I don't think I deliberately dragged my young
painter boyfriend to a 1976 Dallas screening of Martin Scorsese's Taxi
Driver just so he would leap into my arms as the film's deranged anti-hero
starts assassinating the operators of a Lower Manhattan brothel, but leap he
did, in the climax of one of our better movie dates.
With limbs flying and blood spurting out in a
tableau the film's cinematographer Michael Chapman would liken to a Bruegel
canvas – before the censors forced him to tone down the colors – Taxi Driver
might seem like a truly odd pretext for same-sex intimacy. But this stunning
modern masterpiece, a cinema coming-out party for Scorsese, screenwriter Paul
Schrader and their protean leading man Robert De Niro, has in the four decades
since its inception altered our taste for unhinged screen loners as profoundly
as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho did a generation earlier. This week, the
Roxie Theater, in its ongoing if unofficial Belly of the Beast series,
revives this American latter-day noir classic (May 7-9).
Scorsese, expanding on Hitchcock's patented
director's cameo, gives himself a scary backseat turn as a potentially
murderous cab-rider. Most poignantly, Taxi Driver is the very last thing
composed for the screen by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann,
who died from a weak heart on the evening of the day he conducted the score's
But this masterwork, ranked among the American Film
Institute's Top 100 films, and listed in The National Film Registry, is
especially known for a potent combination of fetid images and excoriating
language, a combination that played no small part in inspiring the Disney
makeover of Times Square.
"All the animals come out at night: whores,
skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Someday a real rain
will come and wash all this scum off the streets."
The film is so relentlessly on point in defining
the Vietnam walking-wounded veteran that more than a few young American men in
1976 felt that screenwriter Schrader had somehow tapped into their most
unlovely dreams by creating his volatile, profane, hyper-violent if ultimately
impotent anti-hero Travis Bickle. It's a career-defining descent into madness
by Robert De Niro, whose improvised tag-line for the character would forever
define the American underground man: "You talkin' to me?" A prime
reason Travis remains a scary figure is De Niro's underplaying of his loony
arc. You never dismiss him as a stock villain, but rather see this essential
American type as a man deserving but sadly past the point of being able to
accept help for his self-inflicted loneliness.
Taxi Driver commences with one of the film's
many funny moments as Travis applies for an all-night hackie shift, informing
the dispatcher that since he can't sleep and spends his nights wandering across
the city, he might just as well get paid for his troubles. Warning the
applicant "not to bust his chops," and somewhat appeased that they're
both ex-Marines, the dispatcher grants Travis his license to drive his metal
coffin through a phantasmagorical Gotham nightscape. Cinematographer Chapman tweaks
the views through the cab's windshield, giving them a nightmarish feel that is
both pulpy and slightly suggestive of a never-ending acid trip. This allows us
to see the teeming streets and their vagabond denizens through the filter of
Travis' growing paranoia.
A man utterly alone, without friends, family, with
only the most tenuous ties to his fellow hackies, Travis reveals himself to us through
an ongoing diary. Schrader based this device on the Arthur Bremer diaries,
discovered after the young Milwaukee malcontent attempted to assassinate 1972
presidential candidate George Wallace. Scorsese and Schrader cleverly link
Travis' one attempt at establishing a normal relationship with a Bremer-like
plot against a liberal presidential candidate, Senator Charles Palantine (TV
critic Leonard Harris).
When Travis bursts into the Senator's Midtown HQs
and confronts the gorgeous woman running the joint, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd,
asked to play a "Cybill Shepherd type"), they embark on one of the
screen's oddest of odd-couple dates. Travis takes her to lunch and expounds on
his "philosophy." Betsy, with a nonjudgmental but devastatingly
accurate assessment of this modern primitive, deadpans, "I've never met
anybody quite like you."
Their real date implodes with far-reaching
consequences when Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie and she flees the scene in
disgust. Travis will then turn his attention first to killing Senator
Palantine, and when that move is thwarted, embark on an almost missionary
attempt to rescue a teen prostitute, Iris (a riveting, very grownup turn from
the then-12-year-old Jodie Foster).
The result is still not for the squeamish. A
decade-and-a-half later, I flinched at an "Alphabet City" sight that
reminded me of Taxi Driver's hellish end. It's a crescendo of
brilliantly orchestrated mayhem that would, in real life, inspire a close-call
attempt on the life of newly elected President Ronald Reagan, and in art,
produce a host of sincere imitators, such as Larry Clark's crime-family rondo Another
Day in Paradise .
Taxi Driver is the second in a quartet of
films about an American archetypal figure that novelist Thomas Wolfe labeled
"God's lonely men": Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and
the underappreciated King of Comedy. For years, my late roommate Marty
and I would debate which Scorsese underground classic it was appropriate to
base your life on.