Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Taxi Driver

50. Taxi Driver (1976)
Dir: Martin Scorsese

When he made 'Taxi Driver', Martin Scorsese cemented his place in the great directors' canon. His earlier indie film, the excellent 'Mean Streets' (1973), had shown what a promising talent Scorsese was and also marked the first time he worked with his longtime acting collaborator Robert De Niro. This partnership would go on to create some of the most memorable films of the next few decades and 'Taxi Driver' would become renowned as a landmark in both their careers.

For a film that achieved such crossover acclaim from both audiences and critics, 'Taxi Driver' is a surprisingly slow-paced, dream-like character study. Anyone expecting a constant stream of action and violence based on the film's controversial reputation will find their expectations completely unfulfilled. Likewise, anyone expecting an exercise in studied cool a la Jean Pierre Melville's 'Le Samourai' (1967) will find instead a dour, seedy, realistic trawl through scummy locations and the psyche of a lonely, depressed and unstable man. Though there has been a macho tendency to romanticise the lifestyle examined in 'Taxi Driver' since the film's release, the reality is that of a tragic and pathetic figure who no sane person would model themselves upon.

'Taxi Driver' has little actual plot and instead focuses on a series of moments in the hellish existence of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a former Marine (honourably discharged) who takes a job as a nighttime taxi driver in an attempt to combat the chronic insomnia that makes his every day a 24 hour nightmare. During the daytime he visits porn cinemas, records his thoughts in a diary (which provides the film's narration) and searches around for something to give his life meaning. He finds potential candidates for the latter, first in Cybill Shepherd's political campaign volunteer Betsy and then in Jodie Foster's twelve year old prostitue Iris. With Betsy, Bickle's interest is romantic, while Iris presents him with a moral quest, part of his ongoing desire to "wash the scum off the streets".

Paul Schrader's excellent screenplay presents audiences with an unforgettable character but it is De Niro's performance and Scorsese's direction that really make Bickle a classic creation. Scorsese gives his actors a lot of room to improvise and the result is a remarkably natural set of performances and flow of dialogue. 'Taxi Driver's most famous sequences, in which Bickle rehearses his gunplay in front of a mirror ("You talkin' to me?"), was entirely improvised by De Niro from the barest of stage directions. Bickle's coffee shop date with Betsy was also largely unscripted, capturing the sort of realistic awkwardness that is so difficult to put down on the page.

The loose realism of 'Taxi Driver' is one of the major attributes that make it so endlessly rewatchable but there's a lot more to it than just the performances and dialogue. Scorcese and cinematographer Michael Chapman have turned the New York locations into squalid, hallucinatory dreamscapes in which the terrifyingly immersive viewing experience constantly seems one step removed from reality. Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann's ominous, hip Oscar nominated score provides these otherworldly backdrops with the perfect accompaniment. There are fans of 'Taxi Driver' who would have you believe that De Niro is the whole show but the walking contradiction that is Travis Bickle could not have plausibly existed outside of the mesmerizing world that Scorsese, Chapman and Herrmann create for him.

Which is not to degrade De Niro's legendary performance. Typically dedicated, De Niro obtained a taxi license and spent weeks driving a taxi around New York in preparation. He also lost 35 pounds in weight and listened repeatedly to tapes of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer's diaries (which partly inspired Schrader's script). This excessive approach was not wasted. De Niro inhabits Bickle completely, down to every paranoid glance and visibly skewed thought process. De Niro's earlier performance for Scorsese, as 'Mean Streets' young tearaway Johnny Boy, was also brilliant but his turn as Bickle shows a greater psychological depth and complexity of technique, probably largely due to Bickle being a much meatier role.

'Taxi Driver' is so completely focused on Bickle that the supporting cast gets less to do than the average secondary players. Nevertheless, there is at least one more excellent performance in the form of young Jodie Foster's pre-teen prostitute Iris. Foster shrewdly avoids playing Iris as a victim, making Bickle's obsessive need to become her self-appointed protector more psychologically complex. The relationship between Bickle and the vibrant, streetwise Iris is the film's most fascinating dynamic and the closest Bickle comes to forming a proper relationship, outside of his fellow taxi driver and street-level philosopher 'Wizard' (Peter Boyle). There was much controversy at the time of 'Taxi Driver's release about such a young actress playing the graphic role of Iris but these concerns are proved at best naive by the maturity of Foster's portrayal.

Something that is rarely mentioned in reviews of 'Taxi Driver' is the fact that the film is, in a way, quite funny. Amongst the grit and sleazy realism, there are moments of grimy black humour that add to the film's overall appeal. Most obvious in this respect is an amusing turn by Albert Brooks as Betsy's fellow volunteer campaigner and admirer. Brooks, an underrated performer and director in his own right, creates a sort of anti-Bickle with his goofy, self-aware antics which fail to charm Betsy at every turn. His presence (in a handful of scenes which are some of the only ones in the film that don't feature De Niro) sets up a nice contrast which clues us in as to why Betsy would ever consider agreeing to date Bickle. If Brooks is emblematic of the middle class suitors she is used to, the mysterious allure of Bickle's working class bit of rough has obvious appeal to Betsy. Also amusing is Scorsese himself in the role of a racist cuckold driven to frantic, murderous intent which he spills to Bickle in the back of his taxi.

But it is De Niro who gets the most laughs in 'Taxi Driver'. His recent glut of hammy comedy turns have lead many to write him off as comedically unskilled but De Niro was always funny, his talents were just better suited to more subtle humour. His keen ear for speech patterns and eye for body language, along with his uniquely expressive face, provoke laughs of recognition as he flawlessly essays human vulnerabilities. Travis Bickle represents one of De Niro's most deftly walked lines between tragic, terrifying and hilarious. His naivety in taking Betsy to a porn cinema on their first proper date, his willingness to appropriate any viewpoint that helps him in his own personal quest, his self-conciously lying letters to his parents; these are all amusing moments even as they unsettle. A particularly funny exchange between Bickle and a secret service agent is a highlight for me too.

Although it bears comparison with several studies of isolated figures before and since, 'Taxi Driver' feels like a completely unique experience. It is hugely important in Scorsese's development as a director and yet it stands out as stylistically unusual in an ouvre which is far more diverse than some critics are willing to give it credit for. Describing 'Taxi Driver' as a drama, a character study, a black comedy or even (as some have rather inaccurately stated) a thriller seems somehow inadequate. It has elements of all these genres but they combine to create a paradoxically beautiful examination of ugly subject matters. Having rewatched 'Taxi Driver' recently, I've found myself unable to get its invigorating mixture of exquisitely executed elements out of my head for the last few days and, in conclusion, the most accurate description of the film I can come up with is a suitably glib four word summation, the inadequacy of which speaks of 'Taxi Driver's indescribability: A hazy little miracle.

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