A seminal film of the counterculture 1970's and Martin Scorsese's breakout as a director, Taxi Driver (1976) is an ironic, deeply troubling glimpse into the deranged mind of an obsessive madman whose crimes against humanity are reconstituted by a misguided media. Paul Schrader’s screenplay delves into the haunted recesses of a loner pushed over the edge by mitigating circumstances. These produce a psychopath whose anti-social behavior is foisted onto an unsuspecting public as ‘take charge’ vigilantism. The underlying message is, of course, that in a crazy world the most insane among us can achieve the greatest success and even become a role model. But Schrader's initial concept for the character of Travis Bickle as a disgruntled black man was quashed by Scorsese during preliminary talks because he felt it gave the narrative an unwanted and subversive racial undertone.
At Scorsese's insistence, the location in the script was also changed from L.A. to New York, since cabs are more an iconic part of the latter's public transit. As with many films of the 1970's, Taxi Driver opens with a rather laconic character study of its central protagonist. New York cabbie Travis Bickle (Rober DeNiro in a career defining performance) is an isolated, slightly depressed insomniac. Honorably discharged from the marines, Travis reluctantly assimilates into mainstream society as a taxi driver on the graveyard shift where he quickly grows disillusioned by all the gutter filth and depravity that surrounds him.
Inexplicably, Travis is drawn to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd); the slinky campaign manager in charge of the Presidential Nominee Committee for New York State Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Betsy's initial reaction to Travis is awkward. She relates to his isolationism and agrees, after some coaxing, to go out on a date. Unfortunately, Travis is out of Betsy's league and proves it by taking her to a porn theater on their first date. Repulsed, Betsy ditches Travis and takes another cab home.
Betsy's rejection ignites an unforeseen spark of vigilantism within Travis. By day he obsesses over Palantine and stockpiles his apartment with a small arsenal of weaponry acquired from gun salesman, Andy (Steven Price). He postures shirtless in front of a mirror in full blown 'tough guy mode' and practices his prowess with a pistol. In retrospect, it all has a very John Hinckley-esque quality to it; Travis’ misguided infatuation with Betsy and his plan to assassinate Palantine a fairly accurate foreshadowing of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and plot to murder Ronald Reagan.
On one of his midnight trolls through the city, Travis unexpectedly encounters child prostitute, Iris Steenma (Jodie Foster) who is trying to escape her drunken pimp, Sport Matthews (Harvey Keitel). To defuse the situation Travis pays Sport for Iris's time but refuses to take advantage of her. Despite her refusal to eschew 'the life', Iris comes to trust Travis. Regrettably, Travis comes to regards himself as Iris's savior. With daybreak Travis endures yet another Jekyll/Hyde transformation. He shaves his head into a Mohawk, dons dark sunglasses and prepares for the assassination of Palantine during the candidate's first public address. Thankfully, this plan is bungled by a pair of secret service agents (Richard Higgs and Victor Magnotta). Retreating to his morally superior high ground, Travis goes after Sport instead. He bursts into the seedy brothel, guns blazing, killing Sport and Iris's Mafioso john (Bob Maroff) before being wounded in the neck.
In a bizarre, if redemptive epilogue (that invariably has been interpreted by some critics as Travis's dying dream) a reluctant Travis is deified in the press as the city's moral crusader: the misanthrope rechristened as a model citizen. Fully recovered from his wounds, Travis returns to his old life and career as a cab driver. His last fare of the night is Betsy, who is once again attracted to him and flirts in the hopes of rekindling their relationship. Bad luck for Betsy that Travis has decided he is through with her. He drops her off at her apartment and drives into an uncertain future. In various vintage reviews of the film, Travis has been interpreted as a shell shocked Viet Nam vet. But this reading does not hold water, especially when one considers how initially inept Travis is with firearms.
At the time of the film's release, the MPAA forced Scorsese to tone down the color registration during the final bloodbath in the film in order to escape an 'R' rating. Scorsese willingly complied, but cinematographer Michael Chapman was less than pleased. Regrettably, when the film was being reissued on home video some years later Scorsese and Chapman discovered that in reprinting the original negative to accommodate this alteration, the negative had also been altered irreversibly making it impossible to print up the contrast to Scorsese’s original intent. Taxi Driver was a colossal financial and critical success, earning $28,262,574 in the U.S. alone. In retrospect, like so many social critiques from the 70's, this one seems to foreshadow the approaching counter culture that regrettably appears to us today, if not yet entirely acceptable, at the very least certainly much more ‘mainstream’ than it did back then.
Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray rectifies man a sin from their previously issued DVDs. Part of the problem with bringing Taxi Driver to home video – let alone hi-def - has always been that there were no original camera negatives to strike a new print. Hence, second and third generation materials, with all their inherent shortcomings, had to be employed. Although this new Blu-ray is undeniably ahead of other incarnations Taxi Driver will never be quite as pristine as it should be on home video.
That said, the Blu-ray is a revelation. Colors are infinitely richer, although intermittent muddiness still exists. Detail in night scenes is much improved. The mess of grain that often registered as digitized grit in the past now looks very film-like and is quite pleasing throughout. The audio is a new 5.1 DTS master and again, is a monumental upgrade to what's been offered before. Is it perfect? No, nor should aural perfection be considered the desirable result. Taxi Driver is a film of the streets, shot on a shoe string budget. The audio reflects these shortcomings with great accuracy.
Save a new 'script to screen' interactive feature, all of the extra features are carried over from the DVD presentation from 2006. We get separate audio commentaries; one from Schrader and Prof. Robert Kolker, the other by Scorsese, carried over from Criterion's 1986 home video release. There's also a 'making of' documentary and featurettes on the production, a psychological critique of Travis Bickle, interviews with the writer, storyboard and photo galleries and the film's original theatrical trailer. Overall, this is a worthwhile upgrade. Sony has wisely focused all of its efforts and money on improving the image quality of the feature. I sure wish other companies - notably Fox - would take the hint and do the same for their catalogue titles. This Blu-ray is highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)