For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
Eff you Holiday season. Don’t you know that I have movies to watch and write about? Once again I’m a bit behind, but I’ll lean into it over the next few days and try to polish off the lower fifty, and maybe one or two more before 2010 says its final farewell.
#52 on the AFI list is the second half of my Robert De Niro double feature, or as I like to call it “The De Niro Double Dip” (check out #53 “The Deer Hunter” for dip number one). “Taxi Driver” is a force to be reckoned with and one of the many films on this list that shows us that the late 70s were an incredible time to be a film junkie.
Unfortunately thirty years after its release, “Taxi Driver” comes with an unfair amount of cultural baggage. In the same way they are drawn to “A Clockwork Orange,” every teen boy, who felt like an outsider, drifts towards this film. Any freshman newly arrived at college, gets a choice between a handful of posters for their dorms. The Salvador Dali says, “I’m deviant within a socially acceptable range, and may dig art,” The Georgia O’Keefe says “I am sensitive, but also like looking at genitals,” and the “Taxi Driver” poster, like the “Reservoir Dogs” says “I enjoy films with an edgy sensibility, and also may kick your ass.”
Yes the promotional garbage that orbits this film can be a distraction, but it doesn’t make the film itself any less powerful. Though powerful, the subject matter is gritty, so be aware that no clips in this article are safe for work or children.
Made in 1976, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” follows the misanthropic lonely man, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). A recent Vietnam vet, Travis, who struggles with insomnia, looks for work at nights and lands a job as a cab driver. His eyes scan the streets and the drone of Travis’ voice reading passages from his diary wash over the viewer.
Travis’ rant lacks any compassion. He sees drug dealers, prostitutes, and junkies and simply wants to wipe them off of the streets and into the gutters. This hardnosed approach to the more deviant members of society rings with the same sensibilities that create penal colonies. In our darker moments, we might understand and sympathize with Travis, but his approach lacks humanity.
While driving, Travis sees Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for Senator Palantine. Because of her beauty Travis puts her on a pedestal. As far as Travis is concerned, Betsy is untouched by the filth he sees around her. He approaches Betsy and asks her out.
Travis is awkward, but seems sweet. There is something to his character that is incredibly appealing. He is a chivalrous knight who is looking to save a young damsel from the world around them. But Travis has a knack for choosing subjects who don’t want to be saved.
The shots are incredible throughout this scene. From the deep focus shot which shows the worried Tom (Albert Brooks) in the background, and the tiny dolly moves on the close ups of Betsy to the incredible overhead dolly shot of Betsy’s desk, this is thoughtful and clever filmmaking that sells the character of Travis to the viewer.
Travis takes Betsy to an adult movie and is confused when she walks out and refuses to return his phone calls. He confronts her, but this rejection makes her just like everyone else in Travis’ mind. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)
Without any other human to anchor him to reality, Travis begins his descent into madness. Since Betsy was a campaign worker for Senator Palantine, Travis builds an arsenal and plans an attack on the senator himself. One of a handful of iconic moments from Taxi Driver, this next scene shows Travis practicing his moves with his newly acquired weapons.
Everything is this scene is preparation, and builds tension. The workout, and the hand over the fire, both harden his body. The porn movie hardens Travis’ resolve. He looks at images of humans that reaffirm his disdain for them. Again we have the apparent camera moves that further the action in the frame. We are doing pull-ups with Travis, and move with the gun as he draws it.
In some of his later films, Scorsese would intertwine music with the action in the story.
These were less montages and more music driven moments. Go re-watch “Goodfellas” or “Casino” and you will know what I mean. There is a scene in “Taxi Driver” that I find heartbreaking and poignant. It shows Travis’ rapt in thought, holding his .44, and watching American Bandstand. It isn’t one of the most famous scenes from the movie, but it should be.
This internal, private moment is makes Travis’ human and keeps us from discarding his character as a lunatic, vigilante nut-bag. Scorsese has made unlikable characters sympathetic, and here he again makes us sympathize a potential psychopath. All it takes is an expertly placed song and some great camera moves.
Before Travis can put his plan for taking down Palantine into action, he runs into a young prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). She becomes his next damsel to be rescued. Instead of taking her up on her offer of “a good time,” Travis takes her to lunch and tries to convince her to leave her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).
This scene is like an exciting entrée. There are so many contrasting flavors. Iris is goofy and sweet, yet she is hard and resolute. Travis wants to help. He is both a savior and a forceful intruder. This scene could have been a disaster of awkward moments strung together, but both De Niro and the then 14-year-old Foster are stunning in their abilities to become their characters and sell the moment. This scene gives you a glimpse into why both actors were nominated for Best Acting Academy Awards for “Taxi Driver.”
Travis, now sporting a Mohawk, attempts to get close enough to the senator to shoot him, but is quickly flagged by the secret service. With a stifled rage and loaded weapons, Travis instead trains his sites on Iris’ pimp and clients.
In a blaze of gun fire and blood that leaves Iris huddled and crying in a corner, Travis shoots his way through Sport and two others to “free” Iris. The only option left is his own demise, but he has run out of bullets and is unable to take his own life.
Again the overhead dolly shot shows the aftermath of Travis’ rampage, in the same way Scorcese showed us Betsy’s cluttered desk. This is a bleak and tragic image that offers the darkest of social commentary.
I have had friends who have said they like Travis for saving Iris, but each time I watch “Taxi Driver” I am less and less convinced that she is not more traumatized by his actions. Perhaps she is rescued from a life of crime and prostitution, but at such a cost as to destroy her completely. Sure there is the letter from her parents, but even that should draw some skepticism.
The ending is awash in ambiguity. Does Travis survive? Are the final scenes real or a fantasy? Either way the character of Travis Bickle was inches from being seen as a national terror, and instead becomes a local hero and savior of a young misguided girl. We are left knowing that the city is filled with thousands of other night cabdrivers, each one could be another Travis Bickle.
Next up #51 “West Side Story” (1961)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)