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From the DVD Shelf: Taxi Driver (1976)

Can you believe I’d never seen Taxi Driver?

I’m fairly well-seen when it comes to famous films, and I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese.  But somehow I’d never seen Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Well, last month I finally saw them both.  I’ll be back next week with my thoughts on Raging Bull, but for now let’s dive into Taxi Driver.

Holy cow, what a great movie!!

The film feels just as potent and dangerous as it must have felt back in 1976.  I was on edge right from the very beginning.  From the first instant we meet lonely, insomniac Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), it’s clear this young man is a time bomb just ticking down the moments until it’s going to explode.  Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro’s partnership has never been more powerful than it was in this film, their focus laser-sharp on the roiling emotions of this lost young man.

Robert De Niro is simply astounding as Travis, jaw-dropingly fierce as the self-descibed “God’s lonely man.”  He seems almost gentle when we first meet him, quietly applying for a job driving a taxi.  When we see him start to somewhat haplessly woo the young campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), though, it’s more uncomfortable than comic, since it’s clear this isn’t going to end well.  We see a hint of charisma, and an intriguing intensity, when he marches into Palantine’s campaign office to ask Betsy out on a date, and watching that intensity turn brittle and then angry at the world around him is the tragedy of Taxi Driver.

The film is not a war movie, but I found it impossible to watch Taxi Driver without feeling constantly that the film was deeply rooted in the social and psychological ramifications of the Vietnam War.  Travis is a vet, and although his experiences in ‘Nam are never explicitly discussed in the film, to me that piece of backstory flavored everything I was watching unfold.  This character who is a stranger in his own skin, who had difficulty fitting in to society’s expectations, feels similar to the struggle that countless Vietnam veterans must have gone through following their return home.  That Travis also finds himself drawn towards violence feels all the more tragically unsurprising because of his Vietnam experiences.

As was often the case with Mr. De Niro’s early performances, the physicality that he brought to the part was a critical combination with his riveting intensity.  Much has been written, of course, of Mr. De Niro’s dramatic weight gain to depict the late-in-life Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, but in Taxi Driver Mr. De Niro brings exactly the opposite physical presence.  There’s a scene late in the film, after Travis has already begun hatching his murder plot, in which we see the character, shirtless, holding his wrist over the burning flame of his stove.  It’s a shocking moment, and Mr. De Niro’s tightly-muscled, sinewy upper-body adds to the danger of the moment.  This is a python, coiled to strike.  The question is just where, and when.

Every frame of Taxi Driver is textured with the sights and sounds, the smells and feels of New York City of the ’70s.  This is New York at its grittiest and grimiest, presented as a city of filth and vermin, a city without hope.  This is Travis’ perspective, of course, but part of the genius of Mr. Scorsese’s direction is the way the film itself steps inside Travis’ head in its presentation of New York City.  Driving around with Travis, at night, through the city’s seediest neighborhoods, the film allows us to understand the roots of Travis’ hopelessness.  For me, one of the most striking moments in the film is the scene in which Mr. Scorsese himself plays a man who makes Travis drive him to the building where, he claims, his wife is sleeping with another man.  Scorsese’s character then dispassionately tells Travis that he plans to kill his wife.  It’s a hell of a moment, but it’s just one tiny great scene in a film filled with amazing scenes, and great performances by an array of actors.

Has Cybill Shepherd ever been more lovely, or more beguilingly innocent, than she is here as the good-natured Betsy?  The film attains an immediate tension when she first crosses paths with Travis, and you want to scream at the screen for her to have nothing to do with that young man!  I was pleasantly surprised to see Albert Brooks as Tom, Betsy’s co-worker in the Palantine campaign office.  There’s a great moment at the start of the film when we see Mr. Brooks’ character on the phone, arguing about a mistake on a campaign button, that is a classic piece of Albert Brooks business.

Just from pop culture osmosis I was extremely familiar with Jodie Foster’s role in the film.  It was fun to finally see her scenes in context.  I can understand why Ms. Foster made such a splash in the role.  At age 13, she’s staggeringly impressive in her portrayal of the young prostitute Iris.  Iris is an enigmatic figure, at once someone towards whom both Travis and the audience at times feels great pity, and at other times disdain.  The sexuality of the character is presented frankly, which is at times quite shocking even though, of course, Ms. Foster remains fully clothed at all times.  (Though I was relieved to learn, in the blu-ray’s special features, that Ms. Foster’s older sister was a stand-in for her for certain scenes, such as the moment when she moves to unbuckle Travis’ pants.)  Iris is a far more peripheral character than I had thought, based on all I’ve heard and read about Ms. Foster’s performance.  We don’t really meet her until rather late in the film.  But she’s a critically important character, and Ms. Foster absolutely nails all of her scenes.  (I’m thinking in particular of the breakfast she shares with Travis at a dingy diner.  Iris sports funky sunglasses and eats toast slathered with jam and sugar.  Everything about her performance — her look, her attitude, her dialogue — is a crashing collision of the childlike and the world-weary adult aspects of her character.  It’s quite marvelous to behold.)

Harvey Keitel is great fun to watch in his few scenes as Iris’ pimp.  He sports such an iconic look when we first meet him, with his coke fingernail, his long black hair, and his dirty wife-beater.  His interaction with the awkward Travis, when Travis comes to ask him about Iris, is one of my favorite moments in the film.  I was also extremely taken by the great Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein)‘s performance as Wizard.  Travis clearly looks up to this man, who has been driving the city streets for a long time.  Wizard only has a few minutes of screen-time, but I think he’s the key to the film’s most central scene.  About mid-way through the movie, after Travis has been dumped by Betsy, he’s clearly on the verge of drowning beneath the violent thoughts that are beginning to take shape in his mind.  We don’t yet know exactly what he’s planning, nor really does he, but it’s clear that Travis is standing right on the edge of something really terrible.  In this scene, Travis follows Wizard out of the diner (the taxi-drivers’ hang-out spot) onto the sidewalk.  He’s looking for some sort of guidance from Wizard, but doesn’t have any idea how to express what he’s thinking and feeling.  Wizard, meanwhile, clearly realizes that Travis needs help of some kind, but doesn’t know how to provide that for him, or what to say.  The result is a heartbreaking failure to communicate, and when the two men part we know that Travis has missed this one last chance to step back from the abyss.

Can we talk now about the film’s ending?

SPOILERS AHEAD, folks!

I was certain the movie was over following the violent confrontation in Iris’ building, and when the camera slowly panned out of the room and onto the city street outside, I expected the fade to black to be followed by the end credits.  So I was shocked when we faded back in, and I was doubly shocked by the revelation that the media had dramatically misinterpreted the events of that fateful night, and were painting Travis as a hero.  In just a few minutes, as we pan across the wall filled with news clippings about Travis, the whole story of the film is turned upside down.  It’s a remarkable turn, and it gives this already deep, philosophically rich film even more layers for one to consider.

But I was even more fascinated by the last scene, in which the recovered Travis picks up Betsy and drives her across town.  It’s a weird scene, in which Betsy seems to have gotten over her repulsion with Travis, and in which he gallantly shrugs off being labelled as a hero and doesn’t charge her anything for the ride.  Am I alone in feeling that this scene never actually happened — that this interaction with Betsy was all in Travis’ head??  Right after he drops her off, there’s a bizarre jump-cut when Travis looks in his rear-view mirror.  Suddenly it seems to me like he’s in a different neighborhood, and we can’t see Betsy in his mirror.  I interpreted that as meaning that Travis had imagined this interaction, in which the woman he’d loved now seemed to like him again, and he behaved as the perfect gentleman… and that the jump-cut was his snapping back into reality.  To me, this adds one even more frightening aspect to the film’s ending — that not only is Travis back out on the streets, but that he’s now come even more unmoored from reality.  I don’t know if this is what the filmmakers intended, but that’s my read on the ending.  I love how complex this film is, that it allows for different interpretations and discussions.

I am so pleased to have finally addressed this gaping hole in my film-viewing.  Taxi Driver is a phenomenal film, an epic achievement from a director and an actor working in perfect sync, bringing Paul Schrader’s razor-sharp script to life.  This film is alive, it’s angry and it’s dangerous, and they just don’t make films quite like this anymore.

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