Winner of the prestigious Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival (1976) and nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture (1976), TAXI DRIVER stars Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's classic film of a psychotic New York cabbie driven to violence by loneliness and desperation. Co-starring Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle and Cybill Shepherd.
With apologies to James Joyce, 'A Portrait of a Psychotic Vigilante as a Young Man' might be a good subtitle for Martin Scorsese's 1976 masterwork, 'Taxi Driver.' Though Paul Schrader's dialogue might not sound as lyrical as the immortal Irish author's esteemed prose, it's nevertheless hypnotic and poetic, terse and direct...just like the cinematic style of Scorsese. Over the years, many fine directors have fashioned fine films from fine screenplays, but rarely has a script so perfectly suited the vision and style of a director, and rarely has the perfect actor also played the lead role. All the pieces of the puzzle snap snugly together on 'Taxi Driver,' making it not just an artistic triumph, but also a supremely absorbing, layered, and, yes, entertaining motion picture.
Sure, we all remember Robert De Niro looking in the mirror, aiming his gun, sizing up an imaginary assailant with wide eyes and a slightly crazed smirk on his face, and asking that loaded question, "You talkin' to me?" It's an iconic movie moment and quote, much like "Rosebud," "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," and "Go ahead, make my day," but it doesn't define 'Taxi Driver.' The blossoming talent of Scorsese does, coupled with a timely - and in many ways timeless - story that continues to strike a nerve and provoke spirited discussion about society, law and order, and the complex circuitry of the human brain 40 years after its premiere. And without De Niro's mesmerizing portrayal of the isolated, tortured, and disturbed Travis Bickle, it's difficult to determine whether the film would wield the same degree of impact.
A Vietnam War veteran, Travis epitomizes the lost, disassociated, often aimless men who returned home from an ugly, traumatic conflict and found it difficult to assimilate into organized society. He applies for a taxi driving job to try and escape his lonely and monotonous existence, as well as the nagging demons that needle him, and as he scrutinizes life from behind the wheel of his iron coffin, he's repulsed by the filth of both the New York streets and the human condition. Someone needs to clean it all up, he tells himself, planting a seed that will grow into a mission later on. Hope, however, in the form of cool blonde beauty Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works for a promising political candidate, briefly buoys Travis' spirits, but his inability to properly relate to her spurs a rapid inward retreat and ignites the smoldering violent tendencies lurking in his soul.
The bloodbath that comprises the 'Taxi Driver' climax often overshadows the nuances that distinguish the bulk of the film, and that's a shame, because the movie's meat lies in its impeccable depiction of character. With methodical grace and searing insight, Scorsese and De Niro subtly paint a complex portrait of a man on the edge and the forces that lead him to the breaking point. Scorsese takes it slow, allowing us to get under Travis' skin and see the world through his warped perspective. We feel his desolation, the mounting fatalism and paranoia that consume him, and how the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cab and his tiny apartment turn him into a caged animal desperate to break out of his self-imposed incarceration. As usual, Scorsese - aided immeasurably by cinematographer Michael Chapman - finds a way to make the repugnant strangely elegant and seductive, and the images he composes of New York's underbelly, coupled with the smooth jazz strains and dramatic accents of Bernard Herrmann's final score, heighten our connection to the material. Though his style doesn't flaunt the flash that would distinguish - and, at times, overshadow - his later works, it's no less impressive.
Of course, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than De Niro as Travis. Few other actors can convey such complexity with so little outward expression, and though his character is by turns creepy, pathetic, and edgy, he easily engenders our sympathy. De Niro never sugarcoats Travis, he merely makes him fascinating, a cryptic jumble of contradictions we all want to figure out. Since the movie opened 35 years ago, we've seen a lot of Travis Bickles on film and in real life, but De Niro crafted the mold, and his impression is the one that's most firmly etched in our collective consciousness.
