Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: "Taxi Driver" Can Still Astound (Happy B'day, Martin Scorcese)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 42 (of 2003) by Leroy Douresseaux

Taxi Driver (1976)
Running time: 113 minutes (1 hour, 53 minutes)
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorcese
WRITER: Paul Schrader
PRODUCERS: Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips
EDITORS: Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro
Academy Award nominee


Starring: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, and Albert Brooks

Some consider Taxi Driver to Martin Scorcese’s signature film and more than enough reason why this famed director should have been awarded an Oscar as Best Director a long time ago. One of the best-remembered film’s of the 1970’s, Taxi Driver is also one of the most influential American films ever made. It lives up to the hype.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a mentally unstable former Marine and Vietnam veteran who takes a job as a nighttime taxi cab driver to pass the time because of his insomnia. He perceives New York City as decadent, sleazy, and filled with phony people, and this perception feeds an urge growing in him to lash out at something or anything.

He first fixates on Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a worker in a senator’s presidential campaign. He convinces her to accompany him on a date, but later he frightens and angers her when he takes her to a bizarre foreign pornographic film. After Betsy dumps him, Travis becomes obsessed with killing the presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who hires Travis’s taxi one evening. He also becomes fixated on a second female, Iris Steensma (Jodie Foster), a 12 year-old runaway and current prostitute. They become friends, and he urges her to leave her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). These fixations and obsessions move Travis quickly down a path of shocking violence that leads to an equally shocking ending.

Bickle is one of De Niro’s most famous performances, and it earned him an Academy Award nomination. It’s a tricky role and character. Bickle could be likable, but he’s mostly pathetic, the very definition of a loser. Much of what Bickle has to say is done as voiceovers that give clues to the character’s plans, if not necessarily his motivations. What De Niro does is reveal the depths of the character almost entirely through exquisite body language and facial expressions. When it comes right down to it, Bickle doesn’t have a whole lot to say that would interest anyone outside of the police and head doctors. We learn the character by carefully watching De Niro. In gestures, both subtle and gregarious, in a face both serene and incensed, De Niro’s builds Bickle layer by layer, brick by brick. In fleeting moments, he makes Bickle pitiable and sympathetic, in others, dull and selfish. Sometimes Bickle’s rage is quietly focused; other times, it’s mad twister leaving feelings and bodies on the floor. Although a star and recognizable face at the time of this film’s release, De Niro transforms himself into Bickle, but leaves enough of himself in view to make Bickle fleetingly attractive, to use his matinee idol status to attract our attention to his disturbed character.

Scorcese deserves a lot of credit for allowing De Niro to roam, but it is Scorcese the director who channels the spirit of Bickle into an engaging movie. He has a deft touch at building the other characters and the story as a framework around De Niro’s painting. He knows who his subject is, but he also knows how to keep De Niro from banishing Paul Schrader’s excellent script to the background. Scorcese apparently realized that every element of the film worked: script, music, editing, actors, but he realized that De Niro was going to sell the total package to the audience.

You can’t like movies and have never seen Taxi Drive unless you’re very squeamish about dark subject matter and dislike stark realism. Still, that’s not enough reason to miss one of the great films.

9 of 10

1977 Academy Awards: 4 nominations: “Best Actor in a Leading Role” (Robert De Niro), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Jodie Foster), “Best Music, Original Score’ (Bernard Herrmann), and “Best Picture” (Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips)

1977 BAFTA Awards: 3 wins: “Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music” (Bernard Herrmann), “Best Supporting Actress” (Jodie Foster), and “Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles” (Jodie Foster); 4 nominations: “Best Actor” (Robert De Niro), “Best Direction” (Martin Scorsese), “Best Film,” and “Best Film Editing” (Marcia Lucas, Tom Rolf, and Melvin Shapiro)

1977 Golden Globes: 2 nominations: “Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama” (Robert De Niro) and “Best Screenplay - Motion Picture” (Paul Schrader)

1994 National Film Preservation Board: National Film Registry

1976 Cannes Film Festival: 1 win: “Palme d'Or” (Martin Scorsese)


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