One of the most “New York” movies ever made originally didn’t have much to do with New York at all. When Paul Schrader sat down in the early 1970s to write his script about an alienated young cabbie who goes mad driving around at night, the Michigan native was living in Los Angeles, where he had moved to study film at UCLA. The chaos that led him to write Taxi Driver in a blistering couple of weeks — a divorce, another breakup, professional frustration, alcoholism, vagrancy, an ulcer — was personal, not urban. When director Martin Scorsese came on board several years later, he reportedly teased Schrader about geographical inaccuracies in the script. The finished film might have been grimy, stylized, and city-specific, but its antecedents were internalized, austere, placeless: Before shooting, Schrader and Scorsese studied Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest and Louis Malle’s The Fire Within.
But the movie was right for its time and its setting. Scorsese shot the film during a nightmarish New York summer in 1975, mere months before the famous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” The streets were covered in rotting trash, thanks to a garbage-workers strike and a heat wave. But to many, it was just another summer. “It was a rough period in the history of New York,” the director told me when I interviewed him last year, “although I couldn’t tell the difference.”
The grittiness of Taxi Driver — its ground-level authenticity, its reflection of a city on the brink — is due in part to the fact that the filmmakers didn’t have much of a budget. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman would sit in the backseat of a cab with a camera and let Robert De Niro drive through the night, often without bothering to block off streets or set up elaborate camera rigs. This also accounted for the film’s visual darkness. The city essentially had to light itself.
Taxi Driver hovers somewhere between realism and expressionism. It’s a vision of Hell — announced right there in its opening, as the cab emerges from the steam like some kind of automotive demon — that had the good fortune of being shot in a town actually turning hellish. Scorsese lets actors improvise, and his camera run, but the increasingly fractured editing structure fragments the story, at times even doubling back on itself. Bernard Herrmann’s score is both jazzy and operatic, with sax solos doing battle with thundering, brassy crescendos; it evokes both classic Hollywood and nerve-jangling horror. (He was, after all, the composer who gave us both Citizen Kane and Psycho.)
This is the rare film about alienation that is nevertheless tactile, visceral. We see Travis Bickle’s world through the windows of the cab Schrader once called a “metal coffin,” but we also feel the anger, the madness welling up. As “God’s lonely man,” De Niro is quiet, observant, nervous; the inaction on his face plays off the sleazy, vibrant buzz of the streets. It’s clear all along that this kind of emotional paralysis will find an outlet somewhere.
New York is different now, which has only enhanced Taxi Driver‘s evocation of this town at its nadir; the more the city changes, the more the film feels of the city. It makes some kind of weird sense that Scorsese’s masterpiece is screening in a fortieth anniversary gala at the Tribeca Film Festival, with the director and his cast in attendance. Tribeca, co-founded by Taxi Driver star De Niro in the wake of 9-11, has done well with these Scorsese-De Niro anniversary revivals, while not incidentally offering a fascinating overview of how cinema has seen the city over time. Last year they screened Goodfellas; in 2013, it was The King of Comedy. I hope this means we get New York, New York next year.
April 21 at the Beacon Theatre