Ironically, it was the huge success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) that demonstrated to the ailing studios there was money to be made in more high concept, populist films, a conservative cinema that eschewed the New Wave's dedication to artistic values, counter-cultural concerns with anti-establishment politics, identity, sexuality and violence. At the same time the corporations, understanding there was money to be made, bought up the major studios just as many of the movement's directors had been over-indulged to the extent that Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980) financially ruined United Artists and Coppola's own American Zoetrope studio collapsed after the disaster of One From The Heart (1982)
... a questionable anti-heroScorsese's Taxi Driver seems to stand at the crossroads of this period. A very successful film that blends the auterism of old Hollywood, of Hitchcock particularly, with a European sensibility, culled from Bresson and Godard but that also aims for the crowd pleasingly sensational and violent while offering a questionable anti-hero in the charismatic central character of Travis Bickle. Bickle is clearly regarded as an alter-ego of director Scorsese, his screenwriter Paul Schrader and actor Robert De Niro if you follow the rationale of many of the discussions in this disc's special features and all of whom overtly acknowledge cinematic influences as part of the film's postmodernist style.
Schrader's script references "God's Lonely Man," an essay by Thomas Wolfe, in which Wolfe connects the intense loneliness of his own life to this universal aspect of humanity (with Bickle directly quoting "Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape. I'm God's lonely man"), the confessional narrative of Bresson's Pickpocket (1959) and the quest narrative and tribal conflicts of John Ford's The Searchers (1956). He also acknowledges that the character of Travis Bickle was influenced by Dostoyevsky's exploration of alienation in and disgust of modern society using an unreliable narrator, Notes from Underground. The French Existentialist heroes of Camus's The Stranger and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea are also cited as a direct link to Travis's relationship to the degradations he sees around him and that lead to violence.
The film opens with that now iconic image of the taxi sliding out of the clouds of steam, a symbolic beast emerging from the Underworld of New York city. After the titles, which seem to offer an hallucinogenic vision of the streets of the city from the point of view of the taxi's driver, we're introduced to Travis Bickle (De Niro), a Vietnam vet attending an interview to become a taxi driver. Immediately, the film becomes a point of view narration, the audience is seeing his world from inside out. This is indicated initially in that off-kilter camera move in the taxi company's garage where Travis leaves the screen and the camera follows his almost 360 degree viewpoint of this world before circling round to join Travis on the edge of the screen again, always on the edge of this world.
Later, Scorsese repeats the same move with Travis's taxi leaving the frame with another pan through the scene to rejoin it. Note the scene where Travis is on the phone and the camera slowly tracks away from him into an empty corridor which seems to visually symbolise the character's isolation. It's in the scene at the garage that the internal monologue that structures the film begins and we see Travis writing a diary and also revealing to us his innermost thoughts and feelings about a city that he feels is sliding into an apocalyptic vision of Hell. Unable to sleep at night and taking pills to stay awake, drinking heavily, we observe with him what a typical day might be for Travis and the kind of passengers he picks up as he drives his taxi around the city. As he does so we get a sense from him in his voice over that he strives to be more normal and to fit in with the rest of society.
... downward plunge into moral confusion
To further symbolise Travis's downward plunge into moral confusion, he meets a young prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) who tries to escape from her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) in the taxi but is pulled out of the back seat before Travis can drive away. It's an encounter that then sets up a major sub-plot in the film and where Travis becomes obsessed with rescuing Iris from her pimp. He later picks up a passenger (a cameo from Scorsese) who demands that Travis pull over to his house so that he can observe his own wife conducting an affair, ranting on about how he will eventually shoot her.
Meanwhile the date with Betsy goes horribly wrong. He takes her to see a porn movie on Times Square and when she understands what kind of film it is, outraged and disgusted, she leaves. Travis is devastated by this rejection and the accumulation of all these incidents start to push him over the edge. Worried, he tries to talk to his taxi driver colleagues and turns to one of them, Wizard (Peter Boyle) for help, but pointedly Wizard can only offer that the job will become him and it seems he will lose his individuality and becomes lonelier and lonelier as a result. As a character, Travis becomes a moral contradiction, typical of the anti-hero, where he tests our loyalties to him, in empathising with a lonely, damaged man, and then distances us as he becomes a hysterical, delusional creature who believes that violent actions will transform him into a hero.
The film becomes an essay about Travis's notion of fate and predestination, fighting what he sees as his destiny to remain a taxi-driver, as 'God's lonely man'. Bickle's failure to connect to life in the post-Vietnam Western city, either by reaching out to his fellow cab drivers or attempting to find some common ground with politicians ("we are the people" is Palantine's collectivist slogan) is seen as symptomatic of male crisis where, as Angela K Smith notes in Gender and Warfare in the Twentieth Century, "masculinity as a value system has collapsed within Vietnam and now, after the war, has failed to offer Bickle a form of male collectivity that can rescue him from despair."
Travis Bickle's own sense of revulsion at the city as an "open sewer" and anxieties about sex is projected through his attitudes towards black people, pimps, prostitutes and the other communities that live on the fringes of society. He wants a collective effort the clean up the mess, directed by the president himself. Unfortunately Bickle decides to take this responsibility upon himself when his peers offer passive philosophy and the politicians turn out to be ineffective. This responsibility becomes a glorification in guns and violence that Vincent LoBrutto in Martin Scorsese: A Biography sees as an effect of the depression that closed the 1960s where "the intensity of physical abuse brought on by drugs and selfish, not communal, pleasures left most young American white males with little to believe in."
