The Age of Innocence (1993) is not the only costume drama or historical picture that Martin Scorsese made but it is his only classical literary adaptation from the filmmaker that, all these years later, we still remember for edgy violence and cinematic energy. But even from the director of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence, this film stands out for its grace and nuance in its portrait of social intercourse as formal ritual.
Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by Jay Cocks and Scorsese and set in 19th century New York City, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a respected lawyer and respectable member of elite society who is engaged to the beautiful young May (Winona Ryder) but falls in love with her cousin, the worldly Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). The American-born Ellen has spent the best years of her life in the social straightjacket of the European aristocracy and arrives home a stranger under the shadow of scandal, fleeing a bad marriage to a philandering European Count. At first Newland extends his friendship out of duty to May but soon finds Ellen’s honesty and insight refreshing and exciting. As he observes how his own society marks her as outcast he starts to see his own complicity in a social world just as petty and judgmental as the one Ellen has fled. That very complicity puts him at odds with his passions when he’s instructed to talk Ellen out of divorcing her husband and into returning to a loveless marriage to avoid tarnishing the family name. The same contract that he realizes he too will be entering.
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.
Boxcar 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.
Mean Streets (Warner) – “You don’t pay for your sins in church. You pay for them on the street. All the rest is bullshit.” It’s not Martin Scorsese’s first movie, but “Mean Streets” (1973) is the first mature Martin Scorsese film: a passionate, energetic, stylistically inventive portrait life on the streets of New York’s Little Italy.
Drawing from the world he knew growing up, Scorsese creates vivid characters in mob collector Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and his unpredictable, violent best friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), a screw-up who threatens Charlie’s hopes of rising in the organization. Scorsese’s barely contained energy (invigorated by a 60s rock soundtrack that was, at the time, a genuinely creative use of popular music to define the mood, describe the culture, and punctuate the drama) drives the loose plot and his rich sense of place and culture gives it a home. David Proval and Richard Romanus complete their neighborhood quartet (Proval, who made a name for himself decades later playing Richie Aprile in “The Sopranos,” is unforgettable in a tender moment with a caged tiger), Amy Robinson plays Charlie’s Jewish girlfriend, and David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Scorsese’s mother Catherine Scorsese, and Martin Scorsese himself make brief appearances.
Features scene-specific commentary by director Martin Scorsese, Martin Mardik, and co-star (and future Scorsese producer) Amy Robinson, with a function that automatically jumps to every scene with commentary, and the vintage making-of featurette “Back on the Block.”
“You remind me that money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”
The Color of Money (Disney) is not and will never be considered Martin Scorsese’s greatest film. It hasn’t the ragged beauty and personal charge of “Mean Streets,” the ambition or the intensity of “Taxi Driver,” or the cinematic density of “GoodFellas.” Yet it is possibly his most accessible film and his answer to the old Hollywood studio movie. Like the studio contract directors of past decades, he neither developed nor pursued this project, and he still turns into a distinctly Scorsese vision.
It is not simply that Scorsese acquitted himself on the assignment, it is that he used the tools and talent of the production — a richly textured script by Richard Price, a mid-level studio budget bigger than anything he’d had for some time, the gravitas of Paul Newman, and the charge of young Tom Cruise in all his youthful arrogance and big-kid innocence — to make a film about regret and redemption. And he delivers the cinematic charge of the pool room culture of hustle and gamesmanship along with the education of a young protégé lacking self and a mentor who has yet to face his own conflicted feelings about the game.
Twenty-five years after walking away from the game in “The Hustler,” Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson has settled into success as a liquor salesman, a cross between a modern whisky drummer and a suave, slick bootlegger who sells his customers inexpensive alternatives to top-shelf brands. Until he sees Vincent (Cruise), a grinning hotshot who wields a cue like a quarterstaff in a “Robin Hood” movie and outplays the neighborhood poolroom hustler (John Turturro) without breaking a sweat.
Hugo (Paramount), Martin Scorsese’s first family film (it’s PG!) and his first engagement with 3D is a love letter to the magic of cinema, both a tribute to early film pioneer George Méliès (played by Ben Kinsgley) and a child’s adventure through a grown-up world of loss and discovery, and a fantastical recreation of 1920s Paris as a playground for a clever orphan (Asa Butterfield) and a spirited girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) to solve a mystery.
Even without 3D, this is a visual delight, from the dazzling recreation of the Montparnasse Train Station (since transformed into the Musee D’Orsay, one of the most famous art museums in the world) and the labyrinthine clockworks and passages behind the walls to the dramatization of Méliès creating his most fantastic screen dreams in his film studio. And Scorsese fills every frame with defining and playful detail (look for Django Reinhardt in the café band and Salvador Dali having coffee) and the bustle of life and character.
Befitting such an impassioned tribute to the glories of early cinema and the creators of yesteryear wonders, it is a cinematic playground of technique and color and imagination, as well as an affectionate childhood adventure.
Martin Scorsese’ incendiary masterpiece of alienation and anger and urban anxiety may be the most maverick vision in all of seventies American cinema. It is certainly one of the most courageous and passionate portraits of the American underbelly ever put on film, a movie bathed in blood as much as in light, and revisiting the film on its Blu-ray debut, mastered from the brand new digital restoration currently making the rounds on the festival and repertory cinema circuit, only confirms the power of the film to, after all these years, 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 would-be assassin Arthur Bremer and Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel “La Naussee” as well as 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.
To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.
Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”
A few months ago I had the pleasure of writing on Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets for its showing on Turner Classic Movies. I’m pleased to add my notes on Taxi Driver in honor of its late night/early morning screening on September 29.
Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese’s searing portrait of loneliness and violence on the mean streets of New York, is an American original. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, the insomniac taxi driver of the title, is an angry, alienated Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift. He muses in voice-over over the urban cesspool that he encounters in his nocturnal prowlings: “All the animals come out at night: queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” He’s a pressure cooker of alienated desperation and rage who hates this existence yet is so disconnected from the rest of the world that he can no longer relate to the people outside of his tawdry world of hookers and hustlers and the homeless. When he scares off his dream girl (Cybill Shepherd), he channels his rage into plotting the assassination of a political candidate and saving a teenage hooker (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel with long, stringy hair). It remains one of the quintessential films of 1970s American cinema, a brooding blast of modern gothic cinema that boils over in madness and self destruction. Scorsese’s uncompromising vision and vivid direction and a fierce, fearless performance by De Niro have inspired countless young filmmakers and actors in the decades since its release.
Mean Streets is one of my all-time favorite films and remains my personal favorite Martin Scorsese film. I had the pleasure of exploring the film, and its making, for Turner Classic Movies.
“You don’t pay for your sins in church. You pay for them on the street. All the rest is bullshit.” Mean Streets (1973) is not Martin Scorsese’s first film, but it is the film in which he came into his own. Passionate, energetic, stylistically inventive and personally driven, it is the first mature, full blooded “Martin Scorsese Film.” Inspired by the stories of friends and his own experiences from stories of growing up in Little Italy around small time mobsters and young toughs and would-be operators, it tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young debt collector for his mobster uncle. His ambitions to rise in the family business are complicated by his friendship with an unpredictable, self-destructive childhood buddy, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in his breakthrough performance), and a secret affair with a cousin (Amy Robinson) who rejects his culture of Catholic guilt and male machismo.
For all the violence of the streets, Mean Streets is less a crime film than a character piece, a love letter to the streets of New York’s Little Italy and the young men rattling around like tough guys and fantasizing about becoming the real thing. No street thug, the young, asthmatic Scorsese was considering the priesthood when he became gripped with what was then the completely unrealistic dream of making films. Mean Streets is not autobiographical in any narrative sense but in Scorsese’s own words, “was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract.”
Read the complete feature here. Mean Streets plays on TCM on Friday, June 19.
Politics, propaganda and poetry are whipped into an exotic cinematic cocktail in Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba. The film, a co-production between the USSR’s Mosfilm and Cuba’s national film production company, ICAIC, was embarked upon as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis. Castro, a film buff who loved both Hollywood movie and the great Soviet classics of the silent era, saw an opportunity to put Cuba’s story on film. Kalatozov (director of The Cranes Are Flying) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin, but for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What he emerged with is an epic revolutionary art movie of socialist ideals that opens in the decadence of Batista’s Cuba and ends with the intoxication of righteous uprising against the capitalist oppressors.
I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting one of the best DVD releases of 2007 (and one of the greatest film rediscoveries of the 1990s) for Turner Classic Movies: I Am Cuba.
“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” explained cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in a 1965 interview. Urusevsky, who had previously shot Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko joined director Kalatozov in a tour of Cuba to scout locations, soak up the culture, and get to know the people in order to find their story. Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet was their screenwriter partner and tour guide. He helped sketch out ideas and characters with the three Soviet artists in group meetings in Cuba and then traveled to Moscow to help write the script from the notes and scene sketches. Pre-production reportedly took over a year as Kalatozov worked out every aspect of the film, and the shooting lasted almost two years.
The resulting portrait, ostensibly a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban artists, is undeniably European, the work of Russian filmmakers intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music and set loose away from the oversight of Soviet studios and politicians. Continue reading “I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies”