The American Society of Cinematographers

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DVD Playback
Jean Renoir
Taxi Driver
ASC Close-Up
Taxi Driver (1976)
Collector’s Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Sony Pictures Home
Entertainment, $24.96

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man,” says disturbed former Marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Travis can’t sleep at night and asks his boss for double shifts, driving his taxicab throughout New York City’s five boroughs. Drive he does, endlessly observing, questioning and judging his surroundings. He spends his time off making entries in his journal and trying to sleep away the headaches that plague him. After spotting pretty Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) by chance on a sunny afternoon, Travis is immediately drawn to her, convincing himself that she’s as lonely as he is. Following an uncomfortable date, Betsy refuses to see Travis again, leaving him even more isolated, and he then chooses to focus on what he feels is his mission: saving a child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), who lives under the thumb of her dangerous pimp (Harvey Keitel). Travis diligently works on his plan to save Iris and clean up the sick world around him. The long summer in the city pushes him further into his dark, sociopathic obsessions, and he purchases an arsenal of weapons for his crusade.

After young director Martin Scorsese proved himself proficient in gritty, urban storytelling with Mean Streets (1973) and found commercial success a year later with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Columbia Pictures agreed to let him direct Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader’s volatile screenplay of urban dystopia and isolation. Scorsese fashioned Schrader’s story of a misanthropic, maladjusted veteran into a film that became not only a box-office draw, but also one of the seminal American films of the 1970s. In addition to De Niro’s now-legendary slow burn and Bernard Herrmann’s richly textured score, the film benefits considerably from Scorsese’s partnership with cinematographer Michael Chapman, ASC. After living in New York for some time, Chapman had become quite familiar with the cityscape the screenplay suggested, and he and Scorsese made bold, unusual choices for the material.

Chapman made the most of the city’s vibrant existing light, which ranges from white sun against asphalt to the neon-drenched, saturated hues of Bickle’s nocturnal drives, and shot many images at slightly unusual speeds to suggest Bickle’s disturbed mind; these abstract images are striking, complex and completely unique. The cinematographer reteamed with Scorsese on The Last Waltz and Raging Bull, earning an Academy Award nomination for the latter. (He was honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment recently reissued Taxi Driver on DVD as a special collector’s edition. The image transfer on the previous DVD, issued in 1999, was passable for its time, but compared to this new transfer it suffers from what appears to be worn source material and often runs dark, illuminating very little shadow detail. The new transfer has been pressed at a slightly higher bit rate, with more visible details in black, shaded areas and a brighter, more defined overall presentation. The soundtrack has been discreetly remixed as a Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation that gives Herrmann’s potent score a great deal of depth while keeping most of the dialogue and effects in the front channels.

This new edition borrows two supplements from the previous DVD, the clever scene-to-screenplay supplement and the excellent 70-minute documentary “Making Taxi Driver,” which features the principal cast and crew. The impressive array of new supplements includes photos, publicity materials, and an extensive revamp of the 1999 storyboard feature that brings several scenes to life while simultaneously showing the storyboards. The new extras also include a sporadic but informative commentary track by Schrader; a dense, engaging commentary track by film scholar Robert Kolker; and more than 70 minutes of newly produced interviews with Scorsese, Chapman, De Niro and others.

Perhaps the oddest and most interesting featurettes are those that include filmmakers and real cab drivers talking about the film’s impact, and former New York mayor Ed Koch talking about the gentrification of the city. Indeed, much of the New York depicted in the film has disappeared into the post-Giuliani landscape of tourism, chain stores and family-themed restaurants. Thanks to Scorsese’s edgy, vivid and disturbing portrait of big-city alienation and violence, one of New York’s darkest modern periods has been preserved in chilling detail. This slick, new presentation of this modern classic is a must for any serious collector, as well as an exceptional way to explore the film for the first time.

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