Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Films of Martin Scorsese Vol. 4: Taxi Driver (1976)

Why write about Taxi Driver? It’s a genuine classic, and anyone who has ever had any interest in it has probably watched it, and I would think with maybe the exception of a few probably at least liked it. I find it hard to believe that anyone would be looking to a blog entry such as this to find out about this film out of curiosity to watch it, it is almost 40 years old and has been talked about, and publicized about for decades. So why write about such an established film, on something as vast and crammed full of similar writings as the internet? Because it’s Taxi Driver that’s why, and It’s a film that I absolutely adore, and even though it ranks at only #4 on the favourite Scorsese list that resides in my mind (I guess I better specify; #1 Hugo, #2 Goodfellas, #3 The Aviator), I couldn’t think of writing about Scorsese films and not including this 1976 gem.

Taxi Driver is a grim tale about a Vietnam vet turned NYC cab driver named Travis Bickle (played of course by Robert DeNiro), who is carrying deep scars from his time at war and in turn is suffering from depression and insomnia. So he works long over night hours just driving through the crime ridden, prostitution filled, mean streets of New York, and in the process taking in all the filth that surrounds him. Eventually it builds up in him so bad that he feels the urge that something needs to be done, that someone needs to clean the streets up and rid the city of its trash. Along his travels he discovers a radiant campaign worker for local political figure Charles Palantine named Betsy (played by a young Cybill Shepherd). He quickly develops an unstable attraction to her, and convinces her to see him. After a couple dates he makes the mistake of taking her to see an adult film, which in turns offends her and ends their relationship. If Travis wasn’t unstable enough, this event will further push him over the edge.

Though Travis is in fact a borderline psychopath, he does show a strong sense of humanity after a young prostitute played by 12 year old Jodie Foster enters his cab with a plea to get her out of there. Before he can react she is violently ripped from his cab by her Pimp played by then Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel. This moment would leave a strong impression on him, which will also fuel his hatred for the street filth even deeper. After this choice encounter he begins to pursue her, and eventually meet up with her. He builds a sort of admiration for her, and despite her insistence that she is happy in the life she lives, he will take drastic action to attempt fulfillment of her original plea for help.

The events that unfold during the films climax can be looked at in many different ways, on the surface it simply appears that Travis is dead set on a rescue mission to save a young girl from her entrapment in a life of drugs and prostitution, as well as taking charge in his belief that the streets need to be cleaned of the filth that occupies the night. That is indeed an important motivation, but at the same time it seems that Travis is also attempting to make a martyr out of himself. Earlier on he begins to gain growing interest in Charles Palantine, to the point where he plans to assassinate him during one of his addresses. Thought there is no direct motivation, it appears Travis is trying to somehow make up for his personal feeling of unimportance by killing an important public, and thus proving himself somehow. Either way he is easily spooked out of it and runs off. His failed attempt only further fuels his rage and causes him to finally take action on the streets.

Robert DeNiro put a lot of dedication behind his portrayal of Travis Bickle, and it shows. It’s a haunting portrait of a madman ranks among one of my favourite acting performances I have ever seen. To prepare for the role DeNiro went as far as traveling to NYC, acquiring his cab license and actually driving cab for real. It has also been said by a lot of the films cast and crew that he lived this role, and was method acting through and through. Between shooting on set he was Travis Bickle, and even caused some discomfort with his fellow cast while working on some of the darker scenes. Albert Brooks has a small but memorable role as Betys co-worker and friend Tom. Travis instantly dislikes Tom, and so DeNiro avoided Brooks on set, and kept his distance to keep up the tension between the characters all the more real. I am and always will be a big DeNiro fan, and though I still respect him a great deal, this period in his career was without a doubt him at his absolute best. Between Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, and Raging Bull, the 70’s was a decade for him unlike any other.

One last aspect of Taxi Driver that must be briefly talked about is its haunting but beautiful score. It was helmed by famed composer Bernard Herrmann, whose credits include the Hitchcock classics Vertigo and North by Northwest. Though he refused to score a “Movie about a cab driver”, Scorsese persisted anyway and sent him a script. He read it, liked it, and agreed. Sadly this would be his last Score, as the very same day he finished the score for Taxi Driver, he passed away at age 64.

Taxi Driver is a film that I can easily recommend to anyone, and I would definitely consider essential viewing. Scorsese really made a name for himself with this film, and I think most would agree when I say it ranks among his very best work, his forth best to be specifically opinionated.

-Jeff Wildman

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