April 23, 2014

Taxi Driver (1976)

My old college professor/mentor told me that Shakespeare's King Lear was a play that you should read every decade. As you grow older you begin to appreciate different facets of that play and each decade provides new answers and new understandings. My mentor was in his seventies at the time and he said, up to then, he was still discovering new things about it. He said, until he died, he would continue to read it and learn something new.

I have learned to take this approach to Martin Scorsese. I saw some of Scorsese's classics at a younger age and never appreciated them. I used to be a Scorsese 'hater' to use the verbiage of today's kids (what with their fax machines and hoola hoops and ... yeah yeah*) and would proudly tell people how overrated he was.

But as I've grown older and my tastes have become more refined, I really appreciate how much of a force Scorsese is. And as I grow older, I hope to keep finding new things about Scorsese's films because as time goes by, I find myself loving the guy more and more.

So it was without trepidation, with this new found respect for Scorsese, that I decided to view for the first time (*gasp*) his 1976 opus to the erosion of the human mind, Taxi Driver. Yes, I had never seen the film before and it was all because of some kind of weird Scorsese bias I mentioned. And, ironically, despite avoiding it because of a former dislike of the legendary director, I think Taxi Driver might be my favorite film of his.

On the technical side, I have to say it is my favorite because it is raw-Scorsese. My biggest problem, new found love for the director or not, has been his editing. I've always felt his films were overlong and sometimes wore out their welcome. Taken in pieces, yes, I love all of Goodfellas, for instance, but the ending moments in the '80s, with a coked out Ray Liotta, is coming at a time when I am exhausted from nearly three hours of violent viscera and ceaseless depression.

But Taxi Driver is actually trim and short and it lacks any of what I determined to be overindulgence in Scorsese's later films. While the acting of Robert De Niro and the tight/sparse script by Paul Schrader deserve credit as well, to me Scorsese's 113 minute take on a New York we don't quite see anymore, not to mention the ambiguous translation of a man's nervous breakdown, feels more fleshed out and epic than, say, Scorsese's 180 minute romp The Wolf of Wall Street.

Of course, Scorsese couldn't have accomplished what he had accomplished without a true master builder of acting in Robert De Niro. After 1995's Heat, my all-time favorite movie, nothing has really been the same for the man. And it is ashamed because Scorsese's original muse gives one of the greatest performances of his career in Taxi Driver, showing us in less than two hours, a feeble/shy/damaged young war veteran named Travis Bickle, turn into a homicidal maniac with delusions of grandeur and a desire to bend the world (or at least his small chunk of it) to see his confused and muddled vision.

De Niro has the unique ability, like all good actors, of being able to play both harmless characters and characters of menace. Though he has caricatured his menace in goofy movies like Meet the Parents and Analyze This, there was a time when De Niro could portray someone of true power who emanated true fear. And in films like Heat or Goodfellas, it was with an unpredictable facial palate; his quiet nature betrayed his true nature.

But in Taxi Driver, De Niro mixes vulnerability into his menace. Travis Bickle is likable, in some ways, and pitiable, in other ways, despite an internal monologue that shows a disturbed individual who, after a certain point, has only the cruelest of intentions. Only a great actor can make you still feel something for a character who has so little to offer in the way of sympathy.

But playing supporting actor to Bickle is the world of New York itself. Most people film the beautiful parts of New York. Scorsese decides to show a rougher side ... a filthy side ... of New York that makes you uncomfortable. Though Bickle tells presidential candidate Charles Palantine that he wants the filthy streets cleaned, in terms of humanity, Scorsese spares no expense at showing the literal filth of New York's less filmable regions.

It is, in today's standards, a forgotten world. Many of the locations where the film was shot are no longer there and the city did do a massive clean up campaign that made the more war-zone areas of the city more palatable. Sure, there are areas of poverty and garbage today but Scorsese captures a nearly apocalyptic New York, full of hopheads, pimps and insomniacs.

It is so easy to talk about Scorsese's setting and De Niro's masterclass in acting that it is easy to forget that Taxi Driver also features a 12 year old Jodi Foster showing skill beyond her years as child prostitute Iris, Harvey Keitel as a greasy pimp named Sport, who oozes disgust from his veins, Albert Brooks as an Albert Brooks type (which is, of course, genius), a luminous Cybil Shepard, a brilliantly used Peter Boyle as Taxi wise man The Wizard, a cracking script by Paul Schrader and a unique and emotionally complex musical score by Bernard Hermann, amongst many other things.

People have been telling you (and me) for decades that this is a classic film. I doubt you need me to tell you to make it official. But, yes, Taxi Driver is, indeed, a classic. And as time goes on, I look forward to seeing it again and again, older and wiser, like the Wizard.

*I totally ripped that joke off of about seventy episodes of MST3K.


  1. I loved Taxi Driver. I don't necessarily rank Scorsese as one of my all-time favorites but he has done a number of movies I liked and Taxi Driver is one that I've found stands out really well.

  2. I really like Scorsese, but this is one film I've still managed to miss. I'm going to have to change that.

    And if you're gonna rip off a joke, you could do worse than MST3K. I use that same line all the time. :)


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