Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Taxi Driver (1976)

#8: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

It seems like I've been talking about Bernard Herrmann a fair amount recently—he wrote the scores for a good many of Hitchcock's best pictures, including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. He wrote the scores for Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and for a dozen or so episodes each of "Twilight Zone" and the "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." He even contributed to The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane. Taxi Driver is the last picture he worked on, shortly before his death toward the end of 1975, and that score is a doozy. The clip of the titles at the first link below suggests how important his work is here to setting the mood and creating the unmistakable feeling of stepping into a dark, mysterious place where not all of the usual rules are going to apply.

You will also, of course, quickly notice that some appreciation must apply to photographer Michael Chapman as well, whose brilliant and eerie first image of the cab from bumper level gliding through the fog is equally affecting, perfectly in synch with the music. And then the fuzzy, lurching, streaming, super-saturated look of the city streets at night that Chapman goes to as needed takes it up another notch. So that gets us approximately two minutes into a film that never once loses its way for nearly two hours.

In many ways Taxi Driver defies the old saw about too many cooks and the broth, because this thing is popping with first-rate talent doing some of the best work of their careers, not just Herrmann and Chapman. First and most obviously is director Martin Scorsese, still in a phase of his career where he positively attacked his material with an unholy energy only slightly mitigated by his careful and artful strategies of storytelling. Then there is screenwriter Paul Schrader, whose continuing themes of self-abasement and thwarted redemption have arguably never found a better vehicle. The second clip below is a short but apt example of Schrader's ability to take interior brooding feelings of doom and externalize them with words.

It's also a good example of what Robert De Niro is bringing to this party, because the next thing you want to look at here is the cast: De Niro, youthful and occupying the frame with preternatural confidence, well before his smoldering stick of rage had turned to shtick; Cybill Shepherd, perfectly deployed as the unattainable WASP goddess; Jodie Foster, a 13-year-old playing with sickening precision a 13-year-old runaway turned prostitute. And more: Peter Boyle, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris. Even the nervous-talking Scorsese himself takes a small walk-on role that is played perfectly.

When Steven wrote about Taxi Driver earlier for his #30 pick, he talked about the powerful identification he felt with Robert De Niro's character, Travis Bickle, the titular taxi driver. "[W]hen I got home, I told my wife I had seen my story on the screen," Steven wrote. I didn't happen to share his sense of personal identification, but I did walk out of the theater similarly stunned, wondering what the fuck exactly I just saw. Excuse my French. I was back the next day to see it again. Over the years I often forget some of its many small-bore pleasures, such as Herrmann's soundtrack, which only makes this picture a very happy surprise every time I look again. A restored version is currently making the rounds of theaters, a night out at the movies I won't hesitate to suggest to any and all.

Titles/opening scene
[video deleted]

"All the animals come out at night."

Phil #8: Goin' Down the Road (Don Shebib, 1970) (scroll down)
Steven #8: The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

I think it's interesting that Taxi Driver overtook Raging Bull in the latest Sight & Sound film poll, which came out earlier this year. I've always liked it more—and actually don't like Raging Bull much—but I also have a theory that the Taxi Driver restoration I mentioned had something to do with it. It was back in theaters, top of mind again at about the right time—for awhile even the debate about restoring the desaturated color in the ending surfaced again too. Full disclosure, when Taxi Driver was new I thought the "ironical hero" ending was a cheap shot that marred it a little, but I couldn't deny the power of the rest of it. Now I don't even mind the cheap shot so much, in fact I think it fits.

A long time ago Phil sent me a VHS copy of Goin' Down the Road and I remember liking the way it proceeded—very low-key, almost somnolent, but touching some deeply sad notes. I was pretty sad myself when the videocassette finally broke down. Goin' Down the Road is out there but not always easy to track down and I haven't had a copy since then. The Wild Bunch gave us the name of our Facebook group: "If They Move, Kill 'Em! Steven, Jeff & Phil Count Down Their Favorite Films." Good times, good times. Wait, that was just last year.

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