Review: TAXI DRIVER - Digitally Restored 35th Anniversary Re-Release

rating: 5

(Rob's review from the Venice Film Festival re-posted as the new print of Taxi Driver is on re-release in the U.K. from today)Before the premiere of the new 4K restoration of Martin Scorsese's seminal 1976 film Taxi Driver, screenwriter Paul Schrader said that seeing the film now would be to us what seeing Citizen Kane was in his day. It was a lofty claim, and a slightly self-serving one, but not totally without foundation. The hovering, out of body camera work near the film's end is echoed in Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, whilst Richard Ayoade and Wes Anderson are just two filmmakers who have been very definitely influenced by the film's use of an unreliable narrator. Robert De Niro's portrayal of the isolated and delusional cabbie Travis Bickle has also since been widely imitated and has ascended into the realm of the iconic. For those who haven't seen it, Taxi Driver is driven by Bickle's unhealthy obsession with a political campaigner named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). He watches her from his cab for days before eventually asking her out, in a scene where his lack of self-awareness is mistaken for confidence, and they go on a few dates. However, Betsy breaks things off with Bickle after a trip to "the movies" turns out to be to an adult theatre running a Swedish porn film. This is the final 'injustice' for a man already filled with impudent (internet forum calibre) rage. He then buys a lot of guns. From this point Bickle resolves to assassinate Betsy's boss - a presidential candidate - as a final act of revenge against a world gone to hell and a city filled with "scum". It's a brilliant character study that takes the point of view of a psychopath and Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro must all share credit for how completely the film succeeds at getting into this guy's mindset - a place where his violent actions are morally justified. Scorsese has enough respect for his audience that he never feels the need to explain what we 'should' think of Bickle, leading some to adopt the character as an anti-hero, yet if we empathise with him it is only because the director so skillfully puts you inside his head. Bernard Hermann's saxophone driven score, his last before his death, is also genius: memorable and wholly complimentary to De Niro's performance. It helps to set up Bickle as a forlorn and tragic figure, driving his cab at night through moodily lit streets, whilst its sudden changes in tone are the film's first indication of the man's potentially dangerous nature. Another highlight is Scorsese's own cameo role as a passenger in Bickle's cab, where he nearly steals the show with a terrific monologue which he underplays - showcasing what an actor he could have been if things had gone differently. Jodie Foster is also memorable for her mature, star-making turn as a 12 year old prostitute. The film is a masterpiece then - so complete and combining a perfect storm of talent - but was it in need of a 4K restoration? Effort has been made to keep the film looking as it did when it was first seen, so how does that benefit the use of a top of the range projector? I don't know the answer to those questions. It looked brilliant but I lack the frame of reference to know how much better it is than previous versions - this being my first time seeing it in a cinema. A dispute with the MPAA at the time of release meant that Scorsese and Michael Chapman (the film's cinematographer) reluctantly agreed to desaturate the colour of the penultimate scene in order to make the blood less prominent. Sadly the original version of this sequence is lost forever and so this restoration still features a compromised and tonally inconsistent version of this scene. A film restoration expert I spoke to after the film questioned the wisdom of restoring a big film like Taxi Driver, especially into the expensive 4K format, whilst other films around the world are in serious danger of being lost. However, maybe giving a popular film like Taxi Driver this treatment, accompanied by a theatrical re-release, can raise the profile of film restoration (a cause Scorsese is passionate about) and help pay for the less glamorous and financially rewarding work required for other films. Not being one of those people who counts pixels and uses terms like "edge enhancement" or "noise reduction", I can't tell you anything about this new print technically. However, I can tell you that the film looks great and this restoration is a good idea if only because it will provoke a new (limited) theatrical run which will give it the chance to inspire a whole new wave of filmmaking talent. Also - be sure to check out our 50 Reasons Why Taxi Driver Might Just Be The Greatest Film Of All Time!
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.