It’s 40 years old on Monday, but has Martin Scorsese’s controversial thriller stood the test of time? Sooz Kempner took a look.
What and why: In 1973 Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro collaborated on the low-budget, grimy crime drama Mean Streets. It launched Scorsese as an exciting new talent and De Niro quickly won a role in The Godfather Part II, netting him his first Oscar. A couple of years later they collaborated for a second time on a Paul Schrader-penned script about a Vietnam vet who takes a job as a taxi driver and makes it his mission to “clean the scum off the streets”.
Rated or dated: Let me make it clear from the start, I think Taxi Driver is the best film ever made. Maybe it is because of when I ‘discovered’ it (I was 15) but half a lifetime hasn’t diminished the impact it had on me.
De Niro as Travis Bickle is probably cinema’s most well-intentioned psychopath: the ultimate anti-hero. Most of the time we only see the world through his eyes and one of the most common criticisms of the film is that black people are only portrayed as pimps, armed robbers or crazies. I don’t think this makes the film racist; I think this makes Travis racist. And even then we see him clumsily trying to woo the black kiosk worker at the porno cinema he hangs out in at night (she’s played by De Niro’s real-life then-wife, Dihanne Abbott).
He’s a tricky fella to understand. He doesn’t eye white pimps with any less suspicion either which brings us to our antagonist, Harvey Keitel’s slimy pimp, Sport. One night when Travis is driving his taxi, a 12-year-old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), gets in and begs him to take her away. She is dragged out by Sport. Travis finds her, pays Sport for her time and unsuccessfully tries to talk her into going home to her family.
At the same time he becomes infatuated with a beautiful political campaign volunteer, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Travis charms her with a naive interest in Senator Palantine, the presidential candidate she represents. Their first date goes well and they make a handsome couple as they eat lunch.
“Scorsese shoots mid-70s New York like a vision of hell. Steam rises from the pavement and a fucked-up red, white and blue can be seen, distorted, in the lights of the city.”
Travis plays the part of the chivalrous gent and is easily able to convince Betsy to come on a second date. Interestingly she quotes Kris Kristoffersen lyrics at him, saying that he is “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction”. This sums him up perfectly.
The next date is a trip to the cinema. It’s wonderfully uncomfortable and the first time we realise that Travis might be a bit of a mess. He takes Betsy to see a porn film and she storms out. “This is a movie that a lot of couples come to,” he tells her, confused. He isn’t trying to justify sleazy actions; he really believes he was being a romantic hero. Betsy doesn’t want to see him again.
This ramps up Travis’s insanity. He buys an array of guns and practises unleashing them alone, where the famous and supposedly improvised “are you talking to me?” scene comes from. It’s hypnotic and terrifying, shot jerkily and too close to create unease and a sense of a man’s mind unravelling.
Travis decides to assassinate Palantine at a rally, shaving his hair into a mohawk and having a bizarre and comical chat with a secret service man. He fails and disappears in to the crowd.
The film’s finale is a western-style bloodbath when Travis decides to rescue Iris by killing Sport and two men in the brothel before turning the gun on himself. Out of bullets and bleeding profusely from gunshot wounds, Travis falls on to a sofa, waiting for the police to arrive beside a sobbing Iris. She doesn’t seem grateful.
This whole sequence is filmed in extreme gruesome detail, the violence is shocking – even now in the era of Saw movies. Censors insisted on the redness of the blood being dulled to achieve a ‘R’ rating but that creates an even creepier effect, somehow more realistic in its murkiness.
The frank depiction of the violence by Scorsese isn’t just there to repel us. Earlier in the film, Travis is filmed in a corridor on the payphone to Betsy, post porn-date debacle. We only hear his side of the conversation but he’s clearly being rejected for the umpteenth time and it’s painful to watch. After a minute, the camera slowly turns away and films the empty corridor. Scorsese suggests we can’t bear to watch the embarrassing phone call but we cannot tear our eyes away from the gore of the final shoot-out.
“Travis never mentions what he went through in Vietnam but by the end of the film you may feel that, in his head, he never left.”
The film’s epilogue sees Travis, back driving his cab after a full recovery, heralded as a hero. Iris’s father thanks him in a letter and tells him she is back at school. The 12-year-old who ran away from home and became a heroin-addicted prostitute is home again. (Who cares why she left? She’s home and that’s all that matters!)
Had the Palantine assassination been successful he’d have been painted as a supervillain. In the film’s final moments he drives Betsy in his cab. She’s fascinated by him but he’s no longer interested. He doesn’t charge her for the ride and, suddenly, he sees something that agitates him in his rear-view mirror. Credits.
What did Travis see? Will there be another bloodbath? We’ll never know. He never mentions what he went through in Vietnam but by the end of the film you may feel that, in his head, he never left.
Scorsese shoots mid-70s New York like a vision of hell. Steam rises from the pavement and a fucked-up red, white and blue can be seen, distorted, in the lights of the city. Cutting through the middle is the bright yellow of Travis’s taxi. It seems that nothing is in the frame accidentally.
All of this is accompanied with Bernard Herrmann’s final score. He had quite a career – it started with Citizen Kane and ended with Taxi Driver. Not too shabby! The score is a strange mix of classic horror and smooth jazz, the perfect music to play over Travis’s “walking contradiction”.
Rated or dated? You know it’s RATED. Every performance is pitch-perfect, the direction hasn’t aged a day and that glorious score shows Herrmann saved the best ’til last. Taxi Driver is the reason we can forgive De Niro for Dirty Grandpa. He can make 1,000 Dirty Grandpas and I’ll still say, “Give him a break! Taxi Driver!” I cannot fault this film and if you haven’t seen it recently, do yourself a favour, give it a watch and drive yourself crazy again trying to decide whether or not Travis did the right thing.2884 Views
Funny Women Variety Award Winner 2012. ASDA Kate Bush.