Starting this Friday, New York City’s Film Forum will screen a newly restored 35mm print of Taxi Driver. Simon Abrams reports on the restoration and takes a look at Martin Scorsese's New York, then and now.
Martin Scorsese’s seminal film was restored by Sony Pictures and The Film Foundation, an organization dedicated to film preservation that Scorsese is actively involved in. Now 35 years old, Taxi Driver looks more and more like an expressive time capsule of pre-Giuiliani Manhattan. The most salient sign of the changing times is the fact that the Lyric Theater, the porn house where Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) takes his date to see Swedish skin flick The Swedish Marriage Manual, is now the Foxwoods Theater, the Broadway auditorium where Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is playing. Like the Lyric Theater, many of the film's more unsavory locations are gone, replaced by more upscale, tourist-friendly attractions.
By contrast, thanks to the new 4K restoration, Taxi Driver looks more lurid than ever. Under the watchful eyes of Scorsese and director of photography Michael Chapman, a print of the film was color corrected using a wetgate 4K scanner at New York’s Cineric facilities. The one scene that remains unchanged is the film's climactic bloody shoot-out. Scorsese originally had to desaturate the color scheme in order to avoid an X rating. Chapman did not attempt to brighten that scene's muddy red palette for the film's restoration (the original film negative that includes that scene as it was originally shot is now lost). Then again, while changes to the print limited what Chapman could do, both he and Scorsese have publicly said that they approve of the theatrical cut's darker look.
That nightmarish hyper-real quality is one reason why Taxi Driver still looms larger than Scorsese’s other New York-based films. The film’s version of Manhattan is geographically divided by class and is a more self-sustained microcosm than the neighborhood-centric After Hours (SoHo), Mean Streets (Little Italy) or Gangs of New York (Five Points area). Uptown Manhattan in Taxi Driver belongs to Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a figure that feels ill-at-ease in Travis’s cab in spite of his claims that he’s learned more from riding in taxi cabs than anywhere else in the city. Downtown is the province of Sport (Harvey Keitel), an unscrupulous and violent pimp who earns money by selling the body of 12 year-old Iris (Jodie Foster). Scorsese doesn't show much of this area, preferring instead to rely on Travis's descriptive voiceover journal entries.
As a midtown denizen, Travis is caught between these two worlds. He's unmoored and mobile. He can travel anywhere, from all-night diners to porn theaters to Pallantine’s campaign headquarters. Then again, while Travis is uncomfortable interacting with anyone associated with Palantine, he talks freely and without reservation with any of the film's downtown characters, especially Iris. Travis takes fares all over the city, including other boroughs, as he is infected with the city's malaise. He mops up semen and blood from the back seat of his cab and escorts everyone -- including a deranged man (Scorsese himself) who swears he's going to kill his wife because she's cheating on him -- wherever they want to go without complaining. Travis is corrupted by his association with the downtown residents, making it impossible for him to ever relate to Palantine booster Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the object of his obsession.
The tension between uptown vs. downtown comes to a head when Palantine gives his speech in Columbus Circle. Pallantine says that he's decided to make his speech there because it's a crossroads for the city. While there's some truth to that--Columbus Circle was and is an enormous traffic circle with multiple streets contributing traffic--it's still Palantine's uptown Manhattan comfort zone. When Mohawked Travis applauds Pallantine's speech, he totally undermines the politician's slogan of "We are the people." If Palantine represents everyone, that includes a disenfranchised and -- by this point schizoid -- man like Travis, who has soaked up so much of the city's downtown habits that he's become its most corrupt representative.
The New York of Taxi Driver is a now a foreign world, only nostalgically sharing its shooting locations with 2011's New York tourist attractions. Last week, on the night of the restored print's NYC debut, Scorsese told a rapt audience that he doesn't miss the old Times Square but he's not much more happy with what's replaced it, either. The city's landscape has changed and much of the locations' history disappeared with the seedier residents and landmarks. The movie theaters that peppered 42nd Street, like the one screening Clint Eastwood's mountain-climbing thriller The Eiger Sanction across the street from The Swedish Marriage Manual, are almost all gone.
I recently took an informal tour with local historian Peter Chiarella (aka: 42nd Street Pete) to learn more about what the area was like and how it's changed over time from "Wild West City" to today's commercial attraction. Chiarella didn't paint a nostalgic picture of the area. In one incredible story he got stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver in front of the Lyric Theater. His anecdotes provide welcome reminders of why Taxi Driver is now more essential than ever.