best film:  Taxi Driver from Martin Scorsese

Mean Streets marked the announcement of Scorsese a major new talent. It’s not a perfect film but a film with so much bravado on display in it that it’s impossible to deny it’s status. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver IS a perfect film and the full realization of one of cinema’s great auteurs. Scorsese’s direction, De Niro’s performance, Paul Schrader’s script, and Bernard Herrmann’s score are all talked about as amongst the best in their given category and rightly so. It is  unquestionably one of the top 50 films of all-time, a hallmark of American cinema and since I don’t have another 1976 film in my top 100 (though we have many other great films)- it is the easy choice for the best film of 1976.

  • A portrait of a monster- a meditation on urban alienation and Scorsese’s second masterpiece, one of the seminal films of the era, Scorsese’s body of work, and cinema history in total
  • It blows you back with Bernard Herrmann’s score.
  • Such detail in the mise-en-scene here with the steam pouring from the sewers
  • The film’s roots and influences both prior to Taxi Driver and since are aplenty. Bresson  is certainly an influence- the existential crisis and man alone is similar to Pickpocket (Schrader loved Bresson and Pickpocket and in his book, he cites it). The film has a similar copy in later film, directed by Schrader himself, in Hardcore (1979—this film itself has been remade – a film called 8MM (1999 Schumacher). Schrader keeps sort of reclaiming authorship here with another Taxi Driver, this time with First Reformed– a very fine film– in 2017. Clearly, Taxi Driver’s main influence is The Searchers. It could essentially be called sort of an updated remake. Keitel is Scar, Foster is Debbie, the Indians, so on…
  • The “stomach cancer” line is also from Bresson- it’s from Diary of a Country Priest which both Schrader and Scorsese love- this reference and symbolic inner angst is also referenced later in Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995)
  • Certainly the film is a medication on alienation…urban decay.. men lost post-Vietnam
  • Outstanding work by Michael Chapman the DP
  • The slow-motion work from Scorsese- and I pilfered a bit of this from Ebert- is not just a way to show people looking cool in a Scorsese film but a way of showing a POV with a heightened sense of awareness from Travis- for example, the first time he sees the stunningly gorgeous Cybill Shepherd
  • Other influences can certainly be seen in PT Anderson’s work (I think Punch-Drunk Love has a ton in common with Taxi Driver) along with the Louis Bloom character portrayed so well by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014, Dan Gilroy). Herrmann’s score reminds me of (it predates it of course) the harmonium character cues used in PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love– another immaculate character-driven film. Herrmann’s score has the soft jazz elements (like the harmonium) and then the hard-driving break (like the car crash in PDL or the spurts of violence from Sandler’s character).
  • The movie is considered one of the best screenplays of all-time- but it’s also a film of intentional awkwardness (as Travis shows he can’t fit in this world) and purposeful banality (cheesy jokes and attempts at humor like his “organi-ized” joke and the silly card he buys and writes to his parents).
  • The pulling away from the scene to show isolation while he’s on the phone is done and updated in Reservoir Dogs (casting Keitel as well) by Tarantino
  • Slow-motion in abundance and to great effect. Travis’ fixation on Cybill Sheperd’s Betsy, his racism as he stares down the black characters in the film (hello Searchers), his solitariness again while he walks down the crowded streets on his own.
  • Pauline Kael in the New Yorker, “- Taxi Driver is a movie in heat, a raw, tabloid version of “Notes from Underground,” and we stay with the protagonist’s hatreds all the way. But Scorsese is also the most carnal of directors—movement is ecstatic for him—and that side of him didn’t come out in Alice. Taxi Driver one of the few truly modern horror films.”
  • Shay Casey from “FilmFocus”- “Is Travis a hero or a monster? The question is never answered to any satisfying degree, and Herrmann’s score makes sure of that by always playing up the counterpoint of a scene”
  • “Like Werner Herzog’s Aguirre or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver is auteurist psychodrama.” Hoberman again in Village Voice
  • Its flawless from beginning to end- the bleeding lights on the windshield during the titles until the final ride and rearview double-check with Cybil at the end.
  • The use of color saturation- red in the close-up on De Niro – expressionism.
  • Schrader’s voice-over grounds us, the Herrmann score driving home the larger macro themes—this leaves Scorsese free to dazzle us in-between with his muscular direction. He is directing the hell out of almost every scene.
  • I don’t want to take away from Paul Schrader’s magnificent screenplay —but there is a lot of non-dialogue scenes and that’s almost all Scorsese and in the dialogue sequences—it’s almost all De Niro (this is one of cinema’s greatest single performances by an actor). Even if it’s on the page, the way De Niro makes every social interaction an abject disaster is such an impressive feat of acting – his uncomfortable swearing and “I get headaches this city is so dirty” with the Senator in the cab, how he cluelessly takes Cybil to a porno, the awkward reaction to the advice from Peter Boyle—haha
  • More Searchers/John Wayne—I mean Scorsese has this in the text of two of his first four films- and here outside of the story outline—we have Keitel with “you’re a real cowboy” to Travis

