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Taxi Driver, New York

by Simon Abrams
March 18, 2011 12:53 PM
4 Comments
  • |
Thompson on Hollywood

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.

4 Comments

  • rgm | March 19, 2011 12:56 PMReply

    The preservation of legitimate theaters in the Times Square /42nd St. area is a genuine improvement, but the turning that vital part of NYC into "Disneyland East" is a shame. Good Broadway theater for families may be a gain, but all those new brand-name candy, toy, and souvenir stores are as much of a blight to the area as were the old porn-related shops.

  • Simon Abrams | March 19, 2011 9:36 AMReply

    Hi Brian

    I double-checked to see if you were right and it appears that my initial impression was wrong. This is a major mistake on my part and one that I regret not having more thoroughly fact-checked. Thanks for pointing it out and sorry to disappoint.

  • Brian | March 19, 2011 1:39 AMReply

    I went to see this last night at the Film Forum. I take issue with this assertion by Simon Abrams above:
    "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. This impacts the film’s bloody shoot-out, which Scorsese originally had to desaturate in order to avoid an X rating. Now you can see the blood gushing out of Travis and his assailants as if they were lit by the angry red buzzing neon in Times Square."

    The print I saw last night had the same desaturated blood in the shootout scene that's on my DVD and that was visible in the prints I saw back in 1976. Nothing like "angry red buzzing neon." Did Mr. Abrams even see the new 35mm print?

    Also, some scenes were much darker than they were in previous editions of the film. E.g. the scene in which Travis hits on the candy stand cashier at the porno theater, and the scene in which Travis tries to open up to the older cabbie, Wizard (Peter Boyle), in a conversation on the street outside the Belmore Cafeteria. I like to SEE what's on the screen, not have to GUESS what's on the screen, so I protest this alteration of the original image.

    Also, the audience at the 7:45 PM show was rather lethargic. Not much in the way of reaction to the movie. A few chuckles during the cabbies' banter and the scene where Travis courts Betsy in the coffee shop. But that's it. Nothing like the way audiences responded at showings in 1976.

  • Brian | March 18, 2011 2:59 AMReply

    Correction: Palantine is spelled with one "l"

    About the 42nd Street movie theaters: Two have been preserved in something approximating their original condition: The New Amsterdam and The New Victory, "original" meaning the way they might have looked a long, long time ago, not when they were showing porno and kung fu. Both are legit theaters now, showing live theatre, not movies. All the others are either gone or changed into something very different from the way they used to look. If anyone knows different, please comment.

    However, I walked up 41st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues recently and saw a massive untouched brick building from the old days that just may be what's left of the Harris, seen from the back.

    I watched TAXI DRIVER on DVD last night and now I want to see it with a contemporary audience, to see where the laugh lines are now and to see what will shock them the most. I remember how people reacted when it came out. I suspect the reaction will be very different today. Definitely not a film that could be made today.

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