Friday Film Focus: Taxi Driver

The year is 1976 in New York City. The streets are full of pushers, prostitutes, street corner pimps, frauds, and freaks. Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) looks around in disgust at what the city has become. But don’t be mistaken, Taxi Driver should not be characterized as a New York film. It’s not about the’s about a man’s wounded soul. Bickle utilizes the city's elements to feed his insatiable obsessions.

Bickle is an ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, taxi driver by night, and killer on the side. An introverted loner, he is the hero of Martin Scorsese’ Taxi Driver. During the day he pops pills to calm his churning nerves. At night, Bickle prowls the NY streets until dawn -- stopping for some occasional coffee with Wizard (Peter Boyle) and the guys. He swigs peach brandy and relies heavily on porno theaters for relaxation. The city he so despises is populated by unobtainable women. Women might find him attractive for one moment. Others may go on a date with him once. However, virtually all of them eventually come to the realization that he is in fact not only strange but certifiably insane. He sees a beautiful blonde woman, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) one day working in the front office of a presidential candidate.

Bickle immediately becomes infatuated with her. He drives by the location daily, and parks right out front just to get a glimpse of her. She agrees to go out with him for coffee after he forcefully enters the office and demands to know her name. He’s charming at first, and she’s intrigued. She agrees to go out with him again. On the second date, Bickle takes her to a hardcore film theater. She walks out in anger and disgust -- refusing to have anything more to do with him. He’s confused and shocked by her reaction. Bickle's mind simply is full of short circuits and many crossed wires. He doesn’t see the reality of it.

As days go by, he calls her repeatedly for another date. Bickle has also taken to sending her flowers. It's here we see not only his heart, but the heart of the film. Scorsese gives a slow shot of Travis on the telephone talking to Besty. As she continues to turn him down, the camera dollies to the right and looks down an empty vast hallway. It’s eerie and beautiful. Scorsese has called this particular shot the most important of the entirety of the film. It’s as if he couldn’t bear to witness Travis’ pain of being rejected once again. It’s a calculated move for a director, and it’s brilliant. It contradicts the ending entirely as the audience later watches Travis go on a horrific killing spree. The fact that Scorsese finds the idea of rejection more painful than murder is fascinating, and speaks to the very core of the character. Travis in theory can look for fares anywhere in the city, but instead he’s constantly drawn back to 42nd Street and Times Square. He observes the night life of hustlers and hookers, and the “filth” reinforcing his obsessive desire to go out and “do something” about it. It's here that he comes to meet Iris (Jodie Foster) -- a 12 year old prostitute who tries to escape her pimp by jumping into Travis’ cab.

There’s a moment where Bickle is looking at Iris through his rear view mirror. At this time, he comes closest to witnessing the ugly kind of sex -- the sex of selling and using people. He hates it, and immediately becomes determined to save her. With the help of gun runner Andy (Steven Prince), Travis decides to finally do something and make his personal statement to the world. His failed attempt at assassinating Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) leads him to the East Village in search of Iris and her pimp, Matthew "Sport" Higgins (Harvey Keitel). In a climactic sequence, the mad man purges himself. The brutal sequence is filmed entirely in slow motion -- giving the audience the ability to see the horror in great detail. The ending is cinematically scintillating yet gruesome to watch, and has sparked much controversy and argument since its release in 1976.

Taxi Driver went on to achieve 4 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture). With the help of screenwriter Paul Schrader and the incredible jazz score by Bernard Herrman, Taxi Driver became Scorsese’s masterpiece. The film has an aimless direction coinciding with Travis’ mind and thoughts. De Niro embodies these characteristics ferociously. It’s a display of talent that most would only get in a theater. It also demonstrates actual human behavior -- a trait usually offered in film. If De Niro was any less of an actor, Travis would have just been a freak show. At the end of the film -- with passions and obsessions subdued -- Travis goes back to his every day life. But how long will it last I wonder?

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