Hot Movie Takes – ‘Taxi Driver’
Hot Movie Takes – “Taxi Driver”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
It’s hard to imagine general American moviegoing audiences being prepared for “Taxi Driver” when it hit theaters in 1976. I mean, here was ostensibly a film noir that eschewed standard conventions for a dark fever dream of one man’s mounting paranoia and revulsion in the urban wasteland of New York City.
The character of Travis Bickle didn’t have any direct cinema antecedents but he did emerge from a long line of disturbed screen figures going back to Peter Lorre in “M,” James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” Richard Basehart as Roy Martin in “He Walked By Nigh,” Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in “Strangers on a Train” and Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in “Night of the Hunter.”
There are even some hints of Robert Ryan as Montgomery in “Crossfire” and as Earle Slater in “Odds Against Tomorrow” and of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” and as Dennis Pitt in “Pretty Poison.”
Bickle also anticiated many screen misfits to follow, including some of the whack jobs in Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino films.
As a disenfranchised loner who sees the world around him as a venal place, Bickle obsessively reinvents himself into a self-made avenging angel ridding the streets of scum. His response to the violent, lurid subculture of sex for sale is an explosive bloodletting that is, in his mind, a purification. In the end, after carrying out his self-appointed cleansing mission, are we to believe he is mad or merely misguided? Is he a product or symptom of urban isolation and decay?
Paul Schrader’s brilliant script, Martin Scorsese’s inspired direction and Robert De Niro’s indelible performance took what appeared to be Grade B grindhouse thematic material and elevated it into the realm of art-house mastery. They did this by making the story and character an intense psycho-social study of disturbance. Bickle is not some nut case aberration. Rather he is one of us, which is to say he is an Everyman cut off from any real connections around him. The way he’s wired and the way he views the world make him a ticking time bomb. It’s only a matter of time before he’s set off and goes from talking and fantasizing about doing extreme things to actually enacting them. He lives in his head and his head is filled with disgusting images and thoughts that occupy him as he drives his cab through the streets of what he considers to be a modern-day Gomorrah. He fixates on certain things and persons and he won’t be moved from his convictions, which may or may not be the result of psychosis or sociopathic tendencies.
Schrader’s script and Scorsese’s direction, greatly aided by Michael Chapman’s photography and Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, find wildly expressive ways to indicate Bickle’s conflicted state of mind. Atmospheric lighting captures a surreal landscape of garish neon signs, steam rising from the streets and back street porno theaters, strip clubs and whorehouses. He grows to hate the pimps and pushers, the johns and addicts littering the city. When he tries to intersect with normality, it’s a complete disaster. Languid, dream-like music underscores the moral turpitude bringing Bickle down. Emotionally-charged, driving music accompanies Bickle’s trance-like rituals and final hypnotic outburst that is simultaneously savage and serene.
Travis Bickle is a troubling symbol who straddles the legal, moral and psychological line of impulse and premeditation. Does he know what he’s doing? Is he responsible for his actions? Or is he insane?
De Niro’s transformation from mild-mannered cabbie to scary vigil ante, complete with the famous “Are you talking to me?” break with reality, is where the real power of the film resides. He somehow makes his character believably frightening, revolting, pathetic and sympathetic all at the same time. To me, it will always stand as one of his two or three greatest performances because he completely inhabits this disturbed character without ever going over the top or resorting to cliches. He creates a true original in the annals of cinema that belongs to him and him alone.
There are some fine supporting performances in the film by Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd. Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel and, of course, Jodi Foster as the adolescent prostitute Bickle anoints himself as protector and rescuer of. They and De Niro share some strong moments together. But it’s when De Niro’s character is alone and brooding, stalking and staring, that he most comes alive as a terrible reflection of our dark side run amok.
You can read “Taxi Driver” anyway you want: as exploration or examination, as cautionary tale, as prescient forecast, as potboiler crime pic. But however you read it, it is a vital, compelling and singular work of its time that endures because no matter how bizarre the story and stylized the effects, it’s always grounded in the truth of its single-minded protagonist. The film never stops giving us his point of view, even at the height of his mania.
Like a lot of the best ’70s American movies, this one doesn’t leave you feeling good but you know you’ve had an experience that’s challenged your mind and emotions and perhaps even moved you to some new understanding about the human condition. That’s what the best movies are capable of doing and this one certainly hits the mark.