Released by: Sony
Released on: 4/5/2011
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel
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The camera closes in on an Alka Seltzer tab as it lands in the glass of water and bubbles up to the surface, frothy and manic. What was once simple, plain and quiet has, when coupled with a glass of water, exploded. Travis Bickle is the Alka Seltzer in the glass of water that is seventies New York City.
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver remains one of the finest cinematic achievements of the 1970s and even now, three decades plus since it was made, the film has lost none of its power or relevancy. If anything, given the current political climate of the United States at the time of this writing, the film is just as poignant now as it has ever been. Not only is the film an allegorical piece on the issues that those returning from military service may or may not have to deal with but it also remains an interesting portrait of a socially ostracized and dangerous human being, something we've unfortunately never had any shortage of in the 'real world.'
For the three of you out there who haven't seen Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Viet Nam vet living in New York City who takes a job driving a cab at night. Travis is a loner, he's out there a bit as far as social skills are concerned and he just doesn't relate to the masses. He also sees the New York City he lives and works in as a cesspool, a sewer full of the worst that humanity has to offer. His occupation does nothing but reinforce this for him, as he is routinely forced to deal with junkies, whores and assholes - it's all part of the job.
Things look up for Travis when, seemingly by chance, he meets a beautiful woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd long before Moonlighting) who works for presidential hopeful, Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). He's instantly attracted to her but their courtship soon becomes sour when they can't relate to one another. After Travis takes her to a 42nd St. porno theater on a date, she decides she wants nothing to do with him and the screws start to come loose upstairs for our hero. Shortly after, he runs into an underage prostitute named Iris (a young Jodie Foster) and they develop a strange relationship. Travis, after learning of her plight, takes it upon himself to do what he can to clean up the seedy side of the city, and American Cinema forever changed.
Mick Jagger once sang 'Go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don't mind the maggots.' Unfortunately not everyone can be as selective with their diet as Mick, and Taxi Driver is very much a movie for those people. Anyone who has ever spent a large portion of their time in the heart of an urban metropolis, be it New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or even Toronto, has no doubt been witness to criminal activity. Whether it's drug dealing, prostitution or theft, crime and violence is to a certain extent a way of life in any major metropolitan area. De Niro, as Travis Bickle, represents that side of us that gets fed up with things. Granted, he's far from healthy - he is quite insane when it all comes down to it - but part of what gives Taxi Driver its power is that Travis Bickle lies inside so many normal, everyday citizens.
Bickle is far from a model citizen. His obsession with pornography is probably quite unhealthy and it could very well be part of the reason he's unable to relate to women on what many of us would consider a normal level. He's obviously got a bit of a temper, which we see erupt by the time that the film finishes and there are moments in the film where it's made perfectly clear to us that Travis just 'doesn't get it' as far as other people are concerned. That said, despite what happens in the last twenty-minutes of the picture, is he really the bad guy? Is Travis completely at fault for what happens or is society? Has he been pushed too far? Is he a complete psychopath or, as he says, is he simply someone who stood up?
One of the most remarkable aspects of the picture is how completely alienated Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader were able to make De Niro's Bickle. While De Niro no doubt deserves much of the credit for his portrayal of the character, Scorsese was the one who ensured that the picture was cut the way that it was cut and who did such a phenomenal job of surrounding Bickle with the lowest of the low, the worst that society had to offer. As such, while we may not necessarily agree with Bickle's philosophy or his methods, we can at least to a certain extent understand why he does what he does, particularly after he meets Iris even if their introduction is under rather unusual circumstances.
Schrader, on the other hand, infuses so much of himself and where he was at during a certain point in his life that Bickle is, frighteningly enough, an extension of himself as he is anything else. What makes the character and the circumstances so believable is the fact that so many of us have been there - who hasn't had their heart broken? Who hasn't been attracted and subsequently dismissed by someone who just didn't click? We don't always choose the people in life that we meet, nor do we choose whom we're attracted to. Genetics and biology play a large part in that, a much bigger part than free will does. Can we blame Travis for falling for Betsy? She is quite beautiful, she's interesting and smart and funny and charming. Is it his fault that he's completely incompatible with her? Or is it simply fate, one of life's many injustices?
