AFI #52: Taxi Driver

“You talkin’ to me?”

Some would argue that Martin Scorsese is America’s greatest film director, and given the body of work it’s certainly an argument you’d have trouble disputing. Despite the critical acclaim he’s getting lately for films including Hugo, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island and others (and these are all great films), if you’re like me it’s the old school Scorsese that turns you on. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Raging Bull and of course Taxi Driver leave the viewer in sheer awe. I’m not going to have the “best director ever” argument here, but suffice it to say there has never been anyone like Scorsese and I doubt there will ever be another.

Taxi Driver is a cinematic masterpiece on several levels. First, it moves like a Scorsese film, which is to say the viewer becomes the camera and you feel like you’re in the scenes. There is a cadence to it that is unmistakably Scorsese, all building to the violent penultimate scene and the calm and surprising finale. Taxi Driver is a nod to film noir, complete with the voice over of the lead character and the dark feel of the film. The streets of New York are always dirty and it’s raining most of the time. Our protagonist sees the dark side of New York, from hookers to thugs to pimps and mafioso. The rain is in fact a metaphor for what cabby Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) wishes for this city — that all the scum gets washed away.

Second, De Niro is tremendous in this role. The film is a deconstruction of Travis Bickle, the Vietnam Vet returned to civilization struggling with inner demons. We don’t know exactly what Bickle’s demons are, but we can guess from his narrative that he is tired of the filth of the world (the city itself, degenerate people, America) and feels compelled to “do something.” He is lonely, can’t sleep, has debilitating headaches, all of which lead to his instability. Every little thing that happens to him in the film leads up to his moment of violence. De Niro was nominated for Best Actor for this role, but he did not win. The Oscar that year went to Peter Finch in Network, who also wanted to clean up the world and it ultimately led to his downfall.

Finally, Taxi Driver is a tale of America in the mid-70s in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world in which everything seemed to be coming apart. New York itself was in reality experiencing a time of disillusionment and crime was rampant. But ultimately the film takes a surprise turn that to avoid spoilers I’ll just say is either comical or sad depending on your point of view. It’s really a remarkable foreshadowing of reaction to Bernard Goetz a few years later in New York and leaves the viewer questioning the meaning of heroism.

One thing that is unfortunate about Taxi Driver is that it will always be associated with the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley who claims he was obsessed with the film and Jodie Foster and that he shot Reagan to get Foster’s attention. Foster plays a young prostitute in the film, and frankly her work is overrated in the film. She was nominated for an Academy Award but she was barely on the screen. Nevertheless, when people think of Taxi Driver today they wrongly think it’s a film about a guy who tries to assassinate a politician to get the attention of a woman and that’s not factual. If anything the spurning of Bickle’s attention by campaign worker Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd) was another piece of the puzzle that led to his breakdown but Bickle did not try to kill Senator Palantine to get her attention, or Jodie Foster’s attention. In fact, he didn’t even shoot the Senator so that argument doesn’t hold water. Still, oftentimes the myth becomes the fact and that’s the case with Taxi Driver, misguided as this assumption is.

By the way, De Niro made The GodfatherTaxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Deer Hunter over the course of six incredible years. Two Oscar wins (Godfather and Raging Bull) and two best actor nominations. Damn!

Next Up: I’m skipping #51 (West Side Story) because I’ve seen it and I don’t want to suffer through it again! So on to #50, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

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