DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
May contain Spoilers!
This is a bit of tough one. Almost four decades on from Taxi Driver’s initial release, we are looking at a film which was no doubt a ground-breaking achievement back in 1976. The tone is adolescent Scorsese, still on his way towards perfecting his now iconic style of comedy and violence, with the character of insomniac and disillusioned Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) managing to be as likeable as he is creepy and disturbing.
Beginning with the voyeuristic cab driver’s tendency to observe the seedy underbelly of New York, he becomes obsessed cleaning up the city, which he now sees as festering in depravity, but his attraction to a relatively normal young woman, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) doesn’t help.
After his idea of a date to a porno theatre puts her off, he ends up befriending a young hooker, Jodie Foster, who was quite rightly praised for her performance here and tries to save her from her life on the streets. This leads to the bloody conclusion in which after shaving his head to a Mohawk, Travis shoots his way into the brothel and takes out the gang, but not before being wounded himself.
By today’s standards, this is a strange combination of post modern angst and brutal violence but somehow DeNiro, who defiantly delivers a career best performance and coming off the success of The Godfather Part 2 (1974) manages to maintain a balance which helps to convey Bickle as a sympathetic if not slightly lovable character, even though he is clearly wavering over the line of righteousness and depraved insanity.
The implications throughout are that he may become a lone gunman type assassin, his target being the Presidential candidate which Betsy works for, but like many plot-lines in this episodic script, it doesn’t really come to fruition, except as a sort of red-herring. Travis will not become the villain we are expecting, rather a vigilantly hero, but the screenplay in a bit scrappy, plodding at times in that typical 1970’s manner, yet Scorsese’s direction is first-rate, gritty and flamboyant, presenting New York’s underbelly in all it’s neon glory.
The charting of Bickle’s psychological journey from well meaning loner to “hero” is littered with disturbing truths, particularly the way that he speaks to himself, most famously with the whole “Are you talking to me?” speech but this feels real, plausible and somewhat wish fulfilling, the Everyman who stands up against the odds to clean up the streets. Batman without the mask.
A bit like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Taxi Driver’s influence can seen far and wide but over the time since its release, its effect have diminished and I am left feeling that we have seen this all before, but of course in 1976, we probably had not. I certainly hadn’t, as I wasn’t born until 1978!
But it is that ending which leaves me a little bemused. After what appears to be a death scene after the carnage in the brothel, the final sequence is of newspaper clippings suggesting that he recovers and is heralded as a hero along with the voice-over of Jodie Foster’s father thanking him for saving his daughter from her torrid life, is essentially a happy ending to bleak film. But was this real or a dying man’s dream? Left ambiguous it maybe, but it feels more real than dreamlike and if so, feels like a plausibility has been thrown out of the window!
But this is a complex physiological drama about the nature heroism, disenfranchisement and the need to be someone in a anonymous world. But I feel that for someone like me, who has not seen this earlier, its influence has already reached me through so many other means, other films so even though this is one of the genres best and in many ways, firsts, Taxi Driver freshness has diminished.