That said, as deeply personal as the script is and as very much infused with the pissed off enthusiasm of a young Scorsese the film is, De Niro (fresh off of his Academy Award winning performance from The Godfather II) really does make Travis Bickle the instantly recognizable cinematic icon that he is. According to Schrader, a few of the more infamous scenes, the mirror speech for example, where at least partially improvised by De Niro during the production and while he may have gone on to garbage like Meet The Fockers he will always deserve our respect and admiration for the challenging roles that made him the respected actor that he is, Taxi Driver being up there alongside other Scorsese collaborations such as Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.
On top of the absorbing script, the stellar lead performance and the tense and precise direction is the cinematography courtesy of director of photography Michael Chapman. The man has done everything from Michael Jackson videos to Scorsese films to Steve Martin comedies but Taxi Driver remains such a perfectly photographed picture that it's hard to imagine that this is not the film he'll be forever remembered for (and yes, in terms of cinematography, Taxi Driver is above Raging Bull which Chapman also shot). It's been said, and rightfully so, that New York City is as important a character in the film as any of the people who show up in front of the camera and that's very true. Chapman more or less just let his camera go, capturing the reality of the New York of the era, and as such what we're left with is a very realistic feeling picture that gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at the flat out scuzziness of the area where Bickle works his beat. This, in turn, makes Bickle's inevitable downward spiral all the more understandable.
With big names like De Niro, Scorsese and Schrader dominating the credits, it would be easy to look past the supporting cast that makes Taxi Driver the masterpiece that it is. Cybill Shepherd is absolutely beautiful as Betsy, she's as charming as she should be and her character exudes a certain unattainable sexiness that someone like Travis Bickle will never be able to acquire, lending her character enough unattainable sex appeal to work. It's obvious that Travis and Betsey are from two very different worlds, and it's even more obvious that despite his best intentions, they don't have a chance at making it work despite her honest intentions at the beginning of their brief relationship. Throw the smart-ass Tom, as played perfectly by the smug Albert Brooks, into the mix and you can see that when Bickle tries to enter Betsey's world he's really just jumping into a deep end he'll never be able to swim out of. Travis' knowledge of politics and world events is blunt (see the quote below) and far too obvious for the politicos he's found himself interacting with to ever really understand. He represents the everyman while they represent an administration more interested in conquest than problem solving.
Other supporting actors - like the late, great Peter Boyle, who plays Wizard, and even director Scorsese himself, who plays the disgruntled husband with the gun in the back of Bickle's cab - all deserve credit for joining together to assemble a fantastic cast of bit part players who simply add to the realistic nihilism of the film. Harvey Keitel, as Iris' pimp, Sport, stands out in his all too brief appearance while Foster turns in a fantastic and freakishly believable turn as the underage hooker who changes Bickle's stance on action versus complacency.
Last but not least, mention needs to be made of Bernard Herrmann's completely eerie score. The instrumental parts of the picture that fade in and out over various aspects of Bickle's story add an otherworldly tone to the picture. The music not only accentuates the more poignant aspects of the film as any good soundtrack should, but it also enhances the opening sequence and sets the tone right from the get-go.
More than three decades since it was made, Taxi Driver remains one of the most powerful and important pieces of filmed art to emerge out of American cinema of the 1970s. Its impact is still felt, the people who worked on it have gone on to become some of the most respected filmmakers in the land, and most importantly the film still packs one hell of a punch. New York might have been sanitized since the film was made but the story could easily be transplanted to whatever part of the world where there is strife and social unrest that you'd care to name. As such, the story remains timeless and the film still hits you like a punch in the gut. Odds are, that will never change making the picture as important and justifiably pissed off now and in the future as it ever has been.
