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Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese's searing portrait of loneliness and violence on the mean streets of New York, is an American original. Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, the insomniac taxi driver of the title, is an angry, alienated Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving a taxi on the night shift. He muses in voice-over over the urban cesspool that he encounters in his nocturnal prowlings: "All the animals come out at night: queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick venal. Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets." He's a pressure cooker of alienated desperation and rage who hates this existence yet is so disconnected from the rest of the world that he can no longer relate to the people outside of his tawdry world of hookers and hustlers and the homeless. When he scares off his dream girl (Cybill Shepherd), he channels his rage into plotting the assassination of a political candidate and saving a teenage hooker (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel with long, stringy hair). It remains one of the quintessential films of 1970s American cinema, a brooding blast of modern gothic cinema that boils over in madness and self destruction. Scorsese's uncompromising vision and vivid direction and a fierce, fearless performance by De Niro have inspired countless young filmmakers and actors in the decades since its release.

Paul Schrader, a film critic turned screenwriter (and later director), wrote the script at a very dark time of his life, when he was isolated and depressed and living out of his car. "I was very enamored of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are upfront in the script," he told an interviewer. The script, which also drew inspiration from the published diaries of Arthur Bremer (the man who shot presidential hopeful George Wallace) and Jean-Paul Sartre's novel "La Naussee," poured out like a catharsis over ten days of furious writing. Director Brian De Palma brought it to the attention of producers Michael and Julia Phillips and director Martin Scorsese, who had just finished Mean Streets (1973) and brought Robert De Niro into the project. It was a tough sell in 1973, but in the ensuing years Michael and Julia Phillips won an Oscar® for The Sting (1973), Schrader sold The Yakuza for a major payday, Scorsese directed Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar® in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and De Niro won an Oscar® for The Godfather: Part II (1974). It was a formidable combination of talent, passion and clout that managed to get studio financing, albeit on a very low budget and a tight schedule, for a very dark picture.

While there were very few changes between the first draft that Scorsese read and the finished film, much of the dialogue was improvised and some scenes – in particular the scene where Travis talks to himself in the mirror and practices his draw