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Taxi Driver (1976)

February 22nd, 2007 · No Comments

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Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) applies for a job at a cab company, commenting to the punchy personnel man (Joe Spinell) that he can’t sleep, and wants to work long hours. We get hints of Travis’ background. Age, 26. Education, “Some, you know, here and there.” Military record: honorable discharge, 1973.

As Travis transports fares from place to place, hell seems to have cracked open and unleashed pimps, prostitutes, gang members, drug dealers, and derelicts onto the streets of New York. Travis wishes a real rain would come and wash all this scum off the street, but night after night, he goes out there to walk among it. Then he spends his free time in porno movie theaters.

His life is limited to the thoughts swirling around in his head, and those he scribbles in a journal. “Twelve hours of work and I still can’t sleep. Damn. Days go on and on. They don’t end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe one should devote his life to morbid self-intention. I believe that someone should become a person, like other people.”

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Travis fixates on a blonde named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for a presidential hopeful named Charles Palpatine. Betsy seems above all the filth on the street. The taxi driver cleans himself up and asks her out, and amazingly, she agrees. But the socially inept Travis sabotages the relationship when he takes Betsy to a porno theater on 42nd Street. She refuses to have anything more to do with him.

Instead, Travis tries to help a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), who hopped into his cab one night stoned and asked him to take her away. Sober, Iris is much less inclined to break free from the psychological hold her pimp “Sport” (Harvey Keitel) has over her. So Travis arms himself for urban combat.

Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver in 1972 while staying in his ex-girlfriend’s empty apartment in Silverlake. Schrader was a failed film critic who’d been driving around at night, drinking scotch and going to peep shows. His head was filled with “morbid self-intention”, and many ended up in the script, his first. After The Yakuza (written with brother Leonard) sold big, Schrader wrote Obsession for Brian DePalma. He then reworked Taxi Driver.

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Robert DeNiro told Schrader that he’d actually wanted to write a script about a guy walking around New York with a gun, and agreed to play Travis. David Begelman, president of Columbia Pictures, hated the script, but producer Julia Phillips – who had won an Academy Award for The Sting with her husband Michael – championed it, insisting director Martin Scorsese, coming off two critically praised films, could bring it in for $1.5 million.

Shot on the streets of New York in the summer of 1975, Scorsese and director of photography Michael Chapman were strongly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave. They set out to focus not just on Travis, but document the world he lived in. New York became its own character, and the street scenes pound with a hallucinatory intensity; gritty, sad, and at times, disturbing.

If asked to name the three best movies I’ve ever seen, I’d probably include Alien, combine The Godfather & The Godfather Part II into one pick, and then name Taxi Driver. Scorsese, Schrader and DeNiro produce the most vivid portrait of a wingnut ever devoted to film. They never ask us to feel sorry for Travis, or think about his plight. The film plunges us right into the heart of darkness, through impressionistic imagery, acute dialogue and character, and the fear and self-loathing of performance.

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From the opening shot – steam vapors rising from the street in saturated color, and a cab slowly emerging like a demon – the movie looks like no other. Scorsese doesn’t just move the camera around, he uses it as a window into Travis’ alienated inner state. Through his eyes, we do a 360 degree turn through the grimy cab company garage, or watch in slow motion as Betsy floats across the street like an angel, or stand still while hoodlums slide past on the sidewalk.

The film features neatly improvised dialogue, from Peter Boyle & Harry Northup as cabbies, Keitel (“I once had a horse on Coney Island. She got hit by a car”) and DeNiro, who made up his iconic “You talkin’ to me?” monologue. Bernard Herrmann – who did the music for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films – composed a vibrant score filled with breezy saxophone riffs and ominous reeds. Hermann completed the music a few hours before his death at age 64, and the film would not be as great without it.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Taxi Driver was recently named #47 on the AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” list as well. Though only four characters are shot and killed, violence hangs over almost every scene, and the film initially received an X rating. It concludes with what would appear to be an upbeat ending, but like everything else in this masterpiece, it takes on a more dubious meaning the more times you watch it.

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Tags: Ambiguous ending · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Gangsters and hoodlums · Paranoia · Prostitute · Rated X · Shootout

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