Taxi Driver has always been a very dark, gritty and grainy looking film and Sony’s AVC encoded 1.85.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer on this Blu-ray replicates that pretty much perfectly. Taken from a new 4K restoration, there’s way more detail here than was ever noticeable on standard definition and texture is also considerably improved. There are no noticeable instances of any authoring problems, so the picture is devoid of edge enhancement, compression artifacts, macro-blocking or noise reduction – it’s ever important grain structure is completely intact. Skin tones look nice and natural and color reproduction looks perfect. Black levels are nice and deep but not at the cost of shadow detail while contrast is consistently good throughout. It’s really hard to imagine the film looking much better than it does here and Sony should be commended for a job well done.
Audio options are handled nicely by an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that does a surprisingly good job of maintaining the film’s seventies style. Herrmann’s score has never sounded stronger or carried more impact than it does here and it’s spread out through the mix nicely, but at the same time it never feels forced. The absence of the original mix is understandably going to irk purists but Sony’s 5.1 track really does do a great job with the material. It’s front heavy, with the rears used primarily for ambient noise here and there, but that’s not a bad thing and is in keeping with the film’s origins. Bass response is strong but never to the point where it’s distracting or overpowering, while dialogue is perfectly audible throughout. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and the levels are well balanced and consistent. Optional French and Portuguese DTS-HD 5.1 tracks are included, as is a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track, while removable subtitles are provided in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Traditional Chinese, Korean and Thai.
Most of the extras on this Blu-ray release will look familiar to those who bought the two-disc release from a few years back (though for the most part they’re given an HD upgrade here), with one important exception. First up is a brand new audio commentary track with writer Paul Schrader. Schrader starts off by explaining the Chemtone process used in the beginning and the end of the film, explaining that this was done intentionally to give the impression that the film is a loop, ending where it begins. From there he explains where the inspiration for the film came from, details some inaccuracies in his screenplay that Scorsese corrected such as street names and cab colors, and he explains the problems that they had getting the movie financed. Schrader also explains some alterations that were made to the script to appease the studio that was worried about his original script, which had Keitel's character and all the people killed in the brothel, originally intended to be black. In addition to giving an absolutely fascinating history lesson about the genesis of the film, Schrader also points out subtleties and minute details about Bickle and a few other characters, explaining why some of the quirks are there. A good example of this is how Schrader points out during the scene in which Scorsese appears in the back of the cab and talks about killing his wife, that Scorsese's character isn't the dangerous one as he's the one talking about it and letting it out. Bickle, on the other hand, feels the same way yet bottles it up, meaning that he's going to be the one that snaps. Along the way he also points out scenes that were improvised, discusses the making of the 'gun glide' in a fair bit of detail and where the idea came from, and he discusses how he got into screen-writing as self therapy. There's a bit of dead air here and there and a few stretches where Schrader clams up a bit, but with that said, this is a very interesting track that is completely worth listening to from start to finish. It's not only a nice historical account of how a very important film was made but also a revealing look into the mind of the man who came up with the story in the first place.
The second audio commentary track from the 2-disc DVD is also carried over, this time courtesy of Professor Robert Kolker. This track is very different from the first one, it's considerably more critical in that it dissects the film and explains a lot of the symbolism and details. Kolker explains why certain techniques were used in the film (notice how in certain scenes Travis is always shown alone in the frame?), details the visual and emotional darkness that permeates the film, and talks to the importance of the city in the film as a character rather than just a location. He talks about the differences between the diary that Travis keeps versus Travis' internal dialogues and his conversations with the people he interacts with. He elaborates on the importance of Scorsese's style and the impact that it had on the film, and how the discussion that Betsy has with Travis about Kris Kristofferson represents the disconnect he has from the world around him and how by taking Betsy to a 'movie' Travis is trying to pull her into his world, represented by the confines of his cab. He points out how Travis' paranoia can be seen in his interaction with others and his reactions which become increasingly extreme, represented by red lighting and odd camera angles. He points out the importance of Wizard's character which is a contrast to Bickle's extremes, and he points out the cyclical nature of the film through the introduction of Betsy and then of Iris. The end result is an excellent critical and observational discussion wherein Kolker delves deep into aspects of the film that aren't so obvious on the surface. Kolker also does a great job of pointing out some interesting comparisons to the cinema of Hitchcock and Ford. It's a fairly deep track and as such is quite rewarding - even if you've seen the film countless times, as many of us have, it's still a very interesting lecture that will likely point out things you may not have noticed before.
Not included on the 2-disc DVD release (and the important exception mentioned earlier) is the commentary track found here with director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader. This was originally recorded for the Criterion Collection laserdisc released years ago in 1986 and it’s nice to finally have it available again as it’s a very good one. Schrader covers a lot of the same ground that he does in his solo track but Scorsese’s input here makes this absolutely worthwhile. Here he spends quite a bit of time talking about the shooting locations and what it was like working on the streets of some of New York City’s lesser neighborhoods while making the picture. Of course, he talks about the cast and crew and discusses the performances and camerawork but he and Schrader spend some time going over how the script evolved, changes that they made during the production and more. Though the two participants were recorded separately and then edited together, the track has a good flow to it and is very informative.
Martin Scorsese On Taxi Driver (16:52, HD): This segment allows Scorsese to sit down and chat to the camera about how the film is one that comes from the heart and various regards. He gives Schrader a lot of credit for the movie's success, and he talks about how it was difficult to get a studio behind the film and about casting the film. Scorsese explains that he and Schrader didn't really expect the film to find any critical or financial success and how they made it simply because they had to. Scorsese then explains how and why the film is a product of its time, he details the hallucinatory aspects of Travis Bickle's experiences and mindset, and what genre he feels the film comes out of and how the film noir genre had a huge influence on him.
Producing Taxi Driver (9:53 HD): This featurette is an interview with producer Michael Phillips who talks about how after getting out of law school he got into producing after learning about how many people coming out of film school couldn't find anyone to read their scripts. He talks about how he got on board with The Sting and how the lackluster box office of the sixties lead to having some new blood let in to the Hollywood system. From there he talks about how he was brought on board as the producer for Taxi Driver, what he likes about the film, what he likes about the lead character and what it was like working as a producer with the various cast and crew members attached to this project. He explains the negative response the pitch got at a few studios, and how scheduling problems lead to difficulties. Phillips is an interesting interview subject as he gives us a sort of 'top down' look at the production which provides a different slant on the history of the film than what we hear from other subjects.
God's Lonely Man (21:42, HD): The first half of this third featurette is an interview with Paul Schrader that begins by explaining how the Travis Bickle character forces himself into isolation and brings his loneliness upon himself by his actions. From there, Schrader explains how his religious upbringing prevented him from seeing much film at all until he was older and how from there his life changed in a big way. He left the AFI, his marriage fell apart, and he became very disillusioned. It was then that he wrote Taxi Driver. Schrader covers some of the same ground here as he does in the commentary track but it's still interesting to hear him refer to the cab as a metal coffin for Bickle's character and explain some of the deeper meaning of the film. From there we hear from Professor Robert Kolker who dissects various aspects of Schrader's script and applies them to the work of Scorsese and the character of Travis Bickle. The interviews cut back and forth between the two participants and plenty of clips illustrate various points making this a thorough and interesting examination of why Travis Bickle is such an interesting and frightening character.
Influence And Appreciation: Martin Scorsese Tribute (18:29, HD): Oliver Stone, Paul Schrader, Michael Chapman Roger Corman, Michael Phillips, Robert De Niro, and Professor Robert Kolker all explain their relationships and appreciation of Martin Scorsese. Chapman and Stone talk about their film school years and how that put them on the same page where as De Niro gushes over the man's encyclopedic knowledge of film. Corman explains how Scorsese learned early on how important it is to be prepared and how that made him a better director, and Phillips discusses how with Taxi Driver Scorsese, in a sense, 'gave us New York.'
