Taxi Driver (United States, 1976)
In March 1977, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences committed another in their seemingly-endless series of injustices, awarding the Best Picture Oscar to John Avildsen's Rocky, thereby snubbing one of the great modern American classics, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. While Rocky represents solid entertainment, it lacks the psychological depth of Scorsese's picture, replacing daring character development with a feel-good sports formula. Taxi Driver is on a level that Rocky neither aspires to nor attains.
Like Raging Bull, Taxi Driver features Robert De Niro in top form. As good as the actor has been elsewhere, these two pictures mark the apex of his superlative career. From his first scene in Taxi Driver, De Niro is Travis Bickle, a 26-year old ex-Marine searching for work that will keep him up all night as a means of combating insomnia. At the outset, Travis is a lonely, disillusioned man who can still function within the "normal" constraints of society. As time passes, however, Travis becomes increasingly alienated from the world around him, spiraling into a state of dissociated delusion. He sees New York City as a place of urban decay populated by "animals" and "scum" that need to be swept away. And who better than him to initiate the process? De Niro's performance is so perfectly-tuned that we in the audience don't have a moment's doubt or disbelief about what's taking place in Travis' troubled mind.
Initially, Travis is attracted to the cool-but-beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a volunteer for Senator Palantine's Presidential campaign. Although Travis' stares initially make Betsy uneasy, his persistence pays off when she agrees to accompany him to the movies. Unfortunately, the socially-inept Travis chooses a hard-core porn film for their first date. Following that gaffe, Betsy dumps him, accelerating Travis' descent into isolation.
The next woman to enter Travis' life is a twelve-year old prostitute named Iris. Played by a fresh-faced Jodie Foster with an enthralling mix of youth and world-weary sophistication, Iris' apparent innocence is belied by her profession. Travis decides to save her, although his motivation results less from a concern for her well-being than from a need to be seen as a savior. Iris really isn't a person to him; she's a symbol. But redeeming one girl is only an aspect of his plan -- he also intends to assassinate Senator Palantine. Travis is tired of sitting back and taking what life dishes out. He wants to act, even if the action has no basis in logic, because, by this time, he is beyond rational considerations.
Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader append the perfect conclusion to Taxi Driver. Steeped in irony, the five-minute epilogue underscores the vagaries of fate. The media builds Travis into a hero, when, had he been a little quicker drawing his gun against Senator Palantine, he would have been reviled as an assassin. As the film closes, the misanthrope has been embraced as the model citizen -- someone who takes on pimps, drug dealers, and mobsters to save one little girl.
There's no doubt that Taxi Driver paints an extremely disturbing portrait -- we find ourselves understanding Travis' mindset. This is expert film making from Scorsese, cinematographer Michael Chapman, and the actors. Schrader's script, which was inspired by such diverse works as Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and Harry Chapin's song, "Taxi," is a masterful psychological study, the depth of which can only fully be appreciated on repeat viewings.
Twenty years after its initial release, Taxi Driver has reached screens in a new, pristine print featuring a remastered stereo soundtrack. And, despite the passage of two decades, the only thing dated about this film are the fashions. Taxi Driver's message still rings as true as ever, and the characters are as shockingly believable as in the mid-seventies. This re-release offers movie-goers another opportunity to see one of Scorsese's most influential and disturbing films on the big screen.
Taxi Driver (United States, 1976)
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Cybill Shepherd
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Music: Bernard Herrmann
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures