Blu-ray: Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ at 40 and ‘Boxcar Bertha’

taxi-driver-bdTaxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition (Sony, Blu-ray)
Boxcar Bertha (Twilight Time, Blu-ray)

Martin Scorsese’ incendiary 1976 masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most visceral portraits of the American urban underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and almost forty years later it still has the power sink the audience into the mind and filthy, fetid world of Travis Bickle.

Directed by the ambitious young Scorsese, who confesses that he was driven to make this silent scream turned psychotic explosion of a script by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, it is a primal portrait and uncompromising vision carved out of the New York night, the summer heat and the garbage of the Times Square cesspool. Bickle, a character inspired by Schrader’s own spiral into self-obsessed urban loneliness, is no hero. The restless, insomniac Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift and muses over the urban cesspool that he wanders through in his nocturnal prowlings in a hateful gutter poetry has convinced himself that he’s “God’s lonely man,” the self-appointed avenging angel out to clean up the garbage on the streets.

DeNiro reads his journal entries in a near monotone voice-over, a matter-of-fact racism and homophobia and contempt for wide swathes of the human race creeping into his unexamined musings. His unacknowledged racism and intolerance (seen in his reflexive expression of contempt every time he catches sight of an African American on the street) becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism and vigilante justice. And film’s final, sour irony is that the world believes his delusions of chivalry as much as he does.

Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman create an almost hellish vision of New York at night as seen through the eyes of Bickle. Steam rises out of the grates and manhole covers like some primordial urban swamp (some of the street scenes were shot at slightly higher speeds, giving the steam an eerie, unreal slowness when played back) and there’s a lurid, abrupt quality to the violence, like a Weegee photo in the brutal glare of red police light, blunt and grotesque and explosive.

Taxi Driver won the Palm d’or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and has since been lauded as one of the great American films. Yet it received a mere four Academy Award nominations (for Best Picture, for the performances by Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster and for Bernard Herrmann’s score) and didn’t win any. Neither Martin Scorsese nor Paul Schrader were even nominated for direction and screenplay, which surely illustrates the discomfort the film caused Academy voters. Yet it remains one of the quintessential film of 1970s American cinema, a brooding blast of modern gothic cinema that boils over in madness and self-destruction. The primal portrait, uncompromising vision, vivid direction and fierce, fearless performance by De Niro has inspired countless young filmmakers and actors in the decades since.

There have been numerous home video editions of the film. Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition appears to feature the same 4K restoration of the previous Blu-ray release. The restoration doesn’t “clean up” the image so much as sharpen the texture of the portrait. It’s so visceral it you can feel the heat and grime waft off the screen.

New to the two-disc set is a reunion Q&A, a 40-minute discussion with director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, producer Michael Phillips, and stars Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, and Cybill Shepherd, recorded live at the 40th anniversary screening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival (which was cofounded by De Niro) and moderated by Kent Jones. It’s surely the first time since the film’s release that this many of the original team came together to discuss the film.

The rest of the supplements are carried over from previous editions. There are three commentary tracks: one from film professor and writer Robert Kolker and another from screenwriter Paul Schrader recorded for the 2007 Collector’s Edition DVD, and the original 1986 commentary by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader (recorded separately) for the (long out of print) Criterion laserdisc release. This was one of the very first commentary tracks ever recorded and was unavailable to most viewers (there aren’t a lot of laserdisc players still spinning discs out there) until it was revived for the 2011 Blu-ray. The unfamiliarity with the concept is apparent in the long silences of the track, even with the two separate tracks edited together and a narrator offering periodic introductions and background notes, and much of their talk has been reiterated in later interviews, commentary tracks and documentaries, but it is still illuminating and historically important: a track recorded ten years out from the film, before Scorsese had become a significant commercial success or a spokesman for film history and preservation.

Also features the Blu-ray exclusive interactive “Script to Screen” function, which scrolls actual script pages (with Scorsese’s notations) along with the film, the 16-minute “Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver” (talking about his influences and his reflections on the work decades later), the 21-minute “God’s Lonely Man” (reflections by screenwriter Schrader and critic Kolker), the 9-minute “Producing Taxi Driver” (with Michael Phillips), plus “Taxi Driver Stories” (featuring former cab drivers), “Travis’ New York” (with cinematographer Michael Chapman and former New York Mayor Ed Koch), and “Travis’ New York Locations.”

A bonus DVD features the rest of the supplements: the superb 70-minute documentary “Making Taxi Driver” produced for the 1999 DVD release by Laurent Bouzereau, storyboard-to-film comparisons (with an introduction by Scorsese), and animated photo galleries.

Also includes a bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copy of the film.

Taxi Driver: 40th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]

boxcarberthaBoxcar Bertha (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Martin Scorsese was just another college film school grad with a student feature under his belt (Who’s That Knocking at My Door) when producer Roger Corman tapped him to direct AIP’s entry in the Bonnie and Clyde craze of depression era gangster films. It was a straight work-for-hire job and it will never be mistaken for a forgotten Scorsese masterpiece but it’s a key film in his oeuvre nonetheless: his first commercial feature.

Barbara Hershey stars as the real-life depression era orphan of the title, a charming, cheeky young woman who tramped the Deep South with a Union organizer (David Carradine), a dandified New York con man (Barry Primus), and a blues-playing mechanic (Bernie Casey), turning her motley band into train robbing outlaws. Scorsese was anxious to show his chops on a real Hollywood feature and does so admirably (if impersonally) with rough-and-ready style on a mix of true story and exploitation drama. If the rebellious spirit and social message behind the sex and violence is more Corman than Scorsese, the film references (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” she tells a customer while working at a cathouse) and often inventive direction is pure Scorsese. You could say he passed the audition, creating an energetic, fast-paced exploitation picture with evocative music, scruffy stylish photography, and solid performances. His follow-up picture was the jittery, passionate streetwise study Mean Streets. John Carradine and Victor Argo co-star.

As with all Twilight Time releases, it includes an isolated score track and a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo and is limited to 3000 copies.

Purchase it directly from Twilight Time

More home video reviews at Cinephiled

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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