Interestingly, the film also reflects many of the political crises in New York of the time. The city had filed for bankruptcy in 1974 and the summer of 1975 saw a refuse collectors strike that left the city streets filled with rotting garbage. The city streets literally were filled with filth, not just as the consequences of the strike, but also reflected in the completely different function of Times Square. A far cry from the bright lights of today, in the 1970s it was a plethora of prostitutes and peep shows. Jimmy Carter's own vow to clean up New York and ensure that the city never had to endure another financial crisis mirrors Palantine's own role in the film.
Scorsese crafted a compulsively watchable film through a combination of the central performance from De Niro, his skewed, often disorientating camerawork (a series of overhead shots seem to imply a 'god's eye' distanced view of places and events in the film) and editing (jump cuts tend to repeat many of Travis's scenes where is is 'talking' to himself to suggest the man's disintegrating mental state) and the use of Herrmann's quixotic, schizophrenic score that is both beautifully lyrical, almost melancholic, and dissonant, recalling his scores for Psycho (1960) and Vertigo. It's a film now regarded as a milestone of the new American cinema of the mid-1970s.
About the transfer
Quite stunning. Superb contrast and appropriate film grain adds a thicker, bolder quality to the transfer and the colour palette is beautifully rendered too, with reds and yellows really invigorated in high-definition but not dominating. Detail is also impressive on faces, objects and clothing. If you haven't got this film in any form then this is the best place to start as this does Michael Chapman's cinematography all the credit it so richly deserves. One of the best excuses to upgrade to that blu-ray player you've been coveting.
Interactive Script to Screen: You can read the Paul Schrader script on screen as the film plays.
Original 1986 Audio Commentary: This is a montage of separately recorded tracks, edited together for the original Criterion Laser Disc release, from director Scorsese and writer Schrader that examines the script development and writing process, the film's ideas and themes and the director's own visual style, shooting on location in New York, design and casting and his editing techniques. Well worth a listen.
Robert Kolker Audio Commentary: A really detailed and stimulating commentary from Kolker, a Professor at University of Virginia. Kolker meticulously unpicks the film's visual language, the scripts themes, the colour palette and photographic styles, shooting angles and the relationships and repetitions in the symbolism of the film. Brilliant.
Paul Schrader Audio Commentary: An absorbing if intermittent track from Paul Schrader who is pretty honest about what he sees as the problems with his script as he discusses its gestation and production, the relationship between performance and the written word and how good actors can redefine a script.
Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver (HD, 16:52): A thoughtful piece to camera from Scorsese on the genesis of the film and how it reflects, along with the critical casting of De Niro, the 'outsider' figure on the periphery of society that is the major theme of Schrader's script. He also discusses his own film school origins and the influence of European cinema on his own vision. His passion for film still leaps off the screen.
Producing Taxi Driver (HD, 9:53): Again, another brief essay and this time we hear from producer Michael Phillips. Here he details how he ended up producing the film and why the ideas and themes were attractive to him. Some good detail about how the Hollywood studios were changing and younger directors were beginning to influence the kind of films being made by the majors in the mid-1970s.
Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute (HD, 18:30): Traces the roots of Scorsese's career, through film school and the alumni he emerged with, working with Roger Corman and directing his early films Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Mean Streets. With input from Roger Corman, Robert De Niro, Robert Kolker, Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader.
Taxi Driver Stories (HD, 22:23): Cab drivers tell some hair raising stories about operating in New York City in the 1970s plus some background into how they became drivers and how the New York Mayors and Taxi Cab Association ensure that the yellow cab remains visible as the city's ambassador.
Making Taxi Driver (SD, 1:10:55): Originally part of the DVD release in 1999 (that seems such a long time ago now) this does cover a lot of the material in the new HD featurettes but if you want to find one place that covers everything about the film and the director then this is a very good place to start.
Travis's New York (HD, 6:16): What was New York like in the 1970s? The film's cinematographer Michael Chapman chats with former New York Mayor Ed Koch.
Travis' New York Locations (HD, 4:49): A selection of clips from the film, depicting New York from 1975, shown in split-screen comparison with the locations as they were in 2007.
Intro to Storyboards by Martin Scorsese (HD, 4:32): Scorsese discusses the essential uses of the storyboard.
Storyboard to Film Comparison (HD, 8:21): Storyboard to screen comparisons.
Galleries (HD, 9:28): A vast array of material that covers the film's making, the location filming, publicity materials and even the recording of the classic Herrmann score.
Taxi Driver Theatrical Trailer (480p, 2:09).
Columbia Pictures Corporation / Bill-Phillips / Italo-Judeo Productions 1976
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / Released 6 June 2011 / Region Free / BD 50 Dual Layer / 1080p - MPEG-4 AVC / Ratio: 1.85:1 / Colour / English, German (Germany) and French (Parisian) 5.1 DTS-HD MA / Subtitles: English*, English HOH, Arabic, Danish, Dutch*, Finnish, French (Parisian)*, German*, Hindi, Norwegian, Swedish, Turkish (*also on extras) / Cert: 18