Movies We Like
The culty acclaim of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver is mostly deserved; the film is made up of some of the greatest scenes and moments of the decade. But with that there are some scenes and moments that don’t work as well. Really what Taxi Driver is is a good ol’ fashioned 70s exploitation flick, gussied up with a big-time director and cast. It’s a perfect combination of two of the era’s most potent B-movie formulas, “the crazy Vietnam vet” flick and “the New York city loner vigilante” saga. Two genres of exploitation pulp that go together like peanut butter and chocolate, after a while you can’t imagine one without the other. Like Scarlet O’Hara or Forest Gump, the name Travis Bickle has become a cultural definition of a type. Robert De Niro, at the peak of his thespian prowess, plays the lonely city taxi driver who prowls the street in search of some kind of meaning for his life. Teaming with Scorsese for the second time (after the brilliant Mean Streets, and with six more collaborations to come), it’s one of the great actor’s most iconic roles, and still a signature film for the director.
As a guy who doesn’t need sleep and doesn’t mind venturing in to the rougher sides of town, Travis is instantly hired as a cabbie. He learned some of the ropes from colleagues over late night coffee stops, led by Wizard (go-to working class character actor Peter Boyle). His clientele ranges from the high end to creeps (Scorsese in a fantastic scene), and pimps and hookers—that’s where he meets and becomes kinda obsessed with Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage hooker who was briefly fleeing her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). He also strikes up a near romance with a beautiful campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Sheperd), who works for senator Palantine (Leonard Harris). Though her coworker (Albert Brooks) has his doubts about Travis, she agrees to go out with him. He blows it when he idiotically takes her to see a porn movie. Getting blown off by her gives him more time to fret over Iris; his obsession with her does not seem to be sexual, he just has a high moral code and feels like he can help her. And he sinks deeper into a type of self-obsessed heroic fantasy. After killing a guy who attempts to rob a grocery store his itch for more action grows so he gives himself a Mohawk hairdo and makes a feeble attempt at shooting Palantine. Instead, when that doesn’t work out he goes after Iris’s pimp, culminating in an extremely bloody shoot-out with him and the whorehouse manager in front of Iris, where he kills both of them and gets shot up himself.
As the police arrive we hear narration that implies that Travis’s actions have made him a hero to both Iris’s relieved family and possibly the city. Is this the ultimate vigilante dream come true? However, the final scene in the movie has Betsy getting into Travis’s cab and fawning over him, it becomes more apparent that it may be a dream or a hallucination, hinting that perhaps the entire outcome of his killing spree is all in his head. (I wish that Scorsese had hinted at that just one notch stronger.) Or is it a commentary about psychos being turned into media heroes? Either way it was a controversial ending, not making itself totally clear on its aim. And with the overly bloody shootout it helped put the film on the map. Were we supposed to be appalled by Travis’s unhinged actions or cheer when he says, “suck on this, pimp” and fires. The film wants it both ways; it has one foot in the exploitation pond and the other wanting to dip in the highbrow character-driven pond. Perhaps this is symbolism for much of Scorsese’s career.
As long as we’re nit-picking, it also felt a little unbelievable that Sheperd’s Betsy would give this dude the time of day, let along go all the way into a porn theater with him. And though Albert Brooks provided some of the most innovative and best comedy of the 70s he feels a little out of place here.
All that nit-picking aside, Taxi Driver is a stunning piece of filmmaking. Shot gorgeously by Michael Chapman (The Wanderers) in reds and blues, the puddled and dirty streets of New York with steam rising over them are like a vision of hell or the crumbling of a society. Scorsese uses all the crazy angles and the mix of slow motion and sped up film that would become more famous staples when he made Raging Bull a few years later. After mesmerizing supporting performances in Mean Streets and winning an Oscar for The Godfather Part 2, Taxi Driver solidified De Niro as a leading man and one of his generation’s best actors. He would follow it with an equally powerful film, The Deer Hunter and then the horrid musical collaboration with Scorsese, New York, New York, but the duo would come back and even outdo themselves with Raging Bull (winning De Niro another Oscar) and then the underrated but excellent King of Comedy. For De Niro, Travis Bickle would be the center of the string of performances in the 70s and 80s that were pretty unprecedented, before De Niro seemed to stop trying and showed up in any random genre flick that ponied up a big time salary.
There was even talks at one point about a sequel, Taxi Driver 2; luckily that never happened. But the controversy and even legend of Taxi Driver would live on publicly when, in 1981, the film’s biggest fan, a deranged lunatic named John Hinckley Jr., tried to shoot President Reagan, wounding him and others in a whacked attempt to impress his obsession, Jodie Foster (much like Travis himself). The actions caused some brief talk about gun control and film’s responsibility for violence it allegedly inspires as well as the fact that a child actress, Foster, was playing such an adult role (a prostitute) and was often in the middle of some of those violent scenes. Of course now with films like Kick-Ass and Hanna, a little girl witnessing on-set mayhem is the last of anyone’s concerns. And since Foster has proved to be a stable grown-up with an outstanding career and an even better reputation those worries have certainly passed.
The fact that Travis was a Vietnam War vet was still slightly hot material in ‘77. Of course Taxi Driver does nothing to depict the emotional plight of the vet; it’s strictly a plot point to make Travis seem more dangerous. It would be the following year with Coming Home and The Deer Hunter that the issues of the war would start to be examined and the floodgates of Vietnam War flicks would burst open. Though Taxi Driver was inventive on a lot of levels, Scorsese and screen writer Paul Schrader (Hardcore) were stuck in the same exploitation formula that had presented the Vietnam vet as a blood thirsty, gun loving nut for most of the decade (a year later even those grown-up Vietnam War flicks Coming Home and The Deer Hunterwould still have the same insane characters). And it wasn’t just exploitation flicks (Cannibal Apocalypse, The Exterminator, The Annihilators) that pushed the archetypes, but mainstream genre hokum like The Two Minute Warning, Black Sunday, and Earthquake all had their crazy Vietnam vets— easy caricatures for padding the plot. When you learn to embrace the genre, finding the crazy Vietnam vet becomes a fun game inside 70s (and even 80s) cinema viewing. Maybe along with First Blood (the first Rambo flick), Taxi Driver is the greatest crazy Vietnam vet movie ever. Not just for its artful production and classy performances, but for the seductive mayhem and lonely, brooding intensity that it creates. Like the movie vets of its era, what is going on the head of Taxi Driver isn’t always clear and their motives can be a jumble, but for sheer exploitation entertainment it’s got more balls than the Tet Offensive!
Taxi Driver was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Actress (Jodie Foster),and Best Music, Original Score (Bernard Herrmann).