CLASSIC MOVIE SUNDAYS: Taxi Driver (1976)
Georgios Merkouris / May 5, 2019
( 3 min read )
Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 114 min.
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, etc.
Often imitated yet never quite surpassed, “Taxi Driver” is one of the most unsettling motion pictures ever made. It manages to both capture the zeitgeist of its era, whilst addressing pervasive issues relevant to our world today. Taking place in New York City during the ‘70s, it tells the story of a man, haunted by his experiences, crippled by loneliness. Viewers get to witness the protagonist, Travis Bickle (superbly portrayed by a young Robert de Niro), go through a series of unsuccessful attempts to connect with others. With his slow descent into madness, the plot takes a disturbing turn, culminating in a bloody shootout.
The film has an elusive, impressionistic quality. It opens in a haze, with shots of the taxi emerging from out of the fog of sewer steam. From then on, every shot resembles images pulled straight out of dreams. The camera glides past the characters and environment, giving the entire enterprise a sense of aloofness. The jazzy score, composed by the late great Bernard Hermann, adds to the ethereal quality of the film, supplying an air of eroticism and decadence to it. It perfectly complements the imagery of a very gritty 1970s New York, a city in decay. Most of the action takes place on 42nd street, which at the time was the epicentre of prostitution, porn theatres, and petty criminality. Though the film is not about the city per se, it still plays a major part in creating a certain atmosphere, which further reinforces the identity of the characters and their choices in life.
The most striking aspect, however, is the study of its main character. Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran, seems odd from the very start. There is the suggestion that he has experienced trauma, which prevents him from being a fully functioning member of society. De Niro plays him with a quiet intensity, his gaze filled with emotions, brilliantly conveying the character’s isolation and loneliness. Travis possesses an acute awareness of his surroundings. He yearns to connect with someone but is unable to. Scorsese portrays the scenes of him being rejected by women as the most unbearable ones to watch, with the camera moving away from the scene so as to spare the audience such a sad scene. One understands and sympathizes with Travis’ predicament but, as his mind begins to unravel, the narrative becomes increasingly disturbing to watch. Eventually, he becomes a stone-cold killer in the film’s most iconic and unsettling scene.
The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival and was nominated for four Academy Awards. It solidified the reputation of its stars and, in particular, its director. Martin Scorsese was one of the most original filmmakers to emerge out of the American New Wave and is widely touted as the best director alive. Born and raised in New York, his early films were gritty stories about life in the streets. They carried a sense of authenticity severely lacking in most films. For that reason, he was the perfect choice to direct “Taxi Driver”, which is still one of the greatest movies of all time.