Friday, September 23, 2011

Taxi Driver (1976)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Paul Schrader
Photographer: Michael Chapman
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editors: Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Martin Scorsese

A good way to start an argument is to ask people what's the best picture by director Martin Scorsese. We have already seen that Raging Bull is the consensus favorite of critics, and there are cases to be made for Mean Streets, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas, and others. But it's not hard for me to see how Taxi Driver deserves to rank very high on this list. As strange and brave and unique and enthralling as it is from beginning to end, it's also one of the most influential movies from an influential period, and its reverberations continue to be felt to this day (most recent: Ryan Gosling's brilliant turn in Drive).

In fact, that image of Travis Bickle we all know so well now, the tormented loner waiting for “a real rain” to “come and wash all this scum off the streets” and who ultimately guns up and takes matters into his own hands, has recurred one way or another in film after film after film over the 35 years since its release. Matt Zoller Seitz listed some of them in a recent slideshow article for Salon: Mona Lisa, Evil Dead II, The Killer, The Fan, I Shot Andy Warhol, Fight Club, The Brave One, others. You can probably think of a few more yourself.

As Jonathan Rosenbaum famously pointed out, Taxi Driver brings a tremendous amount of talent to bear in one place. There’s Scorsese, of course, and the iconic performance of Robert De Niro (as well as Jodie Foster, and Cybill Shepherd, and Peter Boyle, and Leonard Harris, and…). There’s also screenwriter Paul Schrader, whose lifelong themes of tortured guilt and a bottomless yearning for redemption find perhaps their best expressions here, reputedly springboarding off the diaries of would-be George Wallace assassin Arthur Bremer. And, finally, there’s the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack—it's not just good, it's arguably the one element that sets this picture apart all by itself, above all the other worthy entries in the Scorsese canon.

Bernard Herrmann almost has to be taken as a kind of force of nature when one steps back to consider his prolific output across the breadth of his career—he wrote the scores for a good many of Hitchcock's best pictures, including that incredible run in the late '50s, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. He virtually invented the science fiction cliché of the theremin in his score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. He wrote the music for Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 and for a dozen or so episodes each of "Twilight Zone" and the "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour." He even contributed to The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane. Taxi Driver is the last picture he worked on, shortly before his death toward the end of 1975, and it's a doozy. From the very first image, a brilliant and eerie shot of the yellow cab at bumper level, gliding through the fog, his work sets the mood and creates the unmistakable feeling of stepping into a dark, mysterious place where the usual rules are not going to apply.

In many ways Taxi Driver does indeed defy the old saw about too many cooks and the broth. Director Martin Scorsese was still in a phase of his career where he positively attacked his material with an unholy energy only slightly mitigated by his artful strategies of storytelling. One of the great pleasures of Taxi Driver is all the small devices he exploits to tell the story, such as a simple pan away from the back of Robert De Niro as he is pleading on the phone for another chance with Cybill Shepherd's Betsy, pivoting the vantage to gaze down a long hallway. It's entirely unexpected, at once as if the camera is embarrassed for the loser taxi driver in his shame, and averting its eyes, even as it suggests the hollowness at the core of the character.

De Niro is huge in this, of course, virtually pulling off a one-man show in its totality: youthful and occupying the frame with preternatural confidence, well before his smoldering stick of rage had turned to shtick. With Mean Streets, this is where he perfected what he would later abuse. The rage crawls under his skin at such shallow levels it is virtually rippling under the surface and distorting his features. The way he pauses and chokes on his thoughts and confusions even as he attempts to express them ("What's moonlighting?") works to create an indelible portrait of a man under enormous self-imposed pressure, a chilling picture of the mass murderer who everyone remembers as someone who was quiet and kept to himself.

The whole cast is great: Cybill Shepherd, perfectly deployed as the unattainable WASP goddess. Jodie Foster, a 13-year-old playing a 13-year-old runaway turned prostitute with sickening precision. Peter Boyle, the swaggering cabbie all the others look up to, a self-evidently pathetic pathological liar with an empty life of his own. Harvey Keitel, menacing and long-haired and so slimy you feel like you need a shower after even a minute or two of screen time. Albert Brooks, a privileged innocent working on the political campaign of Charles Palantine, a pal of Cybill Shepherd and a person hopelessly out of touch with the evil in this world. Leonard Harris as Palantine, the stereotyped limousine liberal who spouts tired old platitudes the way the rest of us belch and fart. Even the nervous-talking Scorsese himself takes a small walk-on role that is played perfectly.

The first time I saw Taxi Driver, I walked out of the theater stunned. In the short term, almost as a defense against its extraordinary power, I raised complaints about what seemed to me then (and still does, if I think about it enough) the overweening precious irony of its ending. In the long term, I think it's the same kind of complaint I had with the "Rosebud" element of Citizen Kane—that is, it doesn't quite work, doesn't quite make the picture end with the flourish that appears to be intended. But it doesn't matter in the context of the totality. Scorsese would work this same territory again a few years later in The King of Comedy, complete with iconic Robert De Niro performance and ironic ending, and in a way that helped me put it in perspective. The case can be made that these endings veer toward the cheap. But there's no denying the overwhelming power of all that has preceded.

Over the years I often forget some of the many small-bore pleasures that Taxi Driver has to offer, such as Herrmann's soundtrack, which only makes this picture a very happy surprise for me every time I look again. A restored version made the rounds earlier this year, a night out at the movies I found as thrilling as any other so far this year, and a good deal more than many others. Taxi Driver is always worth seeing again because there’s always more to see in it.

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