It’s late and it has been a tiring few days. Everything has caught up with me and I feel like I’m running on empty. So it seems kind of apt that I’m about to write my thoughts on one of my favourite films, Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver is one of those films that spawned a poster that adorned every teenage male’s wall. Well, it was certainly on my wall! Taxi Driver is a film that could in many ways be considered ‘cult’ and yet it is actually pretty mainstream. It is a film that can appeal very specifically to the loners, the lost, the angry, the bitter, the disillusioned, the pessimistic, the betrayed, the ‘insert your descriptive word here’. Taxi Driver is an extremely important film… but one that was lost to me for many a year. I picked it up on Blu-ray recently and checked it out again. I rediscovered it! Taxi Driver is a very influencial film. Taxi Driver is a film that I’m going to write about without giving too many spoilers. You can read this and then watch the film in relative safety!!! The basic story can be summed up as follows (without spoiling it!): Loner played by Robert De Niro can’t sleep. Gets a job as a Taxi Driver by night. Falls for girls that are in different ways not right for him (to say the least!). Tries to hurt/save the girls. Ends up becoming a kind of vigilante character – the ‘typical’ loner who goes psycho.
First, and slightly off topic, I gotta say that the Blu-ray transfer itself is majestic. Absolutely superb. Anyone who has doubts about the difference between DVD and Blu-ray should simply take a look at Taxi Driver. It just drips class. The rain, the grime, the paintwork, the neon lights… just beautiful. The darkness has never looked so alive.
The Taxi Driver I remember from my youth was a film that very much appealed to the unsocial side of me. Let’s be clear here. Taxi Driver is a pretty dark film. It has been compared to other ‘loner’ films such as Falling Down or First Blood. But Taxi Driver is very much its own man. It has so many levels… only one of which is the level that appeals to the teenage boy. Taxi Driver is just as much a journey into the heart of darkness as Apocalypse Now. Taxi Driver is a film that kinda defines the ’70s. And you have to remember that the ’70s were already defined by grime and realism. The ’70s marked a foray into great BIG meaningful, intelligent films. All the President’s Men. The Conversation. Deliverance. Even Rocky (if you don’t agree then you obviously haven’t watched it recently). In fact, Rocky actually beat Taxi Driver at the Oscars that year – a decision that could drive home another whole article!
Taxi Driver was directed by Martin Scorsese. I would find it hard to name my favourite director. It would be like having to name a favourite band or album. They are decisions that are affected by mood, time and space. But Scorsese would certainly be in my top one or two! Ha ha! I think Taxi Driver is a defining Scorsese film. Unlike certain other great directors Scorsese has many great films. You could pick Raging Bull or Goodfellas for example and no-one would dispute their challenge for the title of “Greatest Scorsese Movie”tm. But, whilst I would agree with their greatness, and possibly that they are even greater than Taxi Driver… I would still say that Taxi Driver is the defining moment of Martin Scorsese’s career. I can already sense that my writing here is sloppy. I’m drifting around the subject without hitting the facts home. I’m not firing on all cylinders here. Bear with me. I’m just typing what I’m thinking. Hmmmm…. key points of note:
1) The amazing score. This was Bernard Herrmann’s final score, completed shortly before he died. Herrmann was responsible for some of the greatest soundtracks in movie history. I adore his work with Hitchcock, and even those who aren’t familiar with film would recognise some of his signature pieces. His screeching strings from Psycho are perhaps the best known in cinema history (alongside Jaws‘?). I love his work on Vertigo too. But for me… nothing surpasses his final work. The masterpiece that is the score for Taxi Driver.
2) Robert De Niro. This is a tour de force performance. De Niro plays the insomniac Vietnam vet Travis Bickle. Travis is a loner. De Niro gets the portrayal spot on. He IS Travis Bickle. There is no acting. You get that ‘method’ thing.
3) Cybill Shepherd. Now, here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure that Cybill Shepherd is generally derided as an actress. But I’ve gotta stick up for her. She was great in The Last Picture Show and I thought she was cool in Moonlighting. But she is something else in Taxi Driver. The criticism of her acting tends to be that if she was standing in a forest you really wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from amongst the rest of the trunks. Saw her in half and you could probably count the rings. Well… okay, in fact, in Taxi Driver she is indeed a little stilted. But, and it’s a big but… she is totally radiant. Absolutely stunning looking. She plays the part of Betsy, a woman sooooo out of Travis’ league. And she plays it well. Betsy benefits from being slightly dislocated from Travis’ world. I wouldn’t change Shepherd for anyone else. Pretty simple really.
