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.
Hot Movie Takes – “A Bronx Tale”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
The movie that Robert De Niro made his directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale” (1993), is a highly personal coming-of-age story for both him and its star and writer, Chazz Palminteri. The two men grew up in the era and around the culture the story depicts, which is 1950s Italian-America. Coming-of-age stories don’t usually have the grit this one does, nor do they have the poetic realism this one finds in the clash between two intersecting worlds with radically different values: the legitimate world of working-class people represented by bus driver Lorenzo and the underworld exemplified by mobster Sonny. Caught in the middle of this tug of war is Calogero, the only son of Lorenzo and the apple of Sonny’s eye. As a child Calogero witnesses a crime committed by Sonny that the boy never reveals. Calogero’s silence earns the respect of Sonny, who unwittingly recruits him into the inner sanctum of his Mafia lifestyle as devoted errand boy and worshipful hanger-on.
Though this grooming into that lifestyle hasn’t resulted in Calogero breaking the law yet, Lorenzo sees that it’s only a matter of time. He strongly disapproves of his son being around that criminal element and he fears he’s losing Calogero to the lure of fast, easy money, expensive cars and an above-the-law attitude. He especially resents Sonny practically adopting his son as a junior Wiseguy, although that’s not what Sonny wants for Calogero at all. Indeed, he tells the boy this is not for him. But Lorenzo doesn’t know that. When Lorenzo finally confronts Sonny, he takes a beating for his trouble but the two men have a clear understanding. Lorenzo will never allow his boy to be seduced into that world. Sonny makes it clear he won’t tolerate being threatened again, Both men accept that crossing the line will mean one of their deaths. Meanwhile, Calogero is torn between his loyalties to the two men he loves and must choose between.
Eventually the choice is made for him. It starts when the teen mobster wannabes he also hangs with go too far with their racist attacks against black youths navigating their streets. Calogero has eyes for a black girl he’s met whose brother is savagely beat by his friends. He knows that if his feelings for this girl, Jane, are found out it will brand him as a traitor to his race. In his xenophobic neighborhood, especially among his peers, an interracial romance is taboo and therefore unthinkable, at least in public.
Sonny warns Calogero away from his impulsive buddies and the stubborn kid only narrowly escapes their ill-fated but inevitable demise. Calogero balances the hard life lessons Sonny and his father impart and he comes to realize the enticing gangster world isn’t all that it appeared to be to his once naive eyes.
By the end, Calogero’s learned to see things more clearly, including the high price that The Life brings, and he no longer feels he has to hide his dating Jane.
De Niro and Palminteri know from first-hand experience something of the streets and pressures and culture clashes the film portrays.
The film is an adaptation of a one-man play Palminteri wrote and starred in. It was such a sensation on the stage, first in L.A. and then in New York, that a bidding war for its screen rights broke out. In the end he adapted the play to the screen for De Niro to direct. The story is taken directly from Palminteri’s own life. He was that boy, the son of a bus driver, who fell under the influence of a local made-guy named Sonny.
Palminteri explained it all in an interview:
“I remembered this killing I saw when I was 9 years old. I was sitting on my stoop and this man killed a man right in front of me.”
The killer’s name was Sonny, a mobster who controlled much of the Bronx neighborhood where Palminteri grew up. The police came, but the young boy kept quiet. Soon after Sonny began taking him under his wing.
“He liked me almost as a son, and he wanted me to do good and he wanted me to go to college. But just by being around and who he was, he was a Wiseguy, he was a boss, I was being influenced by all these guys and their cars and their women.”
Just as in the movie, Palminteri’s father told his son the real hero was the working man, not the gangsters.
“He wrote on a little card ‘The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.’ He used to say to me ‘Don’t waste your talent. Make something out of yourself.’ And he put it in my room and I used to see that all the time. You know, Sonny eventually got killed. And I realized that my father was right. So I thought about this whole thing and I said, ‘Gee, you know what? This would make a great story to write what I learned from both men, and how I became a man.'”
De Niro grew up very differently as the son of accomplished artists and creatives but his life skirted some rougher aspects and he certainly knows well the territory and hazards of interracial relationships.
“A Bronx Tale” is now a musical and in an interview Palminteri said of the story’s enduring appeal across different media and genres and cultures, “I’ve done 60 movies, and people just love A Bronx Tale. It’s strange. Not just here in America, but everywhere—Japan, Europe. I don’t understand it. It touched a chord with a lot of people. I guess what I wrote was archetypes. It’s about so many things, about being the best of who you are. It’s about choices. And the story has just connected to people for so long.”
De Niro explained it this way: “It’s kind of a morality story. It’s got a simple story in a way. It has that kind of timelessness to it.”
As a director, De Niro shows a sure hand with his actors and keeps the story moving along. Whatever he gleaned from Francis Fork Coppola, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese in acting in their mob-themed movies, he uses to great subtle effect here as he doesn’t make his own take on that world derivative or half-hearted, but rather orginal and full-blooded.
“A Bronx Tale” also stands as one of De Niro’s best performances. As brilliant as he is in showier roles, I like him best playing average Joes like this. Palminteri has never been better than he is here. Francis Capra as the 9 year-old Calogero and Lillo Brancato as the 17-year-old Calogero are both very good. Brancato infamously ran afoul of the law in real life and served a long prison term. Taral Hicks is dreamy as Jane and it’s shame we haven’t seen more of her over the years. Joe Pesci has a small but vital role at the end that he handles extremely well in adding a final grace note to the story.
I can definitely see how “A Bronx Tale” could work as a musical and I hope a touring production of it makes it here one day or else a local theater company puts on its own production of it.
‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro enjoy one of the great cinema muse relationships in movie history. Few American directors have found an actor who so thoroughly inhabits their screen worlds as De Niro does his old friend’s. The pair are best known for their collaborations on:
“Mean Streets” “
“New York, New York”
Powerful films all. But, as you’ll read, I’m making the case for Scorsese’s least known and seen film with De Niro, “The King of Comedy,” as a woefully under-appreciated work that ranks right up there with their best teamings.
Cases can be made for five of the other six pictures they did together to be considered in the Top 100 American movies of all-time: In an unusually strong decade for film, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” are certainly among the very best of that ’70s bumper crop of New Hollywood films. The first is an alternately gritty, trippy look at the small-time mob subculture that goes much deeper than crime movies of the past ever dared. The second is a cautionary tale fever dream that anticipates the cult of celebrity around violence. Though an acquired taste because of its uncompromising fatalistic uneasy rumination on love, “New York, New York” is a lush, inspired melding of intense psychological drama, magic realism and classic MGM musical. “Raging Bull” is often cited as THE film of the ’80s for its artful, brutal take on boxer Jake Lamotta and “Goodfellas” expanded on what Coppola did with the mob in the first two “Gpdfather” films by exploring in more detail the lives of men and women bound up in that life they call “our thing.”
Just as De Niro came to the fore as an actor who penetrates characters in unusually deep, perceptive ways, Scorsese does the same as a storyteller working on the periphery of human conduct. Extremes of emotions and situations are their metier. Their mutual penchant for digging down into edgy material make them perfect collaborators. “The King of Comedy” is a dark film whose intense, deadpan approach to disturbing incidents makes it read as a straight drama much of the time. But it’s really a satire bordering on farce and theater of the absurd about obsession with fame and media. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally stunted wannabe comic and talk show host who’s prepared to go to any lengths to make his show biz fantasies reality. His intrusive, hostile pursuit of affirmation and opportunity from fictional talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) grows ever more dangerous and aggressive and eventually turns criminal. The character of Pupkin is often compared to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and there are definite similarities. Both are isolated loners living in their own heads. Viewing himself as a kind of avenging angel, the loser Travis fixates on cleaning the streets of the human trash he sees around him and rescuing the child prostitute played by Jodi Foster. After growing up ridiculed and bullied, chasing autographs from celebrities, Rupert sees himself as entitled to what his fixation, Jerry Langford, has and he hatches a plot with a fellow nut case (played by Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry. Rupert’s ransom: doing a standup routine on Jerry’s show to be aired nationwide.
“King of Comedy” depicts the extremes, dangers and blurring of lines that make the object of celebrity media worship a target of an unstable mind. De Niro delivers a pitch perfect, tour de force performance as a vainglorious neurotic whose love for Jerry masks an ever bigger hate.
The film is filled with awkward, all-too-real situations that make us uncomfortable because we can identify with Pupkin’s desperate need to be liked, to be respected, to be taken seriously. The character is full of contradictions and De Niro strikes an incredible balance of grotesquerie, sweetness, delusion and determination..As Rupert, De Niro is pathetic, inspiring, scary, funny, needy and strong.
It had been awhile since I’d seen the film before catching it for free on YouTube the other night and I must say it holds up very well, and perhaps resonates even more with these times than with the time it was made and released (1983). After all, in an era when America’s elected a bombastic, egomaniacal reality TV star and grifter as president, is it such a stretch to think that someone could extort and kidnap their way onto late night television? “Triumph of the Will” (1935), “State of the Union” (1948), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) “Medium Cool” (1969), “Network” (1976) and “Wag the Dog” (1997)show, decade by decade, the unholy alliance we’ve made with mass media’s ability to manipulate, seduce, exploit and distort. Likewise, “The King of Comedy” (1983) shows just how far some among us are prepared to go for attention, power, fame.
Watch the movie at this link–
Now, more than three decades since the film’s release, De Niro currently stars as an old, belligerent standup in “The Comedian,” a film that Scorsese was originally going to direct but didn’t. I haven’t seen it and so I can only go by the reviews I’ve read, but it appears to be a real misfire. I will hold judgment until I see it for myself, and I want to because I’m eager to compare and contrast what De Niro did with the standup he portrays in “King” to the comic he plays in the new film.
After recently watching “The Graduate” and now “The King of Comedy,” I was reminded of what brilliant chameleons Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were early in their film careers. They very much followed what Marlon Brando did during his first decade and a half in Hollywood by submerging themselves in very different characters from film to film to film. Their collections ofcharacterizations may be the most diverse in American film history. These kinds of actors are rare. The closest equivalents to them we have in contemporary cinema may be Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp.
But I digress. Be sure to check out “The King of Comedy” and let me know what you think of its ballsy, over-the-top, sometimes surreal yet always thoroughly grounded take on the implications of seeking celebrity as its own reward and the thin line between harmless flights of fancy and deranged compulsion. In its view, the American Dream and the American Nightmare are two sides of the same obsession. Be careful what you ask for it seems to be saying. And don’t look now, but that schmuck and impossibly irritating, shallow moron may just be the next Big Thing in entertainmet, media or some other sphere of public inflience. There’s something Trumpian about the whole thing and its media is the message theme.