ON EVERY STREET, IN EVERY CITY, THERE’S A NOBODY WHO DREAMS OF BEING A SOMEBODY.
Travis Bickle can’t stand the streets of New York. He’s waiting for the rain that will wash the trash off the streets, all the thieves, murderers, queers, pimps, hookers. They’re all the same to him. He can’t sleep, which is why he gets a job as a cabbie. He may hate the streets but he doesn’t fear them – he’ll take you anywhere, any seedy address in the Bronx or Harlem. Travis is a Vietnam vet looking for a life and a purpose now that his military service is completed. He has no idea that he’s about to find a mission, a mission that will completely engulf him.
It’s a complex character that writer Paul Schrader has created. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) cannot really be labeled a psychopath, but he definitely has psychological problems. He goes on a date but chooses to take the girl (Cybill Shepherd) to a nice little… porno theater. He gets involved in a presidential campaign, but ends up a security threat. No matter what he does, Travis can’t seem to adapt to people around him. But as the movie progresses, the mission slowly takes shape in his mind. He realizes that he is the one who must correct wrongs.
An innocent-looking, 12-year old girl (Jodie Foster) who makes a living as a prostitute becomes the spark that ignites the fire burning inside Travis. He is the one who must rescue her from her pimp as well as those disgusting men who abuse her, and washing that trash off the streets is going to be a little messy.
Dark, rainy and gritty
It’s not a pretty film that director Martin Scorsese unleashed on the world in 1976, but Taxi Driver is an enduring classic. He shows us a New York looking like it was flushed down a toilet. It’s dark, rainy, gritty and the streets are about as mean as they can get. Accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s unsettling score (his last), Scorsese creates a place that very well could give a dangerous person like Travis Bickle the incentive he needs to go berserk. But there’s also a kind of beauty about the whole thing – the title sequence, with its yellow cab slowly emerging from a cloud of steam, is stunning.
One obvious reason why the film is so memorable is De Niro’s performance. His character starts out as a restless young man and ends up a determined avenger with a Mohawk hairdo and an obsession with firearms – he is utterly convincing every step of the way. The famous sequence where he’s talking to an imaginary foe in the mirror, and points a gun at him, shows a man about to fall off a cliff. He could be someone who’s just playing around, but we all get the feeling that he is actually preparing to deliver the rain that will wash the trash off the streets. The supporting cast is pure perfection. Shepherd is charming as the girl Travis tries to woo and Albert Brooks is fun as the guy who has a crush on her. Young Foster took a chance playing the child prostitute and her performance reveals a star in the making; her scenes with De Niro ring true.
The shootout in the ending, where Travis finally delivers the rain in his attempt to save the poor child, is raw and terrifying. It may not be tasteful or very well directed but it’s hard to forget. The epilogue, where Travis has become a hero after killing all those people, is interesting; the best way to interpret it is as an expression of irony.
Taxi Driver is controversial and there are people who can’t stand it. Depressing to watch, the film is also fascinating in the way it makes one sympathize with and, eerily enough, understand a human being that you don’t really want to understand.
Taxi Driver 1976-U.S. 113 min. Color. Produced by Michael Philips, Julia Philips. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Paul Schrader. Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Cast: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks… Martin Scorsese.
Trivia: Rock Hudson was allegedly considered for the part of the presidential candidate. In 1981, John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Foster, after seeing her in this film.
BAFTA: Best Actress (Foster), Film Music. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Quote: “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? OK.” (De Niro talking to himself in the mirror)
Last word: “In 1973, I had been through a particularly rough time. My marriage broke up and I had to quit the American Film Institute. I was out of work; I was out of the AFI; I was in debt. I fell into a period of real isolation, living more or less in my car. One day, I went to the emergency room in serious pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people but absolutely, totally alone.” (Schrader, Sabotage Times)