By John H. Foote
5. TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Something changed in me forever after seeing Martin Scorsese’s seething Taxi Driver for the first time. I was 17, an avid movie goer, I saw everything and was reading everything about cinema I could get my hands on. Discovering the film book section at the library was a joy as it contained a huge collection, all of which I checked out and read. Finding Cinebooks in downtown Toronto helped me build my own personal library of film books, a collection numbering more than 2,000 to this day which I use for my research. It was a Saturday afternoon when I saw Taxi Driver for the first time, settling into my seat in the old creaky Odeon theatre in downtown Oshawa. I did not know much about the film other than it starred Robert De Niro who had won an Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and was directed by Martin Scorsese who had directed the gritty Mean Streets (1973).
When I exited the cinema just over two hours later I felt older, galvanized in some manner by the searing film I had just experienced. I had just spent two hours watching a man, a disturbed man to begin with, slip into absolute madness and explode like a time bomb into a carnage of blood and violence. You could see it coming, you could feel him breaking away from society, you could watch his descent into psychosis, which even he knew was coming.
Travis Bickle (De Niro) cannot sleep. He spends his endless nights in triple X porn theatres that used to number many in Times Square in New York City before the great eighties clean up. Hookers, drug dealers, massage parlors, live sex shows dominated the area in the seventies, when New York was often thought of, as Travis did, like an open sewer. Thinking he might as well get pain for being awake, he gets a job driving taxi, telling his boss he will go anywhere, anytime, understanding the risk. A former Vietnam veteran, he is troubled but the stench of the city takes him deeper into the pit he is living in. His tiny apartment has nothing of note except a small television and a bed. Travis is mostly in his cab, driving through the night, seeing more and more of the city that sickens him.
The one bright light in his life is Betsy (Cybil Shepard) a pretty young woman who works in the campaign office of Palatine, an up and coming Senator running for President. Travis fantasizes about her, but feels she is above him, that she would never date him. One day he boldly walks into the office and asks her to have a piece of pie with him, Initially concerned, she decides he is harmless and goes. They date, but Travis takes her to one of his hardcore triple X films and she walks out, horrified. He is so broken from society he simply did not know; he truly did not believe he was doing anything out of the ordinary. She refuses to take his calls and after sending her bouquet after bouquet of flowers, he realizes in his mind she is just like the others.
When he sees a very young girl, Iris (Jodie Foster), prostituting herself on the street one night, he tries to see her. He makes a “date” with her through her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), a finger snapping, coked up hellion who stands on his curb and sets up dates for his 13-year old protégé. Travis does indeed go to see Iris under the pretense of wanting sex, but he wants nothing of the kind, he instead wants to be her friend, to rescue her from this life she has been pulled into. They meet for breakfast, becomes friends (as much of a friend as he can be) and enjoy one another’s company.
Having been rebuked by Betsy and loaded with weapons Travis decides he will clean up the city. He shaves his head into a Mohawk, pulls on a bulky jacket and arms himself to the teeth. His plan is to kill the man running for President, who he met in his cab. The Secret Service seem to know Travis is up to no good and chase him away from the site of the speech. So he heads to where Iris does her business and begins a slaughter of the men who keep her there, beginning with Sport. As Travis moves through the beat-up old building, he mows down the men holding Iris, taking fire as well as he gives it, displaying his Marine skills. He finally reaches Iris and murders the old man who acts as a host to the men having sex with her, before collapsing, spent, struggling with blood loss. When the police arrive, Scorsese shoots the carnage from high above, clearly showing the carnage Travis has caused and when the police see him, bloody and wounded, he raises a finger to his head like a gun and mimes shooting himself in the head. Was this what he wanted all along? To end his pain?
Though we know the murders were premeditated and there was no self-defense here, Travis killed those men in cold blood, he gets off, because the press elevates him to hero status for returning Iris to her worried parents in Minnesota. He is a hero in New York – and who jumps into his cab but Betsy, seemingly willing to pick up where they left off. But Travis is no longer interested, he snaps the meter to zero, not accepting money for the ride and drives off. We catch his glance in the mirror, and those eyes are the same as they were at the beginning. Travis, a time bomb has started ticking again, and we know, with absolute certainty he will kill again.
Scorsese plunged his audiences into a metaphorical hell for the film, painting New York in all its seediness and ugliness which it was in the seventies. Travis’ cab emerges from smoke, and below the surface of the earth steam escapes a manhole cover as if it were holding back hell itself. As it glides through the night, the director serves up visions that seem to dance out of Dante, filled with the horrors of hell. The director even takes part in the madness as a customer in the back of Travis’ cab hellbent on killing his wife and her lover with a 44 Magnum. What Travis believes New York City is haunts the landscape of his mind, his intense isolation plunges him into madness and despair, sending him on his insane crusade. In many ways the explosion of violence is like sexual release for Travis, the guns becoming phallic, their discharges near orgasmic for Travis despite the bodies torn apart in their wake. We have been privy to the descent into utter madness Travis has been experiencing, we know this is no act of heroism, but the act of a mad man.
Stunningly directed by Scorsese from the Paul Schrader screenplay, Taxi Driver saw both men explode into the American film landscape. Their creation was fearlessly dark, and brutal in its honesty in its depiction of the events transpiring. I assure you, audiences had not seen anything like this film, a pure American original.
Robert De Niro was forever established as one of the cinema’s greatest actors with his searing performance as Travis. The reviews were nothing but raves for the lean young actor, comparisons to Brando were immediate and at years end critics’ awards began coming his way. His scene, played to a mirror, “you talkin’ to me” quickly became one of the most iconic scenes and examples of great acting ever committed to film. Watch his eyes, ever watchful, but slowly deadening, detaching from the world around him. Has a greater performance about urban alienation ever been given? The film won Best Picture at Cannes, a triumphant start to what would come later. Both the Los Angeles and New York Film Critics awarded De Niro their Best Actor awards, as did the National Society of Film Critics. Both the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press nominated De Niro for Best Actor, but he lost, inexplicably to Peter Finch in Network.
Jodie Foster, by then an experienced film actress, earned astounding reviews as Iris and won the National Society of Film Critics Award as Best Supporting Actress. Her frank and honest portrayal of a streetwise 13-year old hooker was remarkable, leaving audiences and critics in silent shock.
The ensemble cast was rock solid for Scorsese, especially Harvey Keitel as the hyped-up dangerous pimp, and Peter Boyle as the cabbie called Wizard who is nowhere near as wise as they all think he is.
Nominated for four Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score – the Academy snubbed Scorsese, and writer Schrader rather surprisingly. Equally left out was the superb cinematography in the film, which perfectly captured the night life of New York.
The film remains among the finest work of Scorsese’s career and established him as a fearless filmmaker willing to pounce on the darker aspects of humanity. Through the years he has superbly explored humanity at its near worst, and rock bottom, drawing excellent work from the actors working with him, some of them – De Niro, Leonardo Di Caprio, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel – again and again.
Taxi Driver put him on the road to be a national treasure.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.