By Patrick Crain
For reasons I can’t seem to recall, Taxi Driver went unseen by me for a very long time. I can’t really remember why I think this is or is not strange. My mind is something of a fog as to why I came upon it the way I did but I do remember one of my favorite movie books from the old house on 45th Street (the one that actually got LEFT in the garage when we moved and was never seen again) did contain a very shocking still from the movie (Travis standing over the convenience store robber after having shot him) that made it look very gritty and very terrifying. Upon conferring with either of my parents about the movie, I recall them both somewhat recoiling and my dad saying “Nope. Too depressing.”
My mother seemed more vitriolic in her condemnation of it; even more so than her empty threats against my seeing The Deer Hunter (1978) which she regarded as one of the most shatteringly depressing movies she’d ever seen (her words in 1981; don’t hold her to it now).
So Taxi Driver was filed away by me as a dark, forbidden film that probably had something sexual going on and if I wanted to see it, I apparently was going to have to put in the work for it.
But as we had been settled into the Del Porte house for a year, I found that my trips to Bob’s Video were less frequent and therefore more focused in what I wanted to rent. My odds of the cool guy who let me rent R rated movies working the day I could find the time to make the now-lengthy walk turned out to be shockingly elusive. And with limited arm space to haul those stupid, bulky VHS tapes back to my house, I had to always strategize my rentals.
The conflation of these two elements caused Taxi Driver to go unrented and therefore unseen. Until…
The advent of the home video boom was really nice and it certainly supplanted network TV and cable as your go-to source for discovery of movies. But network television DID still serve a certain purpose and UHF channels continued to routinely program movies into their late-night slots. In Oklahoma City, one of the three UHF channels was Channel 34 and it was on such a late night slot, Taxi Driver was scheduled to play. I set my VCR to record the movie and watched it the next day.
While we still have network cuts of movies and we revel in kitschy, low-hanging fruit details like the awful things done to the language in movies like Scarface, Goodfellas, and Casino, the “Network Cuts” of older movies from a certain age are a different animal altogether. And Taxi Driver’s Network Cut is a rare bird as it’s exceedingly difficult to come across unless you randomly know someone who still has it socked away on a VHS tape in the back of a closet somewhere. And it’s totally the version I familiarized myself with the first ten or so times I watched it.
Now, to be certain, there’s not much structurally different about the television cut (until the end). It seems odd to say but the gist of the story was there despite the fact that there were radical cuts where whole scenes were excised including, of all things, the “You Talkin’ To Me” scene. So, of course, imagine my confusion when this was the most mentioned scene in all of my movie books.
There were other cuts. The first porno theater scene was there, the second one, directly before he plays with his guns and builds the wrist contraption, was not. I can’t quite remember how they got around the date with Betsy but I seem to remember them keeping the shots of the porno film that employs biological slides and whacking out the rest and then doing a quit cut of her moving out of the row and leaving the theater. The American Bandstand scene was gone. We got to see Travis shoot the robber but we did not get to see the shopkeeper beat his corpse with the shutter rod. The final shootout, already saturated by Scorsese to receive an X rating, was a blurry whir of cuts, excising most all of the slow motion Roger Ebert expounded on in his review which, of course, caused further confusion for me. At the conclusion, the cops come in and point their guns at Travis and the “gun to the head” pantomime is gone in favor of a transition to the overhead shot that, again, excises the close-ups of Sport’s body, most of the blood on the walls, and a great deal of the doom march that is Bernard Hermann’s score. It basically goes from the room to the hallway and then cuts to the exterior crane shot.
Other bits were missing. Some of Travis’s voice-over narration was gone so I was especially shocked to eventually hear the line “Sometimes when I bring the cab back I have to clean the cum off the back seat” as, in the television cut, none of that was there but, inexplicably, “sometimes I clean off the blood” was left in as a dangling rejoinder to nothing.
