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35 Years Later, Taxi Driver Still Stuns

Some motion pictures produce the uncanny sensation of returning the spectator’s gaze. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—a movie in which the most celebrated line asks the audience, “Are you talkin’ to me?”—is one such film. It came, it saw, it zapped the body politic right between the eyes.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary with a newly restored print and a two-week Film Forum run, Taxi Driver was a powerfully summarizing work. It synthesized noir, neorealist, and New Wave stylistics; it assimilated Hollywood’s recent vigilante cycle, drafting then-déclassé blaxploitation in the service of a presumed tell-it-like-it-is naturalism that, predicated on a frank, unrelenting representation of racism, violence, and misogyny, was even more racist, violent, and misogynist than it allowed.

The 12th top-grossing movie of 1976, Taxi Driver was not just a hit but, like Psycho or Bonnie and Clyde, an event in American popular culture—perhaps even an intervention. Inspired by one failed political assassination (the 1972 shooting of presidential hopeful George Wallace), it inadvertently motivated another (the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan). The movie further established its 33-year-old director as both Hollywood’s designated artist and, after Taxi Driver was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, an international sensation—the decisive influence on neo–New Wave filmmakers as varied as Spike Lee, Wong Kar-wai, and Quentin Tarantino.

Checkered past: De Niro drives angry.
Sony Pictures Repertory
Checkered past: De Niro drives angry.

Details

Taxi Driver
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Sony Pictures Repertory
Film Forum, March 18 through 31

Scorsese didn’t direct Taxi Driver so much as orchestrate its elements. Lasting nearly 20 minutes and fueled by Bernard Herrmann’s rhapsodic score, the de facto overture is a densely edited salmagundi of effects—slow motion, fragmenting close-ups, voluptuous camera moves, and trick camera placement—that may be the showiest pure filmmaking in any Hollywood movie since Touch of Evil. Certainly no American since Welles had so confidently presented himself as a star director. And yet Taxi Driver was essentially collaborative. It was the most cinephilic movie ever made in Hollywood, openly acknowledging Bresson, Hitchcock, Godard, avant-gardists Michael Snow and Kenneth Anger, and the John Ford of The Searchers. Moreover, the movie’s antihero, Travis Bickle—a homicidal combination of Dirty Harry and Norman Bates who describes himself as God’s Lonely Man—sprang from the brain of former film critic Paul Schrader and, as embodied for all eternity by the young Robert De Niro, all but instantly became a classic character in the American narrative alongside Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.

Citizen of a sodden Sodom where the steamy streets are always wet with tears, among other bodily fluids, Bickle embarks each evening on a glistening sea of sleaze. Seen through his rain-smeared windshield, Manhattan becomes a movie—call it “Malignopolis”—in which, as noted by Amy Taubin in her terrific Taxi Driver monograph, “the entire cast of Superfly seems to have been assembled in Times Square” to feed Travis’s fantasies. The cab driver lives by night in a world of myth, populated by a host of supporting archetypes: the astonishing Jodie Foster as Iris, the 12-year-old hooker living the life in the rat’s-ass end of the ’60s, yet dreaming of a commune in Vermont; Harvey Keitel as her affably nauseating pimp; Peter Boyle’s witless cabbie sage; and Cybill Shepherd’s bratty golden girl, a suitably petit-bourgeois Daisy Buchanan to Travis’s lumpen Gatsby.

Brilliant and yet repellent, at times even hateful, Taxi Driver inspired understandable ambivalence. (At Cannes, the announcement that it had won the Palme d’Or was greeted with boos.) How could reviewers not be wary? Taxi Driver is nakedly opposed even to itself, as well as the culture that produced it. For Travis, all movies are essentially pornographic; had he met his creators, he would surely, as observed by Marshall Berman in his history of Times Square, consider them purveyors of “scum and filth.” It’s the slow deliberation with which this lunatic kicks over his TV and terminates his connection to social reality that signals his madness—and the filmmaker’s.

Like Werner Herzog’s Aguirre or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver is auteurist psychodrama. Not for nothing did Scorsese give himself a cameo playing a character even wiggier than Travis. Who can possibly imagine the internal fortitude or psychic cost this movie required or exacted? Certainly no one connected with Taxi Driver ever again reached such heights (or plumbed such depths), although Albert Brooks became a significant filmmaker in his own right, while Scorsese and De Niro would come close with Raging Bull and The King of Comedy—two movies that equal or surpass Taxi Driver in every way except as the embodiment of the historical spirit.

Recalling his youth, Baudelaire wrote of simultaneously experiencing the horror and the ecstasy of existence. So it is with Taxi Driver . The pagan debauchery the child Scorsese saw in Quo Vadis is played out in the Manhattan of 1975 A.D. Hysterical yet sublime, the movie crystallizes one of the worst moments in New York’s history—the city as America’s pariah, a crime-ridden, fiscally profligate, graffiti-festooned moral cesspool. Scorsese ups the ante by returning endlessly to his boyhood movie realm of 42nd Street, which, in the mid-’70s, was a lurid land of triple-X-rated cinema, skeevy massage parlors, cruising pimp mobiles, sidewalks crammed with hot-pants hookers, and the customers who on any given weekday evening, according to NYPD stats, were patronizing porn-shops at the rate of 8,000 per hour.

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13 comments
Lk1150
Lk1150

I think this review is actually depicts the movie and its meaning quite accurately. The taxi driver does live in a different world because he sees a different world - he works all through the night when the danger and not so glamorous lifestyle of NYC emerges. He experiences things that typical "day time" New Yorkers don't. In a way, it can be said he has it harder than most because he lives through the filth and the dirt and is forced to communicate with a great number of people, some of which are pleasant, but many who are often not. It would be interesting to be a taxi driver for a day, and get a whole new outlook on the city and its residents.

That Guy
That Guy

Just rewatched and I felt that it was overrated. Hermann's score has aged poorly. And the supposedly ironic ending is just a stunt that ends up torpedoing the whole movie, essentially turning it into a superhero origin flick like "Unbreakable".

Szknyc
Szknyc

OK I don't care about what it grossed. What I like about the film is it's deep honesty about a TRAVIS a lonely man. A vet that is just drifting and searching to be part of something. A marine that is lost in the 70's. So he decides to become a taxi drive because he can't sleep and also it is the only job an uneducated man can find. He does not have an education or a life structure.So he only sees the streets at night. The anger, crimes, drugs, hookers, pimps, wackos and he only downtime is in a porn theatre. This guy is about to explode. He is let down by the system that he returns to and sees hope in BESTY but it does not work because he does not know how to make it work. Then He finds hope looking to rescue IRIS a 12 year old hooker. He can only relate to that. The risk, the guns, a battle and rescue gives him something to look forward to that he as a vet is already familar with. TAXI DRIVER really gives you the meaning morbid self attention and perhaps false hope that can change yourself. It also reveals what men in the 70's were really feeling, alone and angry that is why this film mean a lot to many. It is honest portray of a drifter that stood up and took the law into his own hands after the war and after returning to the world only to find another jungle in the New York City Streets. You cheer for him but at the same time you feel like you have been violated. Paul Schrader wrote a great script and Scorsese directed one of the best films ever made. Is Travis a hero or a vilian?

Dfasdfas
Dfasdfas

I dispute the commenter saying Cybil's role was unnecessary. Her mock Burns and Allen-style dialogue with Albert Brooks seemed to parody the male/female role playing in fast-talking Hollywood movies from this starchy, white zone of the candidate's office. Travis circled that whitened mid-town temple like a shark, determined by fate to pierce the stagey, rote, self-satisfied bubble that his goddess inhabited. This may be the most American movie of all time.

Sakara
Sakara

ps....MARATHON MAN was number 10 in 1976----at a mere almost 22 million dollars.....which means TAXI DRIVER made somewhere under 22 million dollars in 1976.

"albert brooks became a significant film maker in his own rights"

hahahaha!!!!!

ha!

Sakara
Sakara

wow, the 12th top grossing movie of 1976...!!!

THE BAD NEWS BEARS....SILENT MOVIE...MIDWAY...wer also big hits in 1976---though ROCKY was the number one hit of 1976.

and TAXI DRIVER is just a arty reworking of DEATH WISH and THE NEW CENTURIANS.

This VV 35th anniversary review is even bigger bullshit than the movie itself.

kjs
kjs

Highly flawed screenplay.Cybil Sheppard's role still is out of place and out of reality.

clipper_ship
clipper_ship

I think the ending of Taxi Driver was fantasy - simply how Bickle wanted everything to end up, how he wanted/believed he would be perceived in society. The movie leaves this vague on purpose - we're still supposed to question whether or not the end is real or a flight of fancy on Bickle's end. I'm going to go with the latter.

Sojourner
Sojourner

That's a hell of a lot better review than Hoberman's load of utterly pretentious crap.

SAKARA
SAKARA

travis is paul kersey from DEATH WISH.

Sakara
Sakara

The most american movie that ripped off french and italian movies, with lots of reviewers and schrader name dropping 'diary of a country priest"

Dfasdfas
Dfasdfas

That's movie love, Sakara - references, suggestions from other works. That's what art is. Taxi Driver is hardly a rehash of anything.

 

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