Decades Blogathon – Taxi Driver (1976)
So this is the end; the final day of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition. Thank you once again to everyone who made this such a great blogathon. My biggest thanks goes to my partner in crime on this enterprise – Tom from Digital Shortbread. We had a blast with this in 2015 and this year’s event has been just as much fun. The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade and it’s my turn to focus on Martin Scorsese’s seminal 1976 classic Taxi Driver.
Looking to the Academy Awards as a critical barometer for the best films of a given year is, for the most part, as redundant an exercise as swimming through treacle.
The list of Oscar clunkers is long and ignominious and among the most glaring is the dearth of statuettes awarded to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. A browse at the contenders that year reveals some genuine American classics – All The President’s Men, Network – but it was Rocky that knocked them all out to win Best Picture.
Whilst great cinema and the sort of Cinderella story Oscar voters love, Rocky is a lightweight compared to Scorsese’s indisputable masterpiece which remains, 40 years on, one of the greatest films ever made and a dramatic tour de force for its star Robert DeNiro.
Although the hellish neon-lit New York City streets have become a chapter best left in the Big Apple’s past, the central conceit of Taxi Driver – a sad, painfully lonely and depressed young man acts out on his rage and resentment in increasingly violent and deluded ways – is a story that in all likelihood will never be far from the news headlines.
As effective as Scorsese’s brilliant visual storytelling and DeNiro’s powerhouse central performance are, without Paul Schrader’s deeply unsettling script Taxi Driver wouldn’t be the classic it is today. Schrader had been going through a messy divorce at the time and poured his damaged soul into the creation of Travis Bickle, using the taxi as the perfect vehicle (sorry) for the ex-Vietnam veteran’s loneliness and alienation.
Travis sees himself as an avenging angel (“a man who would not take it anymore”), who is the embodiment of the rain that will come and wash all the scum off the streets. The voiceover that runs throughout the film – words spoken from a journal he is writing – is both his manifesto and an expression of self-efficacy.
This mythologising can be found in Scorsese’s visual style, which gets inside Travis’ unbalanced head space and flits between stark lucidity and fever dream. This is evident in the opening scene, with the taxi cab emerging in slow motion from the steam of the street vents before cutting to a sharp close up of Travis’ uneasy eyes. The visuals of this scene are lent extra weight by Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score (tragically, he died hours after completing it), which opens with a escalating snare drum before switching to a jazzy saxophone for the close up.
Herrmann’s composition, one the most remarkable in cinema history, perfectly soundtracks the nightmare that unfolds, flitting between a militaristic aggression that builds towards the film’s climax and a romantic delusion in the scenes Travis shares with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) (“They. Cannot. Touch. Her.”), a campaign volunteer for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).
The connection an infatuated Travis tries to form with Betsy is both pitiful and tragic – none more so than when he takes her on a date to watch a skin flick and is surprised when she storms out. Travis sees Betsy as a figure of chastity; someone he can save from the “animals” who prowl the streets and when that goes south he switches his attention to Iris (Jodie Foster), a pre-teen prostitute whom he believes is the personification of innocence in a damned world (the multitude of candles in her bedroom have distinct Catholic overtones).
Although unbalanced, it takes time for Travis to become the mohawk-sporting vigilante we remember and the film adroitly takes us on a journey; which includes a cry for help to seasoned fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) when he confides that “I’ve got some bad ideas in my head”. While Wizard’s advice is ultimately discounted, his belief that “people become their jobs” rings true in Travis’ case as he becomes as worn down as the tyres of his taxi cab.
The film’s finale, desaturated by Scorsese in order to avoid an ‘X’ certificate, retains an almost mythic quality and remains shocking to this day. The bloodbath that we know has been coming (Travis is repeatedly bathed in red light throughout the picture) is almost Grand Guignol in its execution and culminates in one of cinema’s most celebrated shots as Travis, his mission now complete, defiantly raises a blood-soaked finger to his head and pulls the trigger. A story related to Betsy by fellow Palantine volunteer Tom (Albert Brooks) earlier in the film about how the Mafia blow the fingers off of a thief who fouls up has resonance during the gunfight as a mafioso suffers a similar fate at the hands of Travis.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Foster giving a revelatory performance as the tough-talking, but vulnerable Iris, while Harvey Keitel provides a memorable turn as Iris’ pimp ‘Sport’ – but it’s Keitel’s Mean Streets co-star who dominates.
DeNiro famously obtained a cab driver’s license and picked up fares in preparation for the role, while also absorbing the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who shot presidential hopeful George Wallace in 1972. DeNiro’s total inhabitation of the character is frightening at times – what light there is in his eyes dims to a black void as he becomes more obsessed with his self-appointed calling.
[spoiler warning]. Much has been spoken of the bravura tracking shot in the aftermath of the battle (is it an out-of-body experience?) and the scene that follows it. Is Travis’ metamorphosis into a tabloid hero real or is it still a fever dream? The very final shot of Travis shooting a look into the rear view mirror of his cab suggests that, if this is indeed reality, his rehabilitation may not be permanent.
“You talkin’ to me?”. A magnificent work of pure existential cinema, Taxi Driver will continues to talk to us for another 40 years and beyond.