Blu-Ray transfer - this is absolutely stunning stuff, Taxi Driver like you've never seen it, like I've never seen it, and I've seen the damn thing dozens of times. I was blown away by the scene in the taxi rank as Bickle asks the manager (Joe Spinell) for a job. It looks like a modern film that just happens to be set in the 70's. The detail is truly staggering, and there's not a hint of artifacts or anti-aliasing. For a 70's film, the HD restoration undertaken by Sony has produced unbelievable results. The shocking yellow of the taxi, the hideous gore of the finale (even though the scene had its colour de-saturated at the behest of the meddlesome MPAA), the even more hideous 70's fashions, everything is presented with superb clarity. Some of the scenes are a little soft, but overall it's hard to fault. Just check out the raindrops on Bickle's cab, or the lurid reds of the traffic lights and the neon-soaked streets. It's hard to imagine Taxi Driver ever looking any better.
The audio is as sublime as the picture quality. Though there's little action for the back speakers that I experienced, the soundtrack is still dynamic and strong without sacrificing background details. Herrmann's moody, evocative score has never sounded better. Dialogue is crisp, sound effects have the right amount of oomph (if that can be used as some sort of a grading scale) and the mix is so good you probably won't notice it because you'll be too enthralled in the proceedings. If I wore a hat, I would take it off to the Blu-Ray developers (and be a twat for wearing a hat).
Extra Features
The Blu-Ray is stuffed with extra features, and they're not just the usual crappy behind-the-scenes quickies that usually make up DVD and Blu-Ray special features. Much of this I recall from previous DVD incarnations, but there are a couple of new features that round off the collection. It's pretty comprehensive stuff; however I found if you end up watching the whole lot in one go you start getting pretty sick of Bernard Herrmann's (usually wonderful) score.

There are three audio commentaries on the disc, the original 1986 Audio Commentary with Schrader and Scorsese that's taken from the Criterion Laserdisc, a commentary with film professor Robert Kolker and a sole commentary with Paul Schrader. I probably prefer the 1986 commentary simply because of Scorsese's involvement, though there is merit with the other two commentaries, particularly Kolker's in which he dissects the movie like a neurosurgeon and comes up with some truly insightful and intellectual insights. It can be pretty dry stuff, but for film scholars this is a goldmine. Schrader's commentary probably has a few too many dead spots for my liking.

Interactive Script to Screen: You can watch Taxi Driver whilst running through Schrader's script. A nice feature, even if the script doesn't always match what's happening on the screen.

Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver: Scorsese talks about his experiences in filming Taxi Driver. Obviously the man is a wealth of information and it's fascinating to hear him talk about various aspects of the movie, particularly the challenges in dealing with the MPAA. There are some revealing moments too on his mindset at the time.

Producing Taxi Driver: Producer Michael Phillips talks about the production of Taxi Driver, the hurdles in getting the film made, and working with Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro.

God's Lonely Man: Paul Schrader discusses the origins and psyche of Travis Bickle, along with his development of the script.

Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute: Oliver Stone, Robert De Niro, Paul Schrader and others provide their thoughts on Taxi Driver and on Scorsese's influence and filmmaking methods.

Taxi Driver Stories: An interesting discussion with taxi drivers of the perils and specifics of their profession in New York City in the 70's. There are some memorable anecdotes throughout, and the feature provides a nice mirror to the film itself.

Making Taxi Driver: A terrific documentary about the development of Taxi Driver comprising most of the main players.

Travis' New York: Cinematographer Michael Chapman and New York mayor Ed Koch talk about NYC in the 70s.

Travis' New York Locations: An interesting comparison between certain shooting locations in 1970s compared to how they look like now (or, rather, 2006).

Intro to Storyboards by Martin Scorsese: Scorsese talks about the value of using storyboards in preparation for shooting.

Storyboard to Film Comparison: Some Taxi Driver storyboards set to their corresponding scenes in the film.

Galleries: Tons of shots from the set to production stills to Herrmann's musical compositions.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Taxi Driver stands as a towering piece of cinema, one of the landmark films from the 70's, and probably the highlight of the (to date) eight Scorsese/De Niro collaborations. Fueled by superb performances, including De Niro's monumental turn as Travis Bickle, and Scorsese's direction of Paul Schrader's taut script that expertly ramps up the paranoia and intensity, it's still as grimy, unsettling and brilliant as ever. Sony's Blu-Ray is as close to perfection as you would want for a film of Taxi Driver's stature. Even if you own multiple DVD copies of the film, you owe it to yourself to upgrade to this particular Blu-Ray, as it looks and sounds better than I would have ever thought possible. The laundry list of extras simply tops off what is an essential Blu-Ray purchase. Absolutely and wholeheartedly recommended.

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