“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
Martin Scorsese has a real knack for bringing iconic characters to the screen. Joe Pesci’s benefitted from this more than once, Daniel Day Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio have several each under their belts, and there are notable one offs like Ray Liotta and Willam Dafoe. But one man is responsible for more memorable Scorsese characters than anyone else. Robert De Niro steals Mean Streets from Harvey Keitel, he won the Oscar for Raging Bull and is one of the most bizarrely sympathetic, terrifying, and goofy characters ever committed to film in The King of Comedy. But above all of those, one De Niro role in a Scorsese movie reigns supreme; Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Plagued by headaches and insomnia, Travis Bickle (De Niro) takes a job working 12 hour shifts, six days a week, driving a cab. This is 70s New York at its dirtiest, seediest and most dangerous, and Bickle is one of the few drivers who’ll go to any neighbourhood and pick up any kind of passenger. The people and places he sees fuel monologues about the filth of the city needing to be washed away. But he does see the odd bright spot, including Cybill Shepherd as Betsy.
Bickle spots Betsy working in a politician’s campaign office and is immediately obsessed, spending hours parked outside, leering and lurking. Despite the understandable concern of her co-worker (Albert Brooks), Betsy can’t resist Bickle’s awkward charm when he finally works up enough guts to walk in and ask her out. When their first real date doesn’t go so well, Bickle copes with Betsy’s rejection by going even more extreme with his desire to see the city clean. Including plans for Betsy’s Senator boss, and the need to rescue a child prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel).
Taxi Driver might be the most critical look at the Vietnam War that never once mentions the Vietnam War. Bickle was once in the Marines and we can assume he saw combat. So when he talks about the constant headaches, the smell of the city that makes him sick and the cleansing rain that his city so badly needs, it’s clear that Bickle is suffering from serious post traumatic stress disorder. But PTSD and the war are never actually name checked.
Controversial at the time for its graphic violence, dark tones and pretty disturbing look at the filth of nocturnal New York, Taxi Driver is still all of those things today. I watch it every few years and am always a little shocked by its impact. So for me to have that reaction in 2015, when I know exactly what to expect, it makes me think this must have been absolutely mind blowing in 1976.
It also makes me wonder how it ever got made. Scorsese hadn’t had a big hit yet as a director. Paul Sharder only had one other screenplay to his name. And while De Niro may have won an Oscar for The Godfather Part II before Taxi Driver came out, that accolade and any real fame were still nowhere to be seen when he was cast. Like the story it’s telling, the decision to even make Taxi Driver was dangerous, risky and kind of insane. Whatever crazy series of events lead to it, I’m just glad it happened. Because now, every few years, I get to be shocked all over again, by this graphically violent, dark and pretty disturbing look at the filth of nocturnal New York.
Best Picture (nominated, lost to Rocky)
Best Actor (De Niro nominated, lost to Peter Finch for Network)
Best Supporting Actress (Foster nominated, lost to Beatrice Straight for Network)