Driven To The Edge
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1976’s seminal Taxi Driver, reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
Two years after the somewhat low-key comedy melodrama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese turned out a film whose themes and tropes had no connection whatsoever with that previous offering. Taxi Driver defined so many things, all at once, and seemed to do it with casual ease – the 70s, New York City at its near-bankrupt nadir, and indeed cinema itself. It combined noir with hyperrealism, surrealism and nouvelle vague naturalism, providing the viewer with a psychological ghost tour of a city that may have had colour and nightlife but was endemic with hostility and danger. Indeed, from the moment one hears Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score, all menace, sleaze and resignation, one can genuinely feel 1970s New York’s indifferent, post-urban decay. And yet it is still alluring, perhaps because it was so alien – Scorsese’s dreamlike tapestry of city lights, neon and darkness configuring a city descending into hell while having the strongest identity of any metropolis on the planet.
So much has been written about Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)’s elliptical arc from isolated nobody to hero and back again – indeed, this movie has been one of the most discussed in film history, primarily because it was the first to focus on such themes of nihilism and didn’t attempt to varnish or editorialise anything. Taxi driver Bickle is an embarrassing, inarticulate, no mark loner, desperate for significance, lashing out at a city that disgusts him, yet he of course represents it. In his failed quest to woo Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), an organizer for a presidential candidate’s campaign, we learn how little he understands anything outside his bubble. It is this disconnection that catalyses his retreat into psychosis, his attempted murder of the candidate (Leonard Harris) and his holy quest to save twelve year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from Harvey Keitel’s pimp and his cronies, which of course ends in as graphic and brutal a finale as there had been up to that point in movies.
Betsy and her colleague Tom (Albert Brooks) are the daytime counterpoint to the theatre of creeping, tidal destitution in Travis’s New York – their wholesomeness is completely incongruous with the protagonist’s inky, strung out world, peopled with endless night time creatures, who, like Travis, are reductive extras, all on the make. The film never waivers from his drab musings as he glides constantly through the washed out streets – there are no grandiose statements, and everything begins and ends with Travis. He is neither hero nor anti-hero, as he lacks the insight or intelligence beyond his immediate needs or impulses.
Yet Scorsese’s landmark work captured the imagination of so many critics and aficionados precisely because of this uncompromising take on a character that hitherto would’ve been a mere walk-on in any other movie. It would also be fair to say that despite the themes of revenge and entropy, that it is not prurient or exploitative – nothing is romanticized, and there is no catharsis in Travis’s zombie death-spree at the end. Scorsese was certainly brave to consider such a project, but ultimately someone had to make a film about the toxicity of urban decline, and its effect on damaged, forgotten souls such as Travis. Indeed, the true star of the film is of course New York City itself, a teeming, garish and failed never-never land that nevertheless remains the most familiar to cinemagoers.
Overall Scorsese has always been a moviemaker who took chances and dared to fail, which meant the odd turkey in his canon but also high points such as this one, a key movie in his filmography and an equal to his other celebrated works such as Goodfellas and Raging Bull. It helped that for a film with such a small budget it had everyone involved performing at their highest level, from Michael Chapman’s cinematography, to Paul Schrader’s bleakly verite script, to Herrmann’s aforementioned soundtrack. The entire cast were superb, from Peter Boyle’s frazzled guru Wizard, to Harvey Keitel’s unapologetically feral sleazebucket, to Jodie Foster’s turn as Iris – her casting a bold and highly contentious move, yet in terms of the narrative absolutely essential. There have been more than a few films that have borrowed liberally, or been tributes to, this one (one of them recently made a billion at the box office, natch) but none have inhabited Travis’s space quite so well without sacrificing realism, or credibility. A flawed masterpiece then, but it occupies a unique and hallowed place in the art form.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well