The supporting cast never eclipses De Niro, but the stellar work of Jodie Foster as a child prostitute, Harvey Keitel as her pimp, Shepherd as the elusive, uptight beauty, Albert Brooks as her nerdy colleague, Peter Boyle as a pontificating cabbie, and even Scorsese himself in a cameo as one of Travis' weirdo passengers incisively complements his performance, drawing us deeper into his quiet, troubled existence. At the time, none of these actors were big stars, and it's a testament to Scorsese's eye and influence that all went on to have major careers.
Only in America could an antihero, in the blink of an eye, become a hero. 'Taxi Driver' shows us - long before "15 minutes of fame" became a household phrase, let alone an aspiration - our society's desperate need for connection and attention, and its fickle obsession with those, normal and unbalanced, who seek it. Long ago, it inspired a sick individual to shoot a sitting president. Today, it merely inspires admiration - for its craft, structure, performances, and depiction of utter isolation, paranoia, and the twisted perceptions of a lost soul. Make no mistake, it's much more than a vigilante film.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
First things first. This 40th Anniversary Edition of 'Taxi Driver' does not contain a new video transfer and is almost exactly the same as the film's first 2011 Blu-ray release with regard to extras. The addition of a new supplement (described below) most likely expanded this anniversary release into a two-disc set, and though it's attractively packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve, the 2011 digibook packaging is still far superior. A leaflet containing a code to access the Digital HD with Ultraviolet copy is tucked inside the front cover, and just like the previous Blu-ray versions, video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and primary audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music pops up immediately following the Sony logo; no previews or promos precede it.
No new transfer here, but honestly, who needs one? The existing transfer is a five-star beauty - remastered in 4K and supervised by director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman - that's the definitive rendering of this classic film. Here's what I said about it back in 2011:
Who knew grit and grime could look so beautiful? 'Taxi Driver' showcases some of the seediest areas of 1970s New York, but Sony's striking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer captures it all with marvelous clarity, stunning depth, and well-modulated hues. Grain is an essential aspect of this film, yet it never overpowers the image. As a result, the picture sports a consistently natural, film-like look that draws us deep into the Big Apple's core and Travis' twisted psyche. The intentionally blurred city lights in the movie's opening sequence are crisply rendered, as are details such as rain droplets, while nicely graded contrast lends the overall picture surprising dimensionality for such an aged film. The source material looks as clean and vibrant as any recent release, with no blemishes of any kind catching the eye.
Colors appear bright and bold, but thankfully lack any hint of artificiality. The reds in Palantine's political office enjoy fine presence, and the yellows of the omnipresent taxi cabs look lush yet realistic. Black levels are deep and inky, and though one might think the predominance of nocturnal scenes would yield a few murky shots or incidents of crush, every nighttime sequence brims with well-defined details. Whites are cool, but never harsh; Shepherd's dress stands out well against the busy background of the cityscape while maintaining a lovely softness. Background elements occasionally look a bit fuzzy, but that's a minor quibble, and fleshtones are always spot-on. Close-ups exude a marvelous immediacy, with every skin blemish and hair follicle clear and distinct.
Yet the most indelible impression this transfer makes is the wonderful texture that enhances every frame. Rarely do high-definition movies look so much like celluloid, while maintaining the sharpness that's such a vital component of the Blu-ray format. And Sony has taken extra special care to keep the film's original look intact, steering away from edge enhancement, noise reduction, and other fine tuning elements. Banding and mosquito noise are also absent from this superior effort from Sony, which ranks up there with another of its 1970s Blu-ray gems, 'Kramer vs. Kramer.' Not only has 'Taxi Driver' never looked better, it's also one of most faithful and satisfying transfers of a film from this era that I've seen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also top-notch, and it's the exact same one that's included on all previous Blu-ray releases of 'Taxi Driver.' Though surround activity is limited, the excellent fidelity, dynamic range, and purity of tone, especially with regard to Bernard Herrmann's sultry, silky score, make the audio sound like it was recorded yesterday instead of 35 years ago. Herrmann's music, which combines dramatic elements of his classic Hitchcock scores with smooth, jazzy horns (I cannot get enough of the recurring theme), dominates this track, but the subtleties of the New York streets, bursts of gunfire, and voiceover narration all possess terrific clarity and presence. Dialogue is often spoken softly or delivered in an offhand manner, yet I never had to strain to understand the words. And though there are no thunderous bass moments that set off the subwoofer, low-end tones are warm and weighty, consistently complementing the rest of the audio. Distortion and surface defects are totally absent, making this track as immersive and pleasing as the video.
