The haunting opening notes of Bernard Herrmann’s classic opening theme. The infamous mirror scene. The blood-soaked finale. We don’t need to tell you why “Taxi Driver” is one of cinema’s all-time treasures. Martin Scorsese’s fifth picture remains a devastating, troubling cinematic master class of psychology and world-building so seemingly effortless and real that we, the audience, occasionally forget what a disturbing and desperate climate is being built around us. Martin Scorsese’s 1976 picture–his best, in this writer’s opinion–is many things. Fundamentally though, it is the story of a man with a crippling inability to connect with others, a man whose self-imposed isolation leads to genuinely horrific acts of violence and a sort of go-for-broke vigilantism that’s become an ugly and unfortunate staple of American life. It is a film that grows in the mind upon multiple viewings, refusing to arrive at a tidy conclusion and lingering in the grey matter of our mind like a living nightmare.
The influence of the film has grown massive in the subsequent decades, influencing filmmakers as varied as Paul Thomas Anderson, Nicolas Winding Refn and even Jody Hill. What many may not know is that the story of the film’s production, during what many consider to be the golden age of Hollywood moviemaking, is almost as fascinating as the finished product itself. “Making Taxi Driver,” a seventy-minute documentary from 1999, features an embarrassment of rich and insightful interviews with the cast and filmmakers, those who are new to the “Taxi Driver” fold will get the chance to learn more about this classic film’s journey from page to screen.
Scorsese’s union with screenwriter Paul Schrader is ultimately what set the story in motion. Scorsese, then living in L.A. and hanging out with Brian De Palma on the reg, was introduced to Schrader-who at the time was reported to be a caustic, brilliant young screenwriter whose last sellable project was titled “Yakuza.” After a series of personal and professional setbacks, Schrader gave birth to Travis Bickle: a closed-off, deeply bitter former soldier and part-time cabbie who has since gone on to become one of the most memorable screen antiheroes of all time. The main performance, it also should be said, remains a high water mark for Robert De Niro, although he went on to do similarly mesmerizing work for Scorsese later on in “Raging Bull” and “The King of Comedy.”
It’s interesting to note that Scorsese wasn’t really able to make the movie, at least not the way he wanted to, until his star actor had won his Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” (during pre-production, Marty’s only substantial credit was his breakthrough “Mean Streets” and “Boxcar Bertha”). Generous, in-depth talks with the cast reveal the role improvisation played in shaping the film, why Harvey Keitel almost had Albert Brooks’ part but instead took the role of the vicious pimp Sport, and the function of the real-life Belmore Cafeteria, where the film’s cabbies hang and talk shop. “Taxi Driver” buffs will be delighted to note that there is also a small portion devoted to Steven Price, a.k.a. “Easy Andy” the gun salesman, Scorsese’s real-life pal and a former road dog for Neil Diamond (and seriously, if you haven’t seen Marty’s loving tribute to this former drugged-out outlaw, check out “American Boy” – you’ll be glad you did). Watch the “Taxi Driver” doc below.