Review: Taxi Driver
Tough call but this is probably the career peak for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, both individually and as a pairing. This 1976 movie is a perfect time capsule of both the decadent lawlessness of pre-Ggiuliani New York and the pre-Star Wars glories of 1970s American cinema.
A film about American violence that has itself taken its place in the great Chinese whisper game of US assassination: inspired by the diaries of Arthur Bremmer, the man who shot and paralysed presidential candidate George Wallace, the film would
inspire John Hinckley Jr to take a pop at Ronald Reagan.
The film has a simple Jack-in the-Box plot: a lonely, angry man slowly becoming increasingly tightly coiled, ready to pop.
Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (De Niro) drives his cab each night through the bleak Manhattan streets, observing with fanatical loathing the sleazy lowlifes who comprise most of his fares. As badly as Travis wants to connect with the people around him - including Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a lovely blonde campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster), a prepubescent prostitute he tries to save - his attempts are thwarted and his pent-up rage grows, turning him into a Mohawk-wearing walking time bomb.
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Travis Bickle is an absurdly straightforward, simple creation yet one that doesn't quite add up, like Lee Harvey Oswald.
He aspires to their fantasy of total power in the 'you talking to me' monologues, but he has so much more: his self righteous, self pitying indignation; that sense of being the lone tormented figure. Plus he has the holster that slides the gun down his arm
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straight into his hand. What man hasn't fantasised about that?
The character is intense but the film is surprisingly loose. I don't think the modern Scorsese, the airless homage maker, the meticulous sculptor of cathedrals made entirely of recycled material, would find space for scenes like those between Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepherd or those with Peter Boyle as the Wizard.
The film finds Scorsese a perfect mid-point between the vibrant street energy of Mean Streets and the technical excellence of the films that would follow.
Scriptwriter Paul Schrader said that making him a Taxi Driver was a metaphor for his loneliness and estrangement, but perhaps it is also a metaphor for how the film works as a whole.
It may be shot on location in some of the grimiest locations in New York yet the film glides along, swept along on Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score, a succession of almost effortlessly brilliant scenes and the effect is almost serene.
Probably this is the trick pulled by most of the great American films of the 1970s – they offered audiences an unflinching glimpse of their country's underbelly but in such enticing packages.
TAXI DRIVER (18)
Director: Martin Scorsese
With: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks
Length: 114 minutes