Only one new supplement is included, and though it's a good one, it's not worthy of a double dip if you already own the 2011 release. All the other extras from the 2011 Blu-ray edition have been ported over, except for the Interactive Script to Screen feature, but this time they're spread across two discs. The huge supplemental package examines multiple aspects of this fascinating film, heightening both our understanding of its themes and admiration for the talents involved. All the material is absorbing and classily produced.
Audio Commentaries – Three commentaries provide a wealth of insight, perspective, and nuts-and-bolts information. The first, recorded in 1986 for the Criterion Collection, features Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, and it's an engaging, often fascinating trip inside this classic film. The director dominates the track, sharing lots of entertaining anecdotes and thoughtful observations, all of which are distinguished by his brutal honesty and lively delivery. He talks about the influences of directors like George Stevens and Jean-Luc Godard, the unpleasant nature of filmmaking (a surprising admission), how the camera moves are reminiscent of horror films, and how he has tried to mold his own personality into a cinematic style. He also remembers composer Bernard Herrmann, addresses his close and symbiotic relationship with De Niro, and explains how he came to do his cameo in the movie. Schrader's contributions are much more limited, but no less interesting. He recalls, among other things, how he wrote the screenplay in a frenetic two-week period and based it on his own personal experiences, and how the most famous line in the film ("You talkin' to me?") is one he didn't write. If you only have the time or inclination for one commentary, this is the one to listen to.
The second commentary is a solo track by author Robert Kolker, who takes on the role of film professor as he delves into Scorsese's style, the fine points of plot and character, and the director's storytelling technique. He also notes the influence of such films as 'Psycho' and 'The Searchers' on 'Taxi Driver.' This is a much drier track, and a bit too didactic at times, but if you're looking for more narrative analysis, then this discussion fills the bill.
The final commentary is a more recent solo track by Schrader, who dissects his script and provides the writer's perspective on filmmaking. He offers up some screenwriting tips, admits he got into scriptwriting as a form of "self-therapy" (not for monetary gain), and debunks censorship as a means of keeping real-life psychopaths from emulating and imitating those depicted on screen. Schrader makes some good points, but too many lengthy gaps separate them, making this track a bit of a chore to slog through.
NEW! Tribeca Film Festival 40th Anniversary Q&A (HD, 42 minutes) - Director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader, producer Michael Phillips, and actors Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, and Harvey Keitel share their memories of the production during this absorbing Q&A session that followed a 2016 screening of 'Taxi Driver' at the Tribeca Film Festival. Scorsese and Schrader rightfully dominate the discussion; Schrader talks about how the script-writing process was "self-therapy" and notes a "purgative power imbues the film," while Scorsese recalls the film was made from "passion" and didn't expect anyone to see it. But we hear surprisingly little from De Niro, Foster, and Shepherd, and that's a shame. We do hear how weather problems effected shooting, how De Niro's iconic mohawk was devised, how everyone was scared of eccentric composer Bernard Herrmann, and how "looking for a Cybill Shepherd type" resulted in Shepherd playing her role. Keitel also shares the funny story of how he and Scorsese first met and remembers picking the brain of an actual pimp to prepare for his part. Though a bit superficial, this breezy Q&A session is an entertaining diversion that fans of the film will certainly enjoy.
Featurette: "Martin Scorsese on 'Taxi Driver'" (HD, 17 minutes) – This intimate 2007 interview allows the director to discuss such topics as the genesis of the project, how he gained the confidence of the producers despite his limited experience, the movie's gritty style, other films that have influenced him, and the personal nature of 'Taxi Driver.'
Featurette: "Producing 'Taxi Driver'" (HD, 10 minutes) – Producer Michael Phillips recalls the events that led to his involvement with 'Taxi Driver,' and how he corralled the talent and money to make the film in this interesting featurette.
Featurette: "God's Lonely Man" (HD, 22 minutes) – Writer Paul Schrader talks about his background, education, and the personal experiences that led him to conceive 'Taxi Driver.' He also outlines his creative process, discusses the evolution of Travis Bickle, and shares his views about the writer's role during production. Author Robert Kolker provides additional analysis and perspective in this probing look at the components of screenwriting.
Featurette: "Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute" (HD, 18 minutes) – Director Oliver Stone (a student of Scorsese's at NYU), director Roger Corman (Scorsese's mentor), cinematographer Michael Chapman, actor Robert De Niro, and others recall how they met Scorsese, laud his supreme ability, and discuss the merits and impact of 'Taxi Driver' in this celebratory featurette. A few clips from Scorsese's other films would have enhanced this tribute, but the well-spoken words of his colleagues suffice.
Featurette: "Taxi Driver Stories" (HD, 22 minutes) – Actual New York cabbies who worked during the 1970s share their experiences, address the profession's loneliness, and discuss what they learned driving a taxi in this low-key, interesting inside look.
Featurette: "Travis' New York" (HD, 6 minutes) – Former New York mayor Ed Koch and director of photography Michael Chapman expound on the seedy atmosphere that was Travis' milieu in the mid-'70s.
Featurette: "Travis' New York Locations" (HD, 5 minutes) – This compare-and-contrast piece employs a split screen to show how nine New York locations looked when the film was shot in 1975, and how they looked in 2006.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) – An updated, innovative trailer for 'Taxi Driver' that hypes the upcoming 2007 collector's DVD is included.
Documentary: "Making 'Taxi Driver'" (HD, 71 minutes) – It's rare when all the principals from a major motion picture consent to be interviewed for a retrospective documentary a couple of decades after the film's release, but this 1999 salute includes remarks from Scorsese, De Niro, Foster, Shepherd, Brooks, Keitel, Boyle, and others, as it explores such topics as casting, editing, costumes, makeup, music, and the movie's impact and legacy. Along the way, there are some great anecdotes that provide an intimate perspective on production, as well as the requisite collection of photos and clips. Some material is duplicated in the preceding featurettes, but this is still an essential examination for any true 'Taxi Driver' fan.
Featurette: "Intro to Storyboards by Martin Scorsese" (HD, 4 minutes) - The director talks about the importance of storyboards and how he personally employs them in his productions.
Storyboard to Film Comparison (HD, 8 minutes) – Multiple clips are shown along with their respective storyboard drawings.
Galleries (HD, 9 minutes) – This section is divided into four parts - "Bernard Herrmann Score," which includes reproductions of the composer's sheet music; "On Location," which features an array of black-and-white production photos; "Publicity Materials," which showcases an array of poster art and other behind-the-scenes stills; and "Scorsese at Work," which provides a number of rare snapshots of the director in his element. Sections of Herrmann's magnificent score accompany each chapter.
If you own the terrific 2011 Blu-ray edition of 'Taxi Driver,' there's no need to purchase this 40th anniversary release, despite the addition of a brand new supplement. The transfers and all the extras are the same, yet the 2011 collectible insertions and digibook packaging give that release a substantial edge. However, if you don't yet own Martin Scorsese's classic, and if a digital copy - and price - are important to you, then this 40th anniversary edition is the better choice. Either way, 'Taxi Driver' remains one of the best films of the 1970s. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score (Scorsese, in the first of many Oscar snubs, was inexplicably overlooked), this unsettling yet marvelously mounted and performed motion picture still provokes the same strong reactions as it did upon its initial release four decades ago. Call him a psycho, call him a devil-turned-savior, call him a paranoid vigilante, but any way you look at him, Travis Bickle is one memorable character, and De Niro makes him unforgettable. This new release may lack the classy packaging of its predecessor, but the content is all there and the excellent video and audio quality hasn't changed, which is why the 40th Anniversary Edition of 'Taxi Driver' comes highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.