4) Jodie Foster. Foster was a good little actress. I think she was only 12 when she played the part of Iris in this film. 12!!! If you’ve seen the film you’ll know why I’ve put all those exclamation marks! This is a really adult role. And Jodie Foster proves that she had the makings of one of the greatest actresses of all time. I’m not much of a fan of her to be honest, but in this film she is outstanding.
5) Martin Scorsese. There are moments in this film that are directed with intelligence and beauty. The phone call where the camera seems embarrassed to be eavesdropping. It actually wanders off mid shot. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s touches of class like this that raise the bar with this film.
6) “You talkin’ to me?” Say no more.
7) The beautiful irony/madness of Travis’ outlook on life. On the one hand he is so self-righteous. He wants proper order. He denounces the drugs and the criminality. He comes across as such a moral guardian. … And yet… he stays up all day and all night. He basks in pornography and takes drugs. He IS the seedy side of life that he so appears to despise! I like that Travis is such a difficult character to interpret. Taxi Driver is a much more ‘difficult’ film than, say, Falling Down.
8 ) New York. The setting, the scenery. You can almost smell the grime of the streets.
9) The duality of Travis’ relationships with Betsy and Iris. This is a man who wants what he can’t have. And then when he can’t have it he wants to destroy it. For better or for worse. It takes some thinking about. And it has taken me many viewings and many years to fully appreciate.
10) The ending. This is a film from a time before ‘twist endings’. Yet, there is certainly an intriguing end to the film. The final moments make you question whether Travis is a hero or a villain. And it makes you question the society that creates such a man as Travis, and then crowns him a hero. Or a villain? For you see the ending all depended on which of the father figures Travis succeeded on destroying. Betsy’s or Iris’. One makes him a hero, the other a villain. Or do they both make him a villain? I like the uncertainty of the film’s tone.
Hmmm…. I’m not keen on writing a ‘review’ as a series of bullet points… but I’ve started so I’ll finish. It’s getting late and I’m knackered!
There are a few things about the film that I’m not so keen about.
1) The carnage at the end. The censors apparently would not let the violence at the finale go without cuts. So, instead Scorsese just drained the colour from the ending. Drained the visceral red from the blood. This was enough to satisfy the censors. And when you hear Marty explain the colour drain you can both understand, and appreciate how in some ways it actually improves the end. But… I’ve never been too enamoured with it… so it probably loses the film a point.
2) The ending. As a teenager I never truly understood the very end of Taxi Driver – the coda after the violence. I didn’t know if it was a dream sequence, some kind of heaven, some kind of hell, or just an unlikely reality. Having watched it again on Blu-ray 5 times I can now appreciate that it’s probably meant to be taken pretty literally. I think in the past I was trying to be too clever. I was trying to project upon the film a whole host of levels that just weren’t actually there. I now see that the ending is more a scathing social commentary. I can appreciate the view that the film has an uncertain tone. And yet I now think that the film is actually quite certain with its tone. I think the film has a single point to make and it is all very simple. And I now see that the film could be viewed as a recurring loop. If you started watching Taxi Driver again as soon as it finished everything would make perfect sense!!! Anyway… the film loses a point.
3) The forcing of the “Everything is viewed by Travis. Everything is observed.”. Basically the film sets out to show everything as a kind of first person, ‘as happens to Travis’ point of view. So when other events need to be seen, Travis is shown as ‘observing them’ in his Taxi – usually sitting outside where the scene we need to see is happening. Marty has explained the need for this approach many times. I’m just not sure that it actually works. However, certainly not bad enough to knock a point off the final score. And I’ve got to say that the scene between Iris and her Pimp is indeed probably necessary and quite touching.
Let’s be clear. This is probably the closest you’re gonna get to a ten out of ten film from me. So, if that’s what you want to read the score as I’m happy for you to read it! This film is a towering work of art. A dissection of a troubled soul.
Taxi Driver – 8/10
I used Taxi Driver as the source of inspiration for the opening track of my new album “The Galton Detail“. The song is called Rain. I think I’ve captured the essence of the film.