Taxi Driver Stories (22:23, HD): One of the most surprisingly good featurettes on this release is this segment which simply lets a few different men who lived and drove cabs in seventies New York tell some odd stories. Obviously Times Square is a very different animal than it was when Taxi Driver was made and it was considerably more dangerous to drive a cab then than it is now that it's been homogenized. These guys explain the reality of working as a cab driver and then from there we learn about the changes that have taken place in the cab driving industry over the years. We learn about pay structures, benefits, how to make a living as a driver and equally as important why people chose to make a living as a cabbie. Ed Koch even shows up and explains the cultural importance of the NYC cabbie and the myth surrounding them.
Making Taxi Driver (1:10:55, SD): This is the same fantastic documentary that appeared on the last DVD and Sony was wise to carry it over (it's also the only non-anamorphic supplement in the set). Made in 1999 by director Laurent Bouzereau, this seventy-one minute piece features interviews with Scorsese, De Niro, Shepherd, Foster, Brooks, Keitel, Schrader, Boyle and more. It's a pretty thorough examination of the production with Scorsese giving some excellent background information on how he came to helm the project and with Schrader lending some insight into how and why he came to write the script in the first place.
Travis' New York (6:16, HD): Director of Photography Michael Chapman explains how Taxi Driver is interesting not only as a fictional movie but also as a documentary about what New York City was like in the seventies. Ed Koch explains what Times Square was like when he first came into office and the impact of pornography on the area. Chapman talks about the plethora of movie theaters that were there in the 50s, and how it's a crime how Times Square has become Disney-fied. Koch defends his administration's plan to clean up the area, and how Dinkins got the leases signed with Disney and how Giuliani cleaned up so many of the porno shops.
Travis' New York Locations (4:49, HD): This segment allows you to check out nine locations from the movie as they appear in the film and as they appear today through the magic of some side by side split-screen camera work - The Cab Office, Palantine Office, Columbus Circle, St. Regis Hotel, Porno Theater, 226 13th Street, Final Bloodbath, 13th Street, Belmore Cafeteria. You can check out each location on its own or use a 'play all' feature to watch them all at once.
Once the featurettes are over with, it's time to move on to the storyboards starting with an Introduction By Martin Scorsese (4:32, HD) who talks about how as a kid with asthma he got into drawing. From there he talks about the storyboarding process, and why it is so important to him as a director to have quality storyboards to use as a basis for the production. As he talks, we see stills of the storyboards that illustrate his point and he does a fine job of explaining not only the importance of the storyboarding process but also why it is so essential to his style of filmmaking.
As far as the Storyboard To Film Comparisons (8:32, HD) themselves go, they play out in such a way that both the storyboard image and the filmed sequence are on the screen at the same time. This allows us to see the similarities and the differences between the two versions of the story and it's actually pretty interesting. While obviously at 8:19 in length we don't get the entire film we do get most of the key scenes with the final shoot out and resulting aftermath being the highlight here as the illustrations on the storyboards for these bits are rather crazed and as such pretty interesting to see.
Closing out the disc is a series of still galleries (each in HD): Bernard Herrmann Score (images of Herman's written music set to the main theme, 2:22), On Location (thirty-seven black and white photos shot during the production set to music from the film, 2:52), Publicity Materials (twenty-one images of one-sheets and promotional pictures set to music, 1:43) and Scorsese At Work (approximately thirty black and white images from the shoot showcasing the director at work set to music, 2:45). A Taxi Driver trailer (2:09, SD) is included, as are animated menus and chapter stops. Inside the hardcover book style packaging Sony have also included a collection of postcard sized one sheet and lobby card reproductions – a nice touch!
The Final Word:
Considering how affordably priced this set is right now, it’s pretty much a no-brainer – the film stands the test of time remarkably well and this Blu-ray release is impressive in pretty much every way possible. Absolutely an essential purchase!