The other night I went to a screening of the new restoration of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and besides from the enhancement of the sleazy New York lights and the blood nothing much changed my view of the film. Most auteurs have one opus in their career, of course they might have some fans that may consider them to have more, but on a universal level the majority of directors hold on masterpiece to their name. For Scorsese it is disputed by mass audiences to which film should hold that title, and generally it comes down to the big three divided up into three different decades: Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980) and Taxi Driver (1976).
This debate will continue for sure, but in my opinion all three can hold the title. However, I am here to discuss his ultraviolent Taxi Driver, which remains one of the most powerful and daring films in cinema, and which conveys one of the greatest character studies in cinema: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Why do we like Bickle? He is boring, pathetic, obsessive, racist, violent and lonely. However, you could say he is charming, determined, shy, strong, moral and vulnerable. He doesn't know any better, like when he takes Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) to the porno theatre and she leaves without hearing him explain. It is not that he is a filthy pervert, but he is lonely and doesn't know how real couples interact. He is also willing to bring her wherever she wants if she will let him, but her patience is up with Travis.
The reason why we are attracted towards Travis is because we see ourselves in him, the good and the bad so we empathize. When Travis says he wants to clean up the city and get rid of all the scum, he is genuine and it can be recognised as a noble act, but he just goes about it on the most extreme format. I have lived in New York for nearly six months in post-Giuliani days and can correspond to Bickle's wishes at some points, but I'm sane...for now. The theme of loneliness that was expressed by Paul Schrader in the script was understood by most audiences at the time, which was considered surprising and that is why this film is so refreshing and revolutionary in cinematic terms. The collapse of the Hollywood studio system in the mid-sixties forced a new wave of filmmakers to adapt to the idea of the personal movie, the Coppolas, Milius', Hoppers, De Palmas and Polanskis, but none of them ever came close to Taxi Driver. These were Schrader's thoughts and feelings up close and personal and it touched on a topic that people before and after are afraid to express.
What was essential for Taxi Driver turning out the way that it did was the perfection of this collaboration. Scorsese and De Niro's collaboration throughout film was one of the most important of late 20th Century art. It is very, very rare to find two people, who share the same thoughts about such dark material, and when you add in Schrader for Taxi Driver then you really have got some sick shit. The element of loneliness is perfected technically in this film by Scorsese. There's the great 360 degree shot that revolves from Travis around the taxi lot back to him, where he stands alone, also the most powerful depiction of loneliness and desperation occurs when Travis is on the phone to Besty after the porno incident. The camera fixes in on Travis on the phone attempting to get Betsy back, Scorsese decides that this is to agonizing for anyone to watch so he lets the camera pan out to the empty hallway so we can't see Bickle embarrass himself anymore. However, my favourite scene in the entire movie is when Travis is in the cab diner with all the other cabbies, who are all in discussion. Travis drops an soluble tablet into his water and commences to watch it dissolve. The camera zooms in for a close shot of Bickle's face concentrating on the glass, then proceeds to zoom in further and further into the glass. The sound of the tablet dissolving rises and the volume of the cabbies chatter is turned down to mutter. Its just Travis and the glass and I believe this is an excellent portrayal of Travis' isolation and emotional disconnection from the world.
The racism is quite evident too, it is clear that Bickle does hold racial tension towards many black people throughout the movie, especially those who he thinks might be pimps. The content of racial tension is why they chose Harvey Keitel to play Matthew, which was a wise choice, not because of his skin colour, but simply because Keitel is magnificent as a pimp, and it is evident that he put alot of care and thought into it. The story never really gives a conclusion on Bickle's thought on race, because even though he does have racial tendencies towards all the black characters we see, it is clear that all these black characters are pimps or dealers etc... He loans fellow black cabbie Charlie T five bucks anyway, but I'm pretty sure he he squints at him too.
Getting away from all this dark territory, we must remember that this film is also very funny. The casting of Albert Brooks is an obvious example, who pointed out in a interview that he was trying to be unfunny so it would be more realistic. Travis is also extremely funny, especially when he takes Betsy out for coffee and pie. De Niro's mannerisms are hilarious in this scene and even the odd narration is great:
" I had a black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted cheese. I think that was a good selection. Bestsy had coffee and a fruit salad...she could've had anything she wanted."
His insanity is hilarious and stays funny for the whole scene with great improvisation. Any scene with Wizard (Peter Boyle) is comical as he spews his cabbie wisdom with all who is listening and even tries to help out Travis with some bad advice, which Travis isn't to shy or polite to let him know: "I don't know, that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
Scorsese's Taxi Driver remains a masterpiece and is to date his most daring film, even the rumors about his battles with the censorship board are classic tales that match the greatness of this movie. In my opinion it stands as the greatest New York movie ever, at least in its true depiction of New York's evil core. Scorsese took Schrader's story and drenched it in red neon lights, blood and a yellow coating of paint making it visceral and unforgettable for lonely spectators everywhere.