So, apparently, I was going to be in for a shock when I finally got around to seeing the theatrical cut of Taxi Driver as all of the moments that were back in the movie made for a different, and more disturbing, experience. But also shocking were the moments that were GONE. Because, to pad out the running time after cutting so much, the television cut had been augmented with scenes that were cut out of the theatrical release (a common practice, by the way). And, obviously, I had become accustomed to those scenes. So the scene with Easy Andy, the gun salesman, which had gone on a bit longer and transitioned Travis from wearing his jacket to not as he takes it off to see how putting the gun in the back of his belt will feel to which Andy says “Isn’t it a little honey?” It had been shortened in the theatrical cut, opting for an elliptical jump in time where Travis has his jacket on in one shot and off in the next.
More stuck in my mind, though, was the scene when Travis first visits Iris. In the theatrical version, the old man who runs the building asks for the room money and indicates that he’s watching the time. But look in his hand in that shot. He’s holding a gun. Specifically, he’s holding Travis’s gun. For in the television cut, the scene runs a bit longer and the old man first guesses that Travis is packing heat and requests that he gives up his piece and then tells him that he’s watching the time. And, again, in the scene following the conversation with Iris in the hotel room, the old man approaches Travis with the gun in his hand (though, shot long, it’s indiscernible). In the theatrical cut, Travis gives him the $20 back and tells him “This is yours.” In the television cut, the old man first gives Travis back his gun and says “This is yours.” which then promps Travis to give him the money and reply in kind.
Equally strong a memory is the television cut’s differences in the Secret Service scene. In the theatrical cut, Travis awkwardly strikes up a conversation with the secret service agent, says that he thinks he saw some suspicious looking folks in another spot, and then the film employs another elliptical jump where Travis and the agent are in another place and Travis bemoans the fact that the folks have gone. In the television cut, this transition is smoother as Travis leads the agent to the other location. And, again, the television cut is the way this movie imprinted itself in my head.
Oh, and to literally top it all off, there was this disclaimer at the end which, of course, is a ton of fun now since you just don’t see this done anymore.
And I must note that I have no idea where the actual, studio-approved television cut of the film began and where further time-constraint cuts by interns at local UHF stations ended. But, if I were forced to find a positive way to spin seeing the television cut first, I would say that there was something very drive-in-ish about discovering it this way. As it was with many exploitation films, the movie you saw depended on how long it took for that film to finally get there. What could start as Krug and Company on one side of the country in 1972 would eventually become Last House on the Left on another but with certain scenes removed by skittish projectionists.
So I suppose it goes without saying that, like my first few somewhat unsatisfying go-arounds with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), my introduction to Taxi Driver was not at all ideal. Because there did finally come a day when my curiosity as to what I was missing finally got the better of me. It was about seven months into my familiarity with the film that, in a great stroke of luck, I had accidentally retained the deposit money on a tuxedo I was renting for the eighth grade dance at Kerr Jr. High School (which seems ludicrous as I type it) due to an oversight on the part of the tuxedo place. I took this opportunity not to make things right with the tuxedo place but to take that money up to Heritage Park Mall which had a Musicland that most certainly had a VHS copy of Taxi Driver to sell (housed in the original RCA/Columbia packaging where, in a ridiculous packaging decision, you had to extract the tape from the right side of the box via an easily damaged cardboard door). And I would be a buyer of that clunky artifact at $25 (which seems ludicrous as I type it).
After watching the theatrical cut for the first time, I remember being completely baffled. This is most certainly the movie I had read about but where were those additional transitions? I must have purchased an edited version. Where could I reconcile this? The internet was eons away, the Del City Library wasn’t wont to have this information anywhere, and I just had to deal with it with absolutely no way of satisfying my curiosity. Unlike now where you could find a second cut of a movie, watch it, and immediately be able to discern between the two, it was at least another couple of years before I could reverse-engineer Taxi Driver in my mind as the movie I now owned and not the movie I initially saw due to the accessibility factor. You kids have it easy.
But, even uncut, VHS was not a friend to Taxi Driver. The movie is too dark for VHS to handle. And the climactic shootout in the brothel looked only marginally better on VHS. Compositions were lost due to reformatting, sound was compressed, and it might be one of the better examples as to why VHS was such a stupid and terrible format, the misguided nostalgia for which boggles the mind.