Great work here from J. Hoberman in the Village Voice- “Lasting nearly 20 minutes and fueled by Bernard Herrmann’s rhapsodic score, the de facto overture is a densely edited salmagundi of effects—slow motion, fragmenting close-ups, voluptuous camera moves, and trick camera placement—that may be the showiest pure filmmaking in any Hollywood movie since Touch of Evil. Certainly, no American since Welles had so confidently presented himself as a star director. And yet Taxi Driver was essentially collaborative. It was the most cinephilic movie ever made in Hollywood, openly acknowledging Bresson, Hitchcock, Godard, avant-gardists Michael Snow and Kenneth Anger, and the John Ford of The Searchers.”

Seedy mise-en-scene- steam from the streets, dark, neon lighting- it’s almost a precursor to Blade Runner– it looks like a dystopian nightmare

 

a dogmatic approach to the use of color.—specifically yellow. It’s not quite Kieslowski’s Blue but it’s loud. Travis is constantly wearing yellow shirts, Foster has yellow glasses, the yellow sheets on the bed of the gun salesman scene, that harsh lighting in his tiny apartment makes the wall yellow, the convenience store robber that Travis shoots has a loud yellow shirt – schnapps liquor bottle, yellow aspirin—it’s there—perhaps the best scene in the film is the tracking shot going from De Niro in the phone booth (yellow background) to the empty hall showing his disconnect- brilliant

  • The ensemble is genius—Cybil has never been better, Scorsese in the back of the cab… Foster, Keitel is great.
  • I also noticed during the climax that Herrmann’s score scales out of control. Incredible work
  • A series of dissolves during the God’s eye view ceiling tracking shot. A perfect editing transition after a slow tracking shot

 

most underrated:  Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s background as a cinematographer makes for a singular work that deserves to be closer to #300-400 (I have it right now at #316) of all-time. The TSPDT consensus has no room for it in the top 1000 and that’s a shame. It is an ambitious work, I can see why it’s so divisive- but it’ll haunt you for weeks after seeing it despite the potential flaws (which are overshadowed by that grand design).

if you recognize the set piece and background you may be a music lover as well- this was used for Bowie’s album cover photograph for Station to Station

Bowie is simply perfect casting here, bizarre— and connects Roeg again to rock just like Mick Jagger in Performance

 

most overrated:   I have nothing against John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. I’m a big admirer of Carpenter’s work and I appreciate his dedication to updating and riffing on Howard Hawks (this is an updating of Rio Bravo and in 1982 he’d just flat out remake The Thing (and actually best Hawks in that attempt)). I just think the #826 on the TSPDT consensus ranking may be a couple hundred spots too high and there isn’t a bigger, more glaring, miss by the consensus in 1976—they’ve done a great job here.

 

gems I want to spotlight:  Jacques Rivette’s Duelle is his best work. If you admire The Big Sleep, Mulholland Drive and avant-garde filmmaking this is one to . If you want to movie here outside of the top 10 check out The Omen. The Omen has a splendid Jerry Goldsmith score and it continues the tradition of exceptional horror films in the 1970’s.

More on Duelle:

  • Near the very end of Rivette’s Duelle, his accidental detective character (just like Paris Belongs to Us – his debut in 1961) says, ominously, “Two and two no longer makes four”… Indeed, Rivette’s Duelle is a postmodern labyrinth.
  • It is best (at least in first viewing) just to let the individual scenes and imagery wash over you– certainly like The Big Sleep and Mulholland Drive.
  • If the indigestibility of the plot is a nephew to Hawks’ The Big Sleep—well then the playful take on genre- the American detective film or noir– a distant cousin to Godard’s post-genre exploration Pierrot le Fou in 1965 or Made In U.S.A. in 1966)— experimental use of color- like Godard’s films—and also the film is playful and diverting like Godard.
  • The work with color in the mise-en-scene, both in décor and lighting, is evident in the first scene when both the happenstantial detective and mystery woman (the first of many) are wearing these green (with a tint of blue) outfits.
  • These characters are ciphers, doppelgänger work as well—tying the moon to dreams and surrealism has to make you think of Lynch and Mulholland Drive (Rivette says Jean Cocteau is an influence here).
  • The driving McGuffin changes- first finding the mysterious man – really it is the detail in the décor, use of color and fascinating settings that make this a special film. The initial proposition is at a hotel, we’re then strolling around a racetrack, a jazz bar next with long tracking shot with two women dancing, then at a baccarat table, floating around another hotel room, the flush greenhouse (again and again a meeting spot), the aquarium set piece at 29 minutes with green water-it is stunning- you have this intriguing but baffling conversation right in front of this clearly green tank. A focus on background/foreground.
  • Set up with quote in the prologue- the lunar calendar and shots of the moon make for a remarkable formal achievement. Rivette bounces his narrative off at least six times
  • Hard-yellow and green lighting throughout. Literally has green lighting. Green lights on the bridge exteriors at 38 mins
  • Running throughout the film is the same bald guy (Jean Wiene) in the background of the scenes (maybe a dozen) playing diegetic piano. You know it is diegetic because you can hear the actors walking around the wooden floors which is certainly a little grating and not something you see outside of student films often (something I’m sure Rivette detractors bring up a lot).
  • Green grapes, green trench coats, green light bulbs, green drapes hanging over normal light bulbs
  • At 69 minutes bouncing the two blondes of mirrors with an intersecting camera is a nice shot—a dream occurs, the mirror breaks

At 100 minutes the green corridor shot with the shadow in the foreground- a stand-alone great shot—a long stalking scene

  • As Rivette’s film comes to its final act, we get an abundance of red in the mise-en-scene—red jacket, red flowers in the lapel, the hypnotic jewel turns red, flames— clearly indicating descent

 

More on The Omen from Richard Donner:

  • Taut direction by Donner—the story sure moves and it is a strong narrative—we’re looking at heavy influences of Rosemary’s Baby (this could almost be a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby) and The Exorcist – kind of picking up the story between the two in terms of the age of the kid, possessed by the devil, etc
  • Oscar winning score from Jerry Goldsmith is special— satanic choir—still somehow it beat out the scores for both Taxi Driver and Rocky– I’m not sure about that, but that’s missing the point—it’s a brilliant score
  • very good actors, Gregory Peck is perfectly cast- feels very ambassadorial or presidential—David Warner as the beatnik photography with sideburns, Lee Remick is perfect as the presidential wife, the nanny and insane priest are superb in there few scenes— right down to the creepy kid- very good casting
  • memorable and elaborate death set pieces, hanging from mansion, decapitation of Warner, Remick’s fall

 

 

trends and notables:

  • We have another American auteur making the best film of the year. Take a look at this, 1976 makes for six years in a row (1971-1976) and nine of the last ten dating back to The Graduate (again Mike Nichols is born in Germany so that’s a little hazy).  If you compare this with the prior decade we had four non-English language films in a row from 1963-1966 and seven of the last eight if you go back to The 400 Blows in 1959 bumping up against Vertigo. Such a shift. When we talk about the greatest stretch of perhaps both American and European cinema next to each other in the 1960’s and 1970’s- this is it.
  • Cinephiles and scholars seem to debate what Scorsese’s fourth best film is—but the Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas trio at the top gets its start here in 1976. 1976 is the year you can confirm (this is now two masterpieces with Mean Streets in 1973) Scorsese as one of the best directors on the planet- a perch he has sat on for most of the remainder of his life so it seems.

Rocky is an absolute smash winning a few Oscars (including Best Picture) and making the most money in 1976. The movie is wonderful, and kudos to Sylvester Stallone not only for writing the screenplay and acting in it, but for refusing to sell the film to a studio if it didn’t include him in the lead. Others (including Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) have followed this move here.

  • 1976 gives us the birth of the Steadicam. This apparatus/invention means it is no longer necessary to literally lay down tracks for a tracking shot (or remember Godard using a handheld in a wheelchair for Breathless?). You can attach it to a person and walk. It may not fully come alive until 1980’s The Shining with Kubrick but you can see it here in 1976 with Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory and in Marathon Man from Schlesinger.

from Bound For Glory– another feather in the cap for Hal Ashby and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. These two worked together on In the Heat of the Night (1967) when Ashby was still an editor

Marathon Man is known not only for the Steadicam work– but also the great old school vs. new school acting battle of Dustin Hoffman vs. Laurence Olivier. Hoffman is one of the most well-known method actors and ditto for Olivier as a classically trained thespian. Olivier famously uttered his “Why don’t you just try acting?” when Hoffman was getting into character.

  • A few very important unofficial trilogies are ending here from Polanski (the apartment trilogy- The Tenant) and Pakula (the paranoia trilogy- All the President’s Men)

from Polanski’s The Tenant– this feels like Polanski’s rawest brain-tap—he’s wondering aloud about self-identity, drifting off from paranoia into madness- painting his fingernails and dressing in drag…with the wig and duel identities you can’t not think about Hitchcock and Psycho again as well

A gigantic achievement, the final chapter of Polanski’s unofficial urban paranoia set of films best known as the apartment trilogy with Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968)—and I’m not sure all three aren’t masterpieces

1976 is a big year for the split diopter shot here- this one used by Pakula in All the President’s Men

Pakula’s paranoia trilogy is a great place to study atmospherics as an artform in cinema- how sound, camera movement (particularly the zoom here), and lighting (this is shot by the great Gordon Willis) impact a film

  • Bertolucci has his third top 10 film of the decade (1900), ditto for Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) and we’re at the peak here for Lumet and Cassavetes

from Bertolucci’s 1900— a sort of rural counterpoint to an urban shot that could be from The Conformist

The Fourth Estate —  Pellizza’s work,- the painting is shown during the opening credits of Bertolucci’s 1900 

Ned Beatty is dynamo in his few moments on screen in Lumet’s Network— one of my favorite film podcasts is The Rewatchables– and they have the Dion Waiters Award for the actor who does the most, in the least amount of minutes– and that’s Beatty here.

a pair of prime cinematic paintings here and below from Cassavetes– not exactly known for his painterly images

very simple, minimal- but elegant

  • Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski makes his first entry in the archives in 1976’s The Scar and John Carpenter gets his first with Assault on Precinct 13
  • With Bertolucci’s 1900 we’d have the first archiveable film for the great French actor Gérard Depardieu. Bruno Ganz gets his first archiveable film in Rohmer’s The Marquise of O and John Travolta would be one of the biggest stars in the world by the end of the decade (Saturday Night Fever and Grease are coming up in back to back years in 1977 and 1978) but he gets a quieter start in 1976’s Carrie with De Palma (they’d work together again in 1981’s Blow Out).
  • With Kings of the Road, Wim Wenders joins fellow countrymen Fassbinder and Herzog in the New German cinema movement as one of the best directors on the planet

Wenders’ Kings of the Road — the final leg of (and crowning achievement of) Wenders’ Road trilogy that includes Alice in the Cities (1974) and Wrong Move (1975)

Beautiful rural black and white photography—said to be inspired by Walker Evans photography—minimalist folk score—reminiscent of Jarmusch in both aspects (this predates Jarmusch of course- and Jarmusch adores Wenders) and its beautiful rural decay not beautiful urban decay like Jarmusch. This is more sprawling than Jarmusch who, though a minimalist as well, is very structured and formally bound

it is a despairing meditation on the death of cinema (who the hell could think cinema was dying in 1976 with the USA new wave and the New German cinema movement with Wenders himself, Fassbinder and Herzog?) with these run down theaters—it’s a film about loss—past greatness (cinema, Germany, the past of these two men)- so many gorgeous set pieces in b/w photography- train stations, abandoned old printing presses, fair rides, it’s a travelogue like The Grapes of Wrath meets Easy Rider (scene in bike it’s impossible not to think of)

  • Brian De Palma gave us two archiveable films in 1976—Carrie and Obsession. Carrie is the first of many Stephen King adaptations (and one of the best) and Obsession is basically a remake of Vertigo. De Palma is certainly a Hitchcock acolyte.

another split diopter stunner in 1976– whether it is De Palma or Pakula– it is a variation on deep focus photograph- this one from Carrie

an overhead shot from De Palma in Carrie— a year in which the two biggest Hitchcock acolytes (Polanski and De Palma) have huge years while the great master makes his last archiveable film

  • Perhaps it is fitting then that the Hitchcock era has come to an end with his last archiveable film: Family Plot. You could argue it really came to an end with Marnie in 1964 (his last top 10) but Frenzy in 1972 is really good as well.

impressive work behind the camera from Eastwood- this is from The Outlaw Josey Wales– the first of five films for Clint as director that would land in their respective years’ top 10

  • They didn’t quite make the cut below but I want to recognize the work of Burt Lancaster and Donald Sutherland here. Lancaster with 1900 and Altman’s Buffalo Bill gives us two archiveable films—just about 30 years after his debut. Altman and Bertolucci didn’t quite succeed but both are trying to make the best film of the year. And Sutherland is in wonderful films from Bertolucci and Fellini. I just admire actors willing to work with great auteurs when I’m sure they had other offers that would offer much more compensation (ditto for De Niro after his Oscar win in 1974—he look at the types of roles he chooses).

not all of Fellini’s Casanova lands– but this sequence here is simply one of 1976’s finest

a strong frame from Fellini– again, it blows my mind that this expressionistic, world-builder (he’d fabricate even water and streets here) got his start writing neorealism in the mid-1940’s with Rossellini

  • Lastly, it’s a sad farewell but The Shootist from 1976 would be the last archiveable film for both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart—two iconic all-time great actors.

 

best performance male: As much as I like William Holden in Network, it didn’t take long to decide to go with De Niro for his work in Taxi Driver. If he’s the new Brando and Raging Bull is his On the Waterfront, then Taxi Driver is his A Streetcar Named Desire. Behind him is Holden’s aforementioned performance in Network. Peter Finch (who I’m also putting up here as one of my choices from 1976) won the Oscar but Holden’s is the slightly better performance—his scenes with Finch and Dunaway are moving and it ranks amongst the best work of his career. Half of the credit goes to Roeg for casting, but I’m putting David Bowie’s work in The Man Who Fell to Earth in probably the #3 slot. You cannot take your eyes of Bowie in this performance—certainly otherworldly and odd. Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie gives the best performance of his career and it’s worthy of a mention here for sure.

De Niro in Taxi Driver-– certainly an acceptable answer to the question “which is the greatest screen acting performance of all-time?”

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best performance female: Two good options for the very best performance here: Faye Dunaway in Network and Sissy Spacek in Carrie. I think ultimately I’ll go with Dunaway for her work and slot Spacek as a close second. Take a look at Dunaway’s decade from 1967 to 1976. She’s basically done at this point, but in ten years she’s in eight archiveable films, with three mentions in this category (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown and here). She’s an important part of the New Hollywood. Spacek deserves credit for the guts to take on Carrie- the film and the character- such a role which couldn’t have looked like much on the page. She gives the character some humanity.  Behind those two great performances that lead 1976, I’d give mention to Piper Laurie as Carrie’s crazy mother. If you’ve seen the film, you know it’s a wild character and Laurie is up to the task.  The last mention goes to the young Jodie Foster (age 13 at the time of shooting I believe). She’s trading blows with De Niro in the best film of the year.

only Faye Dunaway in Network matches Spacek’s work in Carrie here

Piper Laurie and Spacek dueling in a great shot from De Palma

 

top 10

  1. Taxi Driver
  2. Kings of the Road
  3. The Tenant
  4. Network
  5. 1900
  6. The Man Who Fell to Earth
  7. All the President’s Men
  8. Carrie
  9. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
  10. The Outlaw Josey Wales

 

like Fellini’s shot above, you cannot list the greatest images of 1976 without this from In the Realm of the Senses – sublime

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

1900- Bertolucci MS
All the President’s Men- Pakula MS
Assault on Precinct 13- Carpenter R
Bound For Glory – Ashby HR
Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson – Altman R/HR
Bugsy Malone – Parker R
Carrie – De Palma MS
Duelle – Rivette HR/MS
Face to Face- Bergman R
Family Plot- Hitchcock R
Fellini’s Casanova- Fellini HR
I Only Want You To Love Me- Fassbinder R
In the Realm of the Senses- Oshima HR
Kings of the Road – Wenders MS/MP
L’Innocente – Visconti R/HR
Man of Marble- Wajda
Marathon Man- Schlesinger R
Mikey and Nicky- May
Murder By Death-R. Moore R
Network- Lumet MS/MP
Obsession- De Palma R
Robin and Marion – Lester R
Rocky -Avildsen R/HR
Small Change- Truffaut
Sparkle  – O’Steen R
Taxi Driver – Scorsese MP
The Bad News Bears- Ritchie R/HR
The Front- Ritt R
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie- Cassavetes
The Last Tycoon- Kazan R
The Man Who Fell To Earth- Roeg MS
The Marquise of O.- Rohmer
The Missouri Breaks- A. Penn R
The Omen – Donner R
The Other Side of the Wind – Welles R
The Outlaw Josey Wales – Eastwood MS
The Scar – Kieslowski R
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution – H. Ross R
The Shootist- Siegel R
The Tenant – Polanski MS/MP
Welcome To L.A. – Rudolph R

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives