The viewer sees Travis Bickle, the loner, coping with his diffused rage as he drives a taxi cab in New York City. His life is utterly bleak. Travis, as the narrator, reads from a diary he keeps in a school composition book.
Suffering from insomnia and having zero social life to lighten his spirit, he kills his time listening to the idle conversations of other cabbies, watching porno movies and driving random customers to their immediate fates. Through the taxi’s windshield Travis, as played by Robert De Niro, drinks in the filth he sees on the streets. It begins to focus his anger. His revulsion with the paved-over, neon-lit world outside his cab’s yellow skin mixes with a pitiful romantic disappointment to make for seriously bad medicine.
De Niro’s unforgettable portrayal of haunted Travis, the alienated Vietnam War veteran — slowly giving in to his madness — was something to see in 1976. Thirty-five years later it still is.
Yes, “Taxi Driver” is as ‘70s as it gets.
Nonetheless, it holds up quite well. It may be a period piece now, in a way, but its effectiveness has not been diminished by time or imitations. Its well known director, Martin Scorsese, has made a lot of movies in his long career. Some have won quite a bit of acclaim, but none of them is any better than this 113-minute feature, with its ultra-cool, film noir mood and its stellar cast of supporting players: Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepherd were all perfect in their roles.
With the spell created by slow-motion footage of after-hours city lights reflecting off of wet concrete and metal, supported by Bernard Herrmann’s score, that damn cab itself becomes a character, too.
As part of the 18th annual James River Film Festival a digitally restored 35mm print of “Taxi Driver” will be screened at VCU’s Grace Street Theatre, at 934 West Grace Street, on Thursday, April 7 at 7:30 p.m. Click here for more information.
The presentation will be introduced by Trent Nicholas, who not only has enough in the way of film history scholar credentials to fill up a clown cab, he actually worked for Scorsese in New York some 20 years ago. It’s my understanding Trent can sometimes be persuaded to tell a Marty story, or two.
In its time “Taxi Driver” perfectly captured the post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate scandal cynicism that was in the air in the mid-‘70s. That same nihilistic sense of happily kissing doom on the mouth also fueled the punk rock scene that was becoming stylish in the Fan District during this same time.
The list of Scorsese movies I think are overrated, or just stink, is longer than my list of favorites. “Mean Streets” (1973) was what made me notice him. “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999) may represent the peak of my frustration with him. Still, none of that takes anything away from my admiration for “Taxi Driver.”
If you’re looking for a synopsis, there are plenty of them available online. When I write about movies I try not to give too much of the story away. I think people who like to tell the endings of movies should be flogged. However, this time I will issue a warning that when push comes to shove, violence-wise, this one is shockingly bloody.
So if you just can’t stand to see raw gore, even when it is being used in the spirit of a Goya depiction of war atrocities, this probably isn’t the best feature for you to attend in this year’s festival lineup.
In its truthfulness, this picture is brutal — Travis is exactly who comes limping home from every war. Which is part of what makes this movie a classic. In my view, “Taxi Driver” is truly an art movie in the best sense.
Seeing it in what is the old Lee Theater’s gussied up auditorium, hopefully filled with film buffs, will be a treat.
The trailer below is purported to be an original. It’s corny like trailers were/are prone to be, but it does offer a sense of the mood of “Taxi Driver.”