Of course, I saw it at too early an age and there is a danger to that. It wasn’t necessarily dangerous in that I was a kid of 13 watching such a movie and exposing myself to a whole porno floor of nastiness. Actually, the danger was that I was unable to process what made Travis so alarmingly dangerous and not even picking up how dangerous he SEEMS throughout the entire movie. During his first meeting with Betsy, his vacant monologues about connection and his misplaced anger at her office mate, Tom, were lost on me as was the choice Scorsese makes to park his camera on Travis’s face as he gives these speeches, only cutting back to Betsy when she’s prompted or she’s reacting to the entire scope of a spiel. At 13, the second date with Betsy seemed like a natural progression but, as an adult, you hear it materialize from his point of view and you realize that she’s uncomfortably bullied into it. Later, when cabbie Charlie T is trying to sell him a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub, Travis’s eyes and his intense gaze on Charlie is unsettling.
Travis’s latent racism, evident in his disdainful, piercing stare at the pimp in the Belmore Cafeteria continues once Charlie T leaves and the scene runs out to the cut. Scorsese could have cut it when Charlie T leaves but he brings us back to the master and allows De Niro to focus his eyes back in the direction of the pimp. Later, he will gaze similarly at the black gang members outside the same establishment and, in both examples, it is handled with very slow dolly shots that feel like a languid dose of pure, narcotic rage being injected into his body which will be ultimately regurgitated in the grocery store in the second half of the film.
Also over my head and lost in bad transfers was Travis’s terminal loneliness. It was hard to tell from the various formats that, when Travis is trying to tell Wizard what’s on his mind, his eyes are welling with tears. He holds back and makes a cry for help awkward and unsatisfying because there’s no way Wizard can know exactly how deep Travis’s pain goes; ditto the viewer because, without that detail, Travis just looks frustrated and angry, not sad and lonely. The loss of the Bandstand scene is crucial as his television is Travis’s last windows into “life” as he ideals it from whatever bit of pop culture he can grab and amalgamate into his life. After a transitional link in the form of a very sad, almost farewell letter written to his parents which will cover their anniversary (“To A Couple of Sports” the card reads) Father’s Day (close enough) and one of their birthdays, the film moves to the Soap Opera scene in which Travis destroys his television set and is lost forever in himself. This progression is lost in the television cut.
Taxi Driver is a very internal film. Much has been made about how much you don’t really know about Travis Bickle and it’s very much a truism. There are some critics and scholars who will question the reality of much of what Travis says due to his contradictory nature and I suppose it’s up to the viewer to interpret him in whatever manner works for them. For me, I don’t believe that his service in Vietnam nor his letter to his parents are phony. I believe that he sends the flowers to Betsy and that they are returned and not that he just buys them and never sends them. I also believe the ending, interpreted sometimes as a fantasy, actually occurs as we see it. From what we’ve seen before, Betsy would be impressed enough by what the papers said to be enamored with Travis and Travis, at a brief moment back center, could react with a certain kind of forced indifference and aloofness. The sound sting at the very end, indicating the small tear in Travis’s psyche that will grow and fester and will likely lead to carnage again, couldn’t have the literal interpretation if, in fact, everything before was a fantasy.
Taxi Driver still looks like something out of hell. It’s such an unusual movie on so many levels that it’s amazing that it was ever made and even more amazing that it was a hit. That the country was in such despair that various moods and forces could conjure up such a thing is really astonishing. And it’s got all of the hallmarks of what gave America the fits up to that moment: Vietnam, assassination, troublesome racial issues, and equally troublesome gender and sexual politics. Say what you want about the troubles we have today, things aren’t bad enough to where one of the major studios in Hollywood is making a movie as awash in sickness and despair as Taxi Driver.
But with a big hit came the inevitable sale to network television for whatever station was featuring it for their Friday/Saturday Night at the Movies and then, to an unassuming generation of kids who wanted to see these movies their parents talked about, it became the most accessible version until the invention of the VCR and home video boom occurred. To me, having that cut seep into my noggin to become as familiar as it did was probably more damaging than anything else I can remember in my childhood.
Full Disclosure: I had it pretty easy.