When it comes to the classics, there aren’t many more highly regarded than Martin Scorsese’s seminal work of the 70s, Taxi Driver.
Travis Bickle, former Marine and chronic insomniac, signs up to drive the night shift as a cabbie in New York. With subtle bravado, he acknowledges his colleagues’ questions about why he is happy to go just about anywhere with his cab (including the toughest, dirtiest sections of 1970s New York – a city yet to be cleaned up in the Giuliani purges of the 90s) with a smile. He doesn’t carry a gun, although his peers do, and he almost revels in the grime of the seedier side of the city that – like Travis himself – never sleeps. His interest in Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty staffer to Presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine, and a chance encounter with 12 year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), set him on a dark spiral that will end with him unrecognisable from his former self.
From a time when De Niro epitomised toughness (well before films like Analyse This and Meet The Parents diluted his intense, animal-like screen presence), Taxi Driver is the quintessential example of the use of film to demonstrate the gradual destruction of a man’s psyche. (It is surely the inspiration for so much that has followed – in particular, films like Falling Down and The Machinist.) Bickle starts out a clean-shaven loner with a crush, and ends as a skinhead with a gun, and the trick is that the audience goes with him for the ride.
The supporting cast are adequate without being exceptional, although this is really a portrait of a man, and the secondary characters are there more for their impact on him than in their own right. Fans of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ may be interested to know Peter Boyle had a career in film before playing Ray’s father Frank Barone, and although his Wizard is not the focus, Boyle does what is asked. Cybill Shepherd, 26 at the time of release and fresh from 1971’s The Last Picture Show, is appealing in a role with limited substance (albeit with an interesting aftertaste). The real find is the 14 year old Jodie Foster, who is both charming and horrifying as Iris. She is the only of the characters to even momentarily take attention away from De Niro, as a marker of great things to come. This performance won her worldwide acclaim and multiple gongs, including nomination as Best Supporting Actress at the 1977 Academy Awards, and she has subsequently gone on to win two Best Actress Oscars (for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs), and become a true star of her generation.
The sound design stands out to viewers of the modern era, with its strident and intrusive score quite distracting, but this is firmly rooted in the times. Scenes were shot in New York, and graphically detail life in Alphabet City in the 70s – the garish colours of the streetworkers and pimps offset by the grunge of garbage and decay. Occasionally the cinematographic techniques distract, with several panning takes striking in this regard… Travis’ return to the depot one morning the most obvious example.
Watching a ‘well-known’ movie like Taxi Driver for the first time is fraught – misapprehension may often lead to confusion in the viewers mind. This can be a curse for such a film, as the audience is constantly on edge, wondering when the film will match their expectations, and this may diminish the power of what is on screen. If one can avoid the distraction of a thousand participants in ‘movieoke’, however, and focus solely on the incredible leading performance and striking depiction of one man’s developing insanity, Taxi Driver is well worth the effort.Rating: