With Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle with Marin Scorsese and Harvey Keitel
“I think someone should just take this city and just… just flush it down the fuckin’ toilet.”
-Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro)
It took me a long time to really be able to get a handle on “Taxi Driver”. I saw it when I was a teenager and I felt that I didn’t really understand the movie. It wasn’t until my early twenties when I really discovered the beauty and perfection that the film holds.
I can only watch this film every so often – about twice a year. The film is haunting and affects me deeply. It engages in psychological warfare with me and it’s hard to shake the film when I see it. We just get thrown into this world of filth and disgust and we are to fend for ourselves. And who is our hero? Travis Bickle. It’s difficult to watch because we can identify with Bickle, we can understand him and we can almost trust him.
The opening of the film is fucking magnificent. The protruding score by Bernard Herman beats in our eardrums and soaks into the marrow of our bones then a quick cut to DeNiro’s eyes with a red gel over the light. He’s looking around, he’s almost frightened at what he’s seeing, quick cut back to the smog in the streets and the beating of drums to a taxi cab emerging from the smog.
There have been many scenes that have stuck with me over time, many scenes that can creep up on me when I’m not expecting them. The character of Betsy, the self righteous snooty bitch who is Bickle’s love interest in the movie has always stuck with me. She’s very contrived and knows how to play the game.
After Bickle’s botched date with Betsy where he takes her to a porn theater and she abruptly gets up and leaves almost makes me feel bad for Bickle. But you have to ask yourself, is Bickle really that naïve? Doesn’t he know what he’s doing? Is it just a game to Bickle too?
Scorsese’s camera work in the film is what makes this film so great. The way Scorsese slides the camera with his perfect tracking shots allow us to almost escape from certain situations. The scene that always has stuck with me is the long shot when Travis calls Betsy from a payphone. He’s in a back room that has a long hallway from the entrance of the building. This is one of Travis’ many attempts to try and contact Betsy after the porn theater disaster.
Travis finally gets a hold of her and asks her about the flowers he sent her. He asks her out for coffee and she tells Travis she’s sick. Travis just won’t let go, he continually tries to court her. It’s extremely embarrassing to watch. It almost makes you want to look away because it’s just too hard to watch, the way Travis fidgets as he talks to Betsy about how she probably has a 24 hour virus. In the midst of Travis’ pandering, the camera slowly rolls away from Travis and we are now looking down the long hallway to the entrance of the building. Travis conversation continues for a short while after this, but at least we don’t have to watch it anymore.
That’s how you direct a fucking movie.
The way the film glides and flows are perfect. The voiceover narration that DeNiro deliverers is so Shakespearian in the way he has this constantly running inner monologue with himself that we have the rare opportunity to hear. The man’s demons are taking control of him, they are running over his mind, body and soul – he can’t be saved. He knows he can’t be saved. Bickle must become a martyr; plain and simple.
The scenes next scene that I am in love with is Scorsese’s cameo as Travis’ passenger. I wrote about it yesterday in my Art of the Crossover: Directors in front of the Camera post. What is so vital to the film is that Scorsese’s role is the only person, only thing that frightens Travis throughout the entire film. He’s the only person that has Travis on the edge of his seat, carefully watching him, carefully observing him.
What is so great about the scene is that it’s so very brief, we don’t know if the man goes in and kills his wife and her black boyfriend. We don’t know if Bickle reports it to the police (probably not). It’s a wonderful and marvelous scene that just adds to the sheer emotional power the film holds over us.
The one character that is a moral compass in the film is that of Wizard (brilliantly played by Peter Boyle). He’s the one person who Travis looks up too; he’s the veteran that all the cabbies come to for advice and for guidance. His character is very interesting, he is much like Travis, but he is able to control himself, control his demons.
For me, Harvey Keitel as Sport displays the sheer power that he holds as an actor. The character was transformed by Keitel (Sport was black and only had three lines of dialogue in the script) and he added his own brand, his own label to the character. Keitel is a true maverick when it comes to film, he doesn’t often appear in too many big budget Hollywood films – he’s found his calling in small independent films where he can shine.
Jodie Foster is tough as nails and shows from such a young age the capability of being a mature and powerful actress. She holds her own against both DeNiro and Keitel – not an easy feat for anyone let alone a twelve year old. That is nothing less than raw talent.
The films epic climax is always sighted and over romanticized by film school douche bags (yes – I went to film school). The climactic bloody ending isn’t what the film is supposed to be memorable for, it’s supposed to show us what happens when a man is alone, and can’t take it anymore. It’s not supposed to show DeNiro as a hero – he’s not. He’s filth just like the rest of the film; yet we can identify with him, we can relate with him. It’s pretty scary stuff.
What makes the ending so powerful is the last scene. What I don’t think many people really realize is when Travis is driving away from Betsy and Bernard Herman’s magnificent score starts to play and we’re watching DeNiro’s eyes scan the streets once again, looking for his next move. He sees something in the rearview mirror! He quickly brings his right hand up to adjust the mirror and he sees something and stares at it with his cold gaze.
The biggest rumor to emerge from the Berlin Film Festival was that Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier were set to do a remake of “Taxi Driver”. I’m not a fan of remakes, but I will stand in line all day to see that.