Screenwriter Paul Schrader was in a bit of a bad way when he started scripting the now-cult classic Taxi Driver. Living out of a car, drowned in depression and suffering huge financial problems, Schrader moulded the character of anti-hero Travis Bickle, a character who has lived on in Schrader’s work since (in one way or another) through various guises. It’s a character obsessed with firearms and pornography and stuck in a downward spiral of self-imposed loneliness. Not exactly the best material for a date movie, but still better than Karleckens Sprak (Google it).
Taxi Driver is still the go-to film for the best in lone vigilantes. There has been an endless amount of uneasy outsiders that all owe their debt to Bickle, from Michael Douglas in Falling Down to Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Yet nothing comes close to the power of this film. In some way Schrader, director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro just merged in synch and completely understood the character and created a brutal but enigmatic piece of art.
While around the same time Woody Allen was painting a rose-tinted, Gershwin-scored, romantic vision of New York, Scorsese took a completely different route. His nightmare vision of 1970s New York is packed with prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, gun runners and petty crime all wrapped in a dense cloud of steam and moody lighting. Through this drives our taxi driver, Travis (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam vet who is sickened by the moral decay of the city. Bickle is repulsed by the world around him and he envisions that “Someday a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets.” He has an unhealthy bond he has with the corrupt side of New York, however, because he willingly takes on the role of a taxi driver and drives to the areas that other drivers aren’t willing to. An opening from this darkness comes in the form of political activist Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Against the odds, Bickle woos the attractive girl but destroys any chance of a relationship by taking her to a porn movie on their first date. Bickle shows what a self-destructive character he is: it’s a brilliant scene. It’s not that he is ignorant of how to treat a woman, it’s that he perhaps unconsciously wants to ruin his own chances of happiness.
A further ‘reach out’ happens when Bickle talks with cab driver Wizard (Peter Boyle). Bickle doesn’t really have many people to talk to, and he confides in Wizard about his depression because he believes he would be able to give some advice. Watching Taxi Driver again you begin to notice a lot of detail, for example in this scene there’s much more going on beside the general dialogue between the two actors. They are out on the streets and lit in a dark red which could well represent Hell, police make arrests in the background and a group of children pester a prostitute. As Wizard drives off we watch Bickle walk back into the darkness that he is trying to escape from. He’s admitting that he wants help but he is constantly drawn back into the darkness he so despises.
As the loneliness takes hold of Bickle he becomes obsessed with assassination plans and befriends a child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), whom he implores to leave Sport (Harvey Keitel), her pimp. This all leads to a very violent end.
Yet it’s not an overtly violent film as you may remember it. Despite the iconic image of De Niro caked in blood and pointing his finger at his head like a gun, the film’s violent ending is over before you know it and it’s all very stylized. Modern filmgoers see a lot more blood, guts, gore and sex in films such as Jason Statham’s Crank series, however not many modern films can create the mood of unease and disquiet you see here.
Scorsese is truly at the top of his game here and while he is a director well known for taking risks, here I would say he is at his most creative. Influenced by New Wave cinema, Scorsese experiments wildly: One scene has De Niro on the telephone while the camera slowly moves away from him to show an empty corridor. A camera lingers endlessly on a headache tablet sizzling away in a glass. He’s indulging, but it all pays off and it all works to the benefit of the development of the main character. Scorsese even cameos in a very memorable scene, vying with Polanski for best director’s cameo of the ‘70s.
Robert De Niro exudes an other-worldly quality to Bickle. He does very little in scenes but it’s all in the eyes. It’s an amazing performance, full of subtleties. For playing such a dark character it’s a testament of how good the actor is that you do actually feel pity for Bickle. When he does begin to flip De Niro is quite terrifying and the rage bursts out from within.
He’s not all alone here, though, and it’s worth noting the performances of the supporting cast: Jodie Foster is pretty much iconic in the role of the child prostitute. It’s amazing to think that she was only 12 years old at the time. She no doubt benefited from the improvisations that De Niro worked with her. Watch the scene in which De Niro gives her a lecture about how she lives her life: her reaction is perfectly underplayed. This girl knows she shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing and hearing that someone truly cares is hard for her. If acting is reacting then this is why Foster received an Oscar nomination.
Harvey Keitel has fun as the pimp. He was originally drafted in to play Albert Brooks’ role but he requested this one. As great as he is, it does feel more like an experiment for the actor than a fully rounded character. Cybill Shepherd doesn’t leave a huge impression as Betsy but she plays off De Niro well and you can see why Betsy would be somewhat intrigued by Bickle. Bringing up the rear is reliable work from Brooks and Boyle as Betsy and Travis’s colleagues, respectively.
Bernard Herrmann provides that amazing score to the film and it perfectly complements the images, none more so than the glimpses of Bickle’s taxi driving through the dark, steamy evenings.
It’s often said that the ‘70s were the best time period for American cinema and this is one of the key films to back-up that argument. As great as the ‘70s were, great and important American cinema didn’t come to an end on New Year’s Eve 1979 – I would never dismiss the work of some of today’s wonderful auteurs. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and the Coens are still all pushing the boundaries of what can be created in the cinematic medium. Great cinema didn’t stop in the ‘70s, it just evolved. It’s just a shame that films nowadays are more likely to be put into production on its chances of making millions rather than its artistic merit.
Of course Taxi Driver has its flaws. There will be some who don’t take to Taxi Driver – Bickle isn’t the most appealing character and maybe viewers would be put off by its gloomy outlook. Also there’s a sense of self-indulgence at times on the part of Scorsese and his actors. I do believe in the importance of experimenting, so long as it drives the story forward. Sometimes Scorsese seems happy to roll around in the puddles for a little too long. I don’t particularly like the film’s most famous scene (“You talkin’ to me?”) – but that might just be because it has been parodied too often and my opinion about the film’s ending can change on any given day.
Tiny, tiny flaws of course but just to clarify that I don’t consider this to be the greatest film ever made, just one of the most important ones.