‘Taxi Driver’: Descent into Hell

Most of Martin Scorseses’ best films offer twisted versions of the American fairy tale. Goodfellas deconstructed the national entrepreneurial narrative of “making something of yourself” by allowing us to watch Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill make himself into a monster. In Raging Bull, the culture of American sport and the culture of American manhood is laid open in a particularly bloody fashion.

Scorsese knew how to dismantle the American dream but Taxi Driver, arguably his best film, shaped a terrifying American nightmare. Its recent release on Blu-Ray allows us to visit a ’70s New York that seems dystopian in its terrors. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle is both Dante and Virgil for this tour of a modern inferno, guest and guide to a cold and loveless hell on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street.

Bickle, with his clichéd optimism, his naïve moral certainties and ultimately his terrifying violence, embodies an America stripped of illusions. Like the country he fought for in Vietnam, Bickle arms himself and embarks on a war with no meaning. He is Holden Caulfield but with Southeast Asia instead of prep school at his back. His hatred of phonies ends in a bloodletting. His existential loneliness becomes a wasteland, reflecting the wasteland of 42nd Street where he spends his long night shifts.

Every actor in this film fully inhabited his or her role. De Niro awakened both terror and empathy, aided enormously by the filmmaker’s decision to allow Bickle to narrate his own insanity. Cybill Shepherd is the golden light, a Beatrice offering hope to Bickle even as her unattainability becomes a trigger for explosive violence. A pimped out Harvey Keitel hustles a heartbreakingly young Jodie Foster, a character that Scorsese uses as a nod to the played out hopes of the sixties with her desire to join a commune. Often forgotten in writing about the film is Peter Boyle’s sagacious and glum “Wizard,” a cabby wise man who makes a scene at the old Belmore cafeteria one of the unforgettable set pieces of the film.

The new print available on Blu-ray for the 35th anniversary of the film remains as unsettling as in 1976. In that year, Scorsese’s modern Bosch painting won the prestigious Palm d’Or, a selection that was greeted with boos from the audience. Although a financial success, thirteen-year-old Jodi Foster’s participation fueled controversy. The camera’s final survey of the carnage after the savage denouement announced a new, and controversial, way of showing violence in American movies.

This is a purposely grimy looking film. That it isn’t cleaned up much by the Blu-Ray treatment is a good thing. The peeling paint on Bickle’s apartment walls and the rain on the dirty taxi window are sleazily distinct. Although a few of the colors seem a bit dull, the sharpness and clarity of this format more than make up for it.

The gritty cinematography not only gives us a backdrop for Bickle’s angry madness. It allowed Scorsese to make the city into a character, a frightening chaos monster breathing steam through its open manholes and wallowing in a perpetual dirty rain. Meanwhile, Sony did a fantastic job on the jazzy, often thematically contrapuntal, score by Bernard Herrmann. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless sound captures every smooth note.

The disc includes a wealth of special features. A commentary track recorded first by Criterion in 1986 is included along with a more recent tract with screenwriter Paul Schrader. Another track with Professor Robert Kolker, author of the rightfully acclaimed Cinema of Loneliness, usefully explores camera work, characterization and a close exploration of the subtle aspects of cinematography. Most revealing was Kolker’s notion that Bickle, at different points in the film, is taking on various heroic postures he has picked up out of the flotsam and jetsam of American culture.

Perhaps the best of these extras is a feature focused on the early career of Paul Schrader, the screenwriter responsible for Taxi Driver. His own tour through the counter-culture combined with his personal sense of isolation helped him to create Travis Bickle. He describes his character as a man travelling in “a metal coffin,” moving “like Nosferatu” through the darkness of the city. This discussion is supplemented with comments by Professor Kolker on Schrader’s influences.

Other features include a production featurette and a closer look at the film’s locations. A short discussion with Scorsese mostly focuses on his struggle to get the film made. A tribute reel to Scorsese includes celebratory comments from Schrader, Roger Corman, Robert De Niro, and Oliver Stone. Finally, the features pay due respect to the film as a period piece, with interviews done with former New York cabbies about ;70s New York.

This new release is the best way to rediscover this important and challenging film. More than on previous viewing, I was struck by how much Taxi Driver has entered the underground lexicon of both popular culture and politics. John Hinckley infamously had a dark romance with the film that fueled his obsession with Jodie Foster and an attempt to kill a president. Bickle’s proto-fascism remerges in Alan Moore’s Watchmen in the masked form of Rorschach and even in David Fincher’s Tyler Durden. The city as horror movie reappeared in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, complete with the sense of moral dehumanization in an urban environment angrily breathing steam.

“A pusher and a prophet, partly true, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.” These Kris Kristofferson lyrics frame the relationship of Becky and Travis, but they also embody the most haunting aspects of this film. The new Blu-ray release must be part of any serious film collection.

RATING 10 / 10