Taxi Driver Blu-ray Review
Taxi Driver is due to return to cinemas shortly, and to this end, as well as for the purposes of creating the ultimate Blu-ray release, it received a 4K restoration, overseen by none other than the director Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman. The results are undeniably magnificent – it’s actually quite a shock to the system to watch a 35 year old movie in a way that you have simply never seen it before, and I’d bet it looks better now than it did even when it was being played back in theatres on release.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t, technically, a perfect image. In fact, far from it. But it is a near-perfect representation of the material. Let me explain. Many modern films – particularly those shot using digital cameras – looks shiny and new and blisteringly clear. Personally, I don’t want all my favourite movies from a few decades back to be put through the ringer and DNR’d to death (a la Predator) just so that they can be promoted as having been ‘remastered’ and ‘polished up’. Some classics were simply never meant to look like that. With all this in mind, Taxi Driver sports an undeniably amazing video presentation, but one which observes fine detail and filmic grain, respecting both and giving the image a rich depth, like it’s some layered oil-painting.
The easiest way to see the improvements made in the 4K remastering process is by comparing the opening credits sequence, which fades into the first scene, and compare it with basically the rest of the movie. The credits, whilst boasting rich colours, deep blacks and thankfully no bleeding, are of a much lower quality than the rest of the film. The very first shot of De Niro’s Travis Bickle, having just walked into the taxi cab company – and before he even says a word – is still a part of the credits ‘section’, and so has a consequently soft nature, little clarity, and no decent detail. If the whole movie looked like this you’d probably prefer to hold on to your old SD-DVD. And then, everything changes. The film starts proper, and we immediately see what we were hoping for – fine detail and excellent texture; realistic colour reproduction, with vibrant reds and authentic skin tones; and marginally variable filmic grain, which largely only adds to the gritty nature of the production and seldom looks overtly unintentional. The strong, inky blacks are so deep that characters can (and do) simply disappear in and out of the shadows, the detail so great that you can practically see every drop of rain, the close-up shots of the taxi cab itself looking absolutely stunning.
The rest of the film retains this brilliant presentation for ninety-five percent of its runtime. In fact, there are only a couple of obvious shots where this amazing quality drops off significantly. The first happens at the 1hr 14m mark (although you can see a foreshadowing at 1:10) – it’s the scene where Travis is watching TV and rocking the TV set with his feet. The softness here is clearly excessive, and, for whatever reason, could not be cleaned up like the rest of the movie. Travis, seen in the far left of the image, looks almost out of focus, and the whole shot is at odds with the remastering effort done elsewhere. The other noteworthy scene is the climax, although the extra features go into greater detail as to why it looks this way. Basically, it was originally shot very differently, but had to be made more fuzzy with fake-looking blood and desaturated colours in order to appease the censors. Some time later, when it came to remastering, they could not find the original shooting material, and so had to make do with this. Scorsese himself argues that it looks better this way, but there's no denying that it's an inherently softer, very different-looking part of the transfer, especially noticeable when starkly contrasted with the rest of the near-immaculate restored footage. I think that if they had the ability to source the original prints with which they could clean up the opening credits and the bloody climax so it looked like the rest of the movie, then I think they would have done so, and this is basically the best we can get with the material on offer.
These are really the only two moments that I thought that I should mention, in what is, essentially, a near-faultless video presentation, showing us the movie exactly like the director intended, and better than ever before. Will you want to use Taxi Driver to show off your home cinema equipment with? Is it demo quality? It’s a tough question to answer – the simplest answer would be that it is not a conventional demo quality presentation, but if you want to demonstrate just how good a classic 35 year-old movie can look, then look no further than this excellent Sony presentation.
The film classic comes complete with an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which is just as rewarding as the video presentation. There’s no denying that the score is the absolute highlight of the track, a superb rendition of Bernard Herrman’s literal swan-song – a moody, dark and powerful blend of saxophone and drum work which perfectly accompanies and enhances the production. The score sounds refined and has excellent fidelity, simply unlike you would have ever heard it before on SD-DVD. The brilliant script is brought to life by clinically observed dialogue which is clear and coherent almost throughout the entire runtime (there were a couple of moments where the mumbling vocals drift into obscurity) and takes precedence over the frontal array – De Niro’s pivotal narration even standing out above the haunting score. Everything else on this soundtrack takes a back seat to these two elements, but the effects still get good presentation, from the clicks of the guns that Travis is trying out in front of the mirror to the thundering boom of them actually in action, from the slush of the taxi cab as it drives through puddles, to the screech as Travis pulls away in a hurry. There’s no hiss, crackles or pops in this 35 year-old rendition, which has been restored and sounds absolutely superb, complete with a brooding undercurrent of bass, and coming across as a thoroughly absorbing, engulfing aural accompaniment.
This excellent package (presented in a fold-out box with 12 collectable production stills printed on lavish art cards) comes with just about every extra – both new and old – that you could possibly want, including no less than three audio commentaries, several retrospective interviews and a mammoth documentary, as well as a wealth of other interesting material.
Original 1986 Commentary with Director Martin Scorsese and Writer Paul Schrader recorded by the Criterion Collection. Recorded (and introduced) separately, here we get the writer and director discussing their work ten years on from its release. Scorsese talks about how he tries to get across impressions of the way in which he sees the world, offering a half scene-specific, half-background orientated commentary on the whole production, which he explains was a labour of love that was made for little over a million. He elaborates on the improvisational work done, what De Niro brought to the movie and the bond that he has had with the actor – how they have an inherent, unspoken trust and understand each other’s filmmaking process and style. Paul Schrader discusses his own personal strife at the time – how he rode around in his car at night and largely didn’t talk to anybody for a number of weeks, and how he, like his character, created his own nightmarish world within which to live. It’s a great accompaniment, well worth checking out, marred only slightly by a few too many pauses.
Commentary with Professor Robert Kolker. This guy is an absolute Taxi Driver expert. I can’t imagine anybody knowing any more about the movie – even the director himself. Let me give you an example of how much he knows: where Scorsese notes, in one of the interviews, that he was inspired by the works of Godard, but that he cannot remember which film or what shot he was inspired to do, the Professor will tell you exactly which shot was inspired and exactly which film it was taken from. It’s a very insightful but also descriptive commentary: he observes every single shot: the way the camera moves, the writing on his military garb, every minute detail that is visually offered; elaborating on the symbolism and offering insight into the parallels between the events in the first half and the latter half of the film. It’s hard to prefer scholars’ commentaries over those offering up by the filmmakers themselves, but this is a strong contender. A worthy listen which will reveal unseen depth to even those who know the movie by rote.
Commentary with Writer Paul Schrader. The writer’s solo commentary explores the parallels between his script and the final movie, the changes made, the ideas ported right over, and the stuff that comes from personal experience. He talks about the circular nature of the narrative, ending the debates (which I have never supported) over the supposed ambiguity over the climax, and this makes for an excellent companion-piece, even if it is arguably the third in line to be listened to on the commentary front.
Making Taxi Driver takes a whopping, feature-length 71 minutes to take a relatively recent, retrospective look at the project, complete with interview segments from basically all of those involved in the production. It covers all of the bases, giving you all you would ever want to know – and is a comprehensive extra in its own right. We get detail into Scorsese’s status at the time within the film industry; his friendship with Brian De Palma; how he obtained and developed the script, using the actors to expand upon many of the roles and flesh out characters that were often written with little screen-time and almost no dialogue; and we get to hear from all the others involved along the way, from Jodie Foster (who talks about the real girl that they modelled her character and adapted her scenes using) to De Niro himself. If you only picked one extra, it would have to be this mammoth effort, which is arguably the highlight of the disc.
Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver is a relatively recent 17 minute interview with the acclaimed director, which appears to cover a lot of the same bases as the documentary. Still, we are offered further detail as Scorsese speed-talks about his constricted budged and how they nearly went for shooting the film in black and white as a result; discusses alternate casting that was planned – Dustin Hoffman in the lead; notes the filmmakers – from Godard to Hitchcock – who inspired his style; and reflects upon what he sought to accomplish considering the fact that none of those involved in the time expected the film to even be a critical success, let alone a commercial one.
God’s Lonely Man is a 22 minute interview with writer Paul Schrader, who discusses what makes him tick, his background as a film critic, his late film education and how he got involved in Taxi Driver at an all-time low in his life. Again, much has been covered before, but this interview offers far greater background detail into what he went through, both before, during and since.
Producing Taxi Driver is 10 minutes long and hosted by Producer Michael Phillips, who talks about how he got involved with the project, falling in love with the script, optioning it and fighting to keep the ending. An interesting companion-piece which fits in well with the other interviews.
Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute takes 19 minutes to look at Taxi Driver in terms of the impact of Scorsese’s work at the time. Various directors – including Oliver Stone – pop up to discuss the Scorsese’s impact on their work, along with welcome contributions from De Niro and Professor Kofler (who provided one of the commentaries).
Travis’ New York spends 6 minutes looking at the depiction of 70s New York in Taxi Driver, with insight from the film’s director of photography, Michael Chapman, who offers a great deal of background into the New York of the time.
Taxi Driver Stories is 22 minutes long and has several real-life taxi drivers talking about their colourful experiences of driving a New York cab back in the late seventies. It’s quite interesting the way in which they discuss the parallels with the depiction in the film itself, the ease of getting a cab licence back then compared with now; how dangerous the job could be, the seedy areas of the City that you would avoid, and the people that they met along the way.
Interactive script-to-screen comparison allows us to watch the movie with the script rolling within a box in the corner of the screen. The interactive element allows you to change the size of the box, and also toggle between contemporaneous script-reading (as the script does not exactly follow the order in the movie, the speed of its rolling across the screen can vary dramatically, and even features some jumps) and discrete reading (where it plays independently of the film). This is an extremely interesting feature, allowing you to see just how much of the dialogue was taken exactly from the original script.
Storyboard-to-film comparison comes complete with a 5-minute Introduction by Martin Scorsese, who talks about why he likes storyboarding (as a child he had plenty of time to develop stories using pictures because he suffered from asthma and so didn’t play outside like the other kids), what he hopes to get across using them, and how they enabled him to gauge exactly what shots he needed to get to be able to convey the story – and which could be adapted on-the-fly. The storyboards themselves are rough sketches, but are strikingly close to the end results (Scorsese even notes the cuts to the character’s eyes and face that intersperse the scenes) and here we get to look at 8 minutes’ worth of prime examples from throughout the movie.
Travis’ New York Locations is another split-screen comparison feature which allows you to look at several key locations within the movie and compare them, side-by-side, with the current (i.e. 2004) buildings that stand there. We look at the porno theatres, the campaign offices, the campaign rally setting, the hotels, and various other locations from the film, and this is an interesting, brisk and to-the-point extra.
Galleries come in a multitude of flavours: Bernard Herrman Score, On Location, Publicity Materials and Scorsese At Work, and offers up samples from the original musical score (made more interesting if you can read sheet music), some black and white on-set shots taken from during filming which has plenty of stills of De Niro and Scorsese discussing their work, some example promotional posters and publicity stills, and finally some shots of Scorsese directing. All of the stills can be played using a ‘play all’ feature which takes some 9 minutes to run through the numerous images, and is accompanied by sections of the film’s score (including De Niro narration).
Trailer. The comprehensive extras package is rounded out by the a rather strange ‘remix’ of the original trailer, which runs at 2 minutes and is quite twisted in and of itself (I’m not sure the techno dance music quite works for the material).
A fitting companion piece to last month’s review of Raging Bull, the preceding sophomore collaboration between celebrated director Martin Scorsese and master actor Robert De Niro, 1976’s Taxi Driver, was just as much a defining point in the careers of both of the talented artists. Taking viewers on a vivid, treacherous and sometimes nightmarish voyage through the streets of New York – as seen through the eyes of the troubled child-like psychotic would-be assassin turned-vigilante, Travis Bickle – the hazy, narcotically evocative experience is unlike any other put to film, a tour de force cinematic milestone which is as easily praised as it is hard to actually like. Offering us a twisted, inverted vision of this self-propelled introvert, the filmmakers enable us to sympathise but seldom empathise with his plight, a dark journey of pseudo-redemption which was so strong as to provoke one man to even mimic the behaviour of the protagonist, arguably taking things to the next level and actually shooting the then-President, Ronald Reagan as a result. Scorsese may now be known for his latter-year greats like Shutter Island and The Aviator, or even the gangster trilogy of Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino, but both Raging Bull and Taxi Driver remain as two of his most powerful, striking and poignant works – masterpieces in both the his career and the career of long-time collaborator and friend, Robert De Niro.
Released on Region Free US Blu-ray, this package has Criterion-standard written all over it, even if it has not been done through that Studio. It’s up there with the lavish Apocalypse Now release in terms of the loving care and attention which has been put into the director-approved remastering of the video and audio, and the wealth of extras – including no less than 3 audio commentaries – should provide fans with any and all the background information that they could possibly want. Heartily recommended, it’s a must-have for any fan of the film or the filmmakers involved. Hell, it deserves a place in any film fan’s collection. There’s never been another film quite like it.
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