Thursday 28 January 2010

Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Robert De Niro
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It took me a long while to get Martin Scorsese, probably longer than any other director and I'm still not quite there. I think it took me four tries to even get through Mean Streets, the film that broke him as a major name, as well as two of the future stars here, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. It took another couple of viewings to really understand what Scorsese was doing, and even then I needed to read up to find out about the metaphors he was using. It seemed unfocused and sloppy and pointless. I found that about a lot of his films, though bizarrely I seemed to really enjoy the ones that nobody else raved about, things like After Hours. I've persevered though and I'm starting to get just why he's regarded as one of the most powerful filmmakers working in the industry today. I'm still no fanboy but the more I see, and perhaps more importantly, the more I re-see, the better it all gets.

Taxi Driver opens with music as smoky as the exhaust from the cars that are everywhere in this film. It's soft saxophone music, courtesy of Bernard Herrmann's excellent last score, and it lulls us into a false sense of calm, very unlike anything he did for Alfred Hitchcock. There's a lot of calm here, as the film unfolds quietly and subtly for quite some time, something that feels more than a little surprising given that we know full well that it isn't going to end up that way. This is the movie where Robert De Niro goes full on batshit crazy, right? 'You talking to me? You talking to me? Well I'm the only one here.' We watch his eyes as the credits roll and as he applies for a job as a taxi driver and we wonder how he's going to get to where he's going.

He's Travis Bickle, a former marine with an honourable discharge, only 26 years old. He can't sleep nights, and it looks like it, given that he has a perpetual five o'clock shadow. He has a clean driving record and he'll work any time, anywhere. He wants long hours because he has nothing else to do, nothing at all and he has eight hours a day more than the rest of us to fill because he can't sleep. So he works the night shift, six till six, six days a week, sometimes more. It pays pretty well, especially given that he doesn't seem to ever spend anything except on pie and porn movies. When he's home he lies in bed or writes in his diary. It's this diary that provides the most overt direction, narrated in a poetry of sorts, but not delivered as such. Then again it's all coming from a taxi driver with mere education here and there.

Writer Mark Schrader plays along with the sax and keeps it calm, but it grows slowly but surely. Bickle is a driven man, and whatever is driving him builds as we watch. He needs a place to go, a destiny to fulfil, but he doesn't seem to have a clue what that will be. He just drives around all night until it manifests itself, all the while gradually tightening up like a coiled spring. He has headaches, bad headaches, perhaps associated with the fact tht he sees all the bad things in the city, the whores and the pimps and the muggers and a whole bunch of other subsets of city lowlife that get referred to by names I can't list in this review without having to set an adult rating on the blog. The profanity here is extreme but it's reserved for the right moments and so has all the more impact for not being used throughout.
He thinks he finds his destiny in the angel in white that he sees one day walking into the presidential campaign HQ for Senator Charles Palantine. She's Betsy and she's played by Cybill Shepherd, so she's good looking in a wholesome sort of way, very believable as a city dweller who would stand out among the usual sort of people Bickle meets in his cab. After all, he has to clean the semen off the back seat every night and sometimes the blood too. He tries to chat her up but he doesn't have much luck. He persuades her to go out to eat with him but while he throws out some lines about how great her eyes are, he mostly talks about how sucky her co-worker is, the one he thinks is competition. When he takes her out to a movie, he picks a porno called The Swedish Marriage Manual and that's the end of that.

Then he thinks he finds it in a twelve and a half year old prostitute who gets into his cab, apparently wanting out of her life, only to be hauled right back out by her pimp who throws Bickle twenty bucks to leave. He keeps looking at that twenty dollar bill and it rankles. He's already thinking, because his previous fare was Emperor Palpatine, I mean Senator Palantine, who seems to be interested in what the people have to say. He is standing for President, after all. Maybe he has to be interested. Palantine asks him what concerns him most and he explains that the city needs to be cleaned up because it's like an open sewer. So he can't fail to think about young Iris and that twenty dollar bill.

Perhaps what really does it is the Martin Scorsese cameo. He's another fare, a jealous husband who asks him to pull over to the curb and leave the meter running. He has a stream of consciousness monologue to run through, full of contradictions and obscenities, while he watches his wife's silhouette through some nigger's apartment window. It's all to validate the spiel he runs through about how he's going to kill her. It's an amazing monologue, even Bickle unable to turn it into dialogue. Maybe this is when he starts to think about real violence, and once he's there it escalates quickly and surely and everything begins to click into place.

We're almost ready for 'You talking to me?' and we have plenty of guns ready to back it up. We're also almost ready for the other two major stars of the film, not that they were that in 1976. The twelve and a half year old prostitute is twelve and a half year old Jodie Foster, already four years into her career, in a huge year for her that saw not just this but Bugsy Malone, Freaky Friday and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane too. She is so much older than her years when she's coming onto De Niro, unzipping his fly and asking him if he wants to make it, yet she's every bit her age when she meets him for breakfast the next afternoon.

There have always been child actors in Hollywood and some were a lot younger than Foster when they started out. Only recently I saw It's a Gift, featuring Baby LeRoy becoming the youngest actor ever to earn a co-starring credit in a Hollywood movie, at age two. Compared to him Jodie Foster was an old woman when she started, at ten years old no less than five times his age. Yet she's always seemed the epitome of what a child actor should be, because she was never there just to be the token kid. She was an actress from moment one, every bit as capable as the more experienced adults she appeared opposite, apparently completely aware of what she was doing and what it meant. In many of these films she was the lead or the title character, including her first picture, Napoleon and Samantha in 1972, when she was the latter.

Her pimp is Harvey Keitel, playing a character best known as Sport. Amazingly he was less experienced on screen than Foster was, even though he was almost three times her age. He'd only made five films before this one, one of which was merely an uncredited role as a soldier. He presumably knew Jodie Foster as he'd beaten up her screen mother two years earlier in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. That was a Martin Scorsese film too, as were most of the films he'd made, really debuting in Scorsese's feature debut, I Call First aka Who's That Knocking at My Door, and then graduating from the Mean Streets that firmly established them both. After this one he was off and running and he hasn't looked back since. He has a penchant for unlikeable roles, but this one is up there with anything he's played, though even this hardly compares to Bad Lieutenant.
Really though it's hard to concentrate on anyone in this film except the two real lead characters: Travis Bickle and New York City. Robert De Niro was Oscar nominated, but he lost out to Peter Finch for Network, whose character's most memorable line, 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more!' could easily have been given to Bickle. We never know precisely what triggers him to act but it may not be anything in particular. It could just be the endless nights of insomniac driving through the worst parts of the Big Apple, witnessing every depravity known to man and trying to find a way to deal with it. He comes very close to the edge indeed and nearly falls off it. De Niro is almost never off screen and he's utterly magnetic, almost but not quite connecting with reality at any point in time. Whether he's making a Secret Service agent very nervous, failing to understand anything his date is talking about or firing empty guns at the TV and empty fingers at the porn movies, you just can't stop watching him.

The violence, when it comes, is a real shocker. It's the antithesis of every Hollywood gun battle you've ever seen, not even remotely slick and with apparently no planning whatsoever. There's no beauty to be found and no glorification either. It isn't pretty, it's just raw, visceral, inept violence, reminding of nothing less than a crime scene photo, not the safe staged sort of stuff you see on CSI but an unholy mess of out of control blood and gore and death. The understated follow up that speaks to his heroic stature is thoughtful. Sure, Bickle takes down some truly sick individuals, but the way in which he does so is nowhere near how we expect a hero to act, especially when we see what he was about to get up to beforehand. If not for circumstance it and he would have been something utterly different. The two parts to this, the noise and devastation followed by the quiet broken narration, combine to provide some of the best shocking and powerful scenes cinema has given us.

It's hard to say what Scorsese was trying to tell us here. Was this merely a character study? Is it really just speaking to loneliness, and Bickle's status as a 'walking contradiction', tormented by the loneliness but embracing it nonetheless. Was Taxi Driver speaking to the inevitability of a violent response when someone is effectively submerged in depravity without any opportunity to escape it, not even though sleep? Perhaps the most telling message is that sometimes there's a fine line between heroes and villains, a very fine line indeed.

I have a feeling that I'm vague about the meaning simply because there isn't one, at least not one in particular. Maybe with Taxi Driver Schrader and Scorsese merely asked questions and we come up with own our answers, just as Bickle answered his questions about the human condition and the legacy of Vietnam by doing what he did. If this is the case it makes the story subtle and intriguing, certainly not a bad thing. I think I'm getting it.


Anonymous said...

I'm a huge fan of Scorsese's work...lately I've been watching over and over again The Age of Innocence which is one of my favorites by him. There are very few of his films that I don't like. High on my list of ones that I adore would be Raging Bull, King of Comedy, After Hours, Good Fellas, Taxi Driver and The Departed. Would love for you to see Age of Innocence and hear your thoughts on it...let me know when you see it.


Hal C. F. Astell said...

Thanks, Tracy.

I haven't seen The Age of Innocence but I have seen everything else you mentioned (except King of Comedy). Raging Bull and Goodfellas are Top 250 movies so I'll post those reviews later in the year. The Departed surprised me at how good it was but I still prefer the original, which stunned me.

I watched the early shorts in 2006 so I only have vague reviews up on my old site. Here are reviews for Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and The Departed.