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Taxi Driver (1976,USA)


Director: Martin Scorsese          Starring: Robert DeNiro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel

“What’s your favourite film?” is a question that I have asked literally hundreds of times during my career in entertainment retail, mostly during job interviews. I actually loathe the question. To be expected to isolate out of all of the films you have ever seen a single piece of work that outshines all others and you could not live with out is, I feel, somewhat unfair but I always like to see how people handle the question in an interview situation. Let’s be honest, if you were going for an interview at a shop that sells movies you would surely half expect just that sort of question to be asked and have an answer prepared in advance wouldn’t you? As a result of many years of asking the question I have my answer prepared. Taxi Driver is my favourite film. I can state it as a fact, quite confidently.

I first saw Taxi Driver at a Sunday night midnight showing at La Scala Cinema in Inverness (don’t bother looking for it, it’s not there anymore). There were, including me, about three people in the cinema and it was a decrepit, scratchy print that had probably being doing the rounds since its original release in 1976. I was captivated. Ever since that day it has remained a firm favourite of mine, a film I revisit regularly and if I catch even a snippet of it on the tv, feel compelled to watch it until the end. The recent release of a 35th anniversary special edition blu ray was the perfect excuse, as if one were needed, to give it another (long overdue) viewing.

Travis Bickle (DeNiro) is a Vietnam veteran who takes a night job driving a New York taxi in order to combat his incessant insomnia. A clearly troubled young man, Travis becomes increasingly sickened by the corruption and depravity that surround him in the city. When he meets the angelic Betsy (Shepherd) things seem to be looking up but his abnormal behaviour pushes her away, a fact that tips Travis over the edge. His last chance at salvation lies with the twelve year old Iris (Foster), a child prostitute whom he takes it upon himself to save from her fate on the streets.

When Paul Schrader wrote the script for Taxi Driver (a task he completed in five days, leaving a loaded gun on his desk for the duration as motivation/inspiration) he was not in a particularly happy place. It shows. It is a film full of sickness and mental instability. Told in the main via Travis’ journal entries we see the city of New York – the seventies New York full of prostitutes, pimps, pushers and perverts rather than the tourist friendly Manhattan of today – through his disturbed eyes. “Someday” Travis tells us during a particularly vehement tirade, “a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” It is clear from the outset that Travis is not a well man and is a ticking time bomb of frustration and rage.

Much of this clarity is down to the powerhouse performance from Robert DeNiro as Travis. Played with a simmering intensity he always seems right on the edge of something dangerous, holding himself back from erupting. Simultaneously terrifying and pathetic he manages to come across as charming and endearing to Betsy when they first meet but soon reveals his dysfunctional personality as he finds it harder and harder to relate to her in normal human terms. DeNiro seems to inhabit Travis completely (or is it the other way round?). This is never more evident than in the now legendary “You talkin’ to me?” sequence where DeNiro completely ad libbed Bickle’s fantasies of street encounters being enacted in the mirror while he fetishises the firearms he has recently acquired. There are more subtle moments than this though that speak just as loudly to his state of mind. His world view is completely restricted to his immediate environment and experiences. When his date with Betsy goes beyond these parameters he is left out of his depth and unable to deal with new concepts. It’s not until later that we realise, through background clues in his apartment, that his own conversation was based on the immediate trappings of his rather empty life. It’s this loneliness and an almost deliberate tendency to enforce it, that DeNiro evokes so brilliantly.

There’s no way you can discuss performances in Taxi Driver without mentioning the fantastic turn from a twelve year old Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris. She is extraordinary in this film, smart talking and seemingly street savvy on the outside and vulnerable little girl no the inside. In order to protect her she was body doubled for the dodgier scenes by her nineteen year old sister but her standout moment, a heart to heart with Travis in a diner while he entreats her to leave her life on the streets and return home to her parents, is all her own work. It was a brave and controversial move, but one that lends such a weight of authenticity to the story that it was clearly worth it.

This is Scorsese at the height of his powers. With cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also worked with Scorsese on The Last Waltz and Raging Bull) he has captured the dark, seedy underbelly of New York brilliantly, a rain blurred kaleidoscope of neon signs, crosswalks and brake lights. Married to an ominous score by Bernard Hermann, all crescendos of brass and militant drum rolls, it creates a potent sense of the hell in which Travis exists, surrounded on all sides by degradation and other people’s intimacy.

The anniversary edition blu ray presents all this in a newly remastered, 4k transfer (whatever that means) which is a million miles away from that dilapidated print I first set eyes on over a decade ago and while that first experience of the film felt utterly appropriate given the film’s themes I have to say that the lovingly executed restoration job is absolutely stunning to behold.

It’s as near to perfect as a film needs to be. I’ve never seen another film that epitomises that acute sense of dislocation quite as fully, that shows as deep an understanding of the nature of mental disturbance, as this one. There’s a little bit of Bickle in all of us and certainly it’s probably down to DeNiro’s Travis that this film made such an impact on me all those years ago. As a warning against the dangers of allowing this kind of dangerous loner to fall through society’s cracks it’s probably never been more relevant. In short, if you only ever watch one film in your lifetime, make it this one.

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