Psycho, Taxi Driver, and Maniac: A Formal Comparison
The 1981 film Maniac definitely owes a debt to both Psycho and Taxi Driver. Its a strange set of films to compare but they do have some core commonality. Alienation and loneliness being the main ones, but there are interesting formal differences. Chronologically they each shed certain traditional concerns with craft that their predecessors were invested in.
Psycho, like any Hitchcock film is a tour de force of highly skilled craftsmanship. In fact there is a very interesting tension between Hitchcock’s desire to create a gritty, realistic film and his ingrained tendency to control and plan every aspect of a film. All of Psycho was storyboarded before production began. Filming a Hitchcock movie is more a careful execution of a plan than an exploration or process of discovery. The camera never leaves the tripod. Everything transpires on a carefully crafted set, its all arranged perfectly. Even with all this Hitchcock courted a rougher feel than a typical Hollywood film. Its in Psycho that the first toilet is shown on screen.
Taxi Driver, made in 1976, and Psycho, made in 1960, are very different in so many fundamental ways but in Taxi Driver Scorsese, like Hitchcock, is also interested in courting something gritty and realistic. Scorsese is willing to shed more elements of formal craft than Hitchcock in order to find the right look and feel for Taxi Driver. This is not to say that Taxi Driver is not masterfully crafted, to the contrary it is an amazing feat of skill. Scorsese carefully orchestrates the appearance of a rougher, less polished, even grungy atmosphere by loosening his grip on the camera.
Taxi Driver and Psycho are 16 years apart. In that 16 years a lot changed including the demise of the Hayes Code and the breakup of the Hollywood studio system. Scorsese enjoyed a kind of freedom Hitchcock could only dream about but its not the freedom to show blood and boobs that made the difference. Scorsese used his freedom to work in a free and poetic manner blending structure with chaos and plot with character study.
William Lustig, the director of Maniac, does not have the skill of Hitchcock or Scorsese. Maniac is simply not as good as Psycho or Taxi Driver but it does achieve something different from the other two. Maniac’s small budget, no name actors and actresses, and unrated, grindhouse status gave Lustig maximum freedom but limited resources. This combination creates an opportunity where being creative and brave are your only pathway forward. Maniac has a painful, ugly atmosphere of isolation and desperation that is enhanced by the film’s low budget. There is no seductive lighting, or stable compositions, just a camera thrust into the middle of the action.
I wouldn’t compare these three films if it wasn’t for Maniac’s heavy use of the other two. Drain some of the skill and artifice from Psycho and Taxi Driver and replace it with a kind of crazed creativity and you get something like Maniac.
There is a scene where the deranged protagonist is strangling a victim. The camera gives us the POV of the victim. In some ways it sort of feels cheap, stagey, but at the same time its confrontational. Its badly lit and grainy. The actor, Joe Spinell, is a genuinely creepy looking man. He’s not an attractive actor like Anthony Perkins or Robert De Niro. Spineli’s sweaty face has a frighteningly raw presence that stares right at us..
I do not want to set up a facile association where the rough ready feel of low budget, films magically imbues them with grit. All three films are carefully constructed but each successive one strips away more of the appearance of artifice and exchanges it for the appearance of cinema verite. The result is that each film creates its own atmosphere. As was said before Maniac can not compete with the other two films but it does create its own atmosphere. Each film has its own sense of the world its characters inhabit. The films distinguish themselves less by plot and theme and more by how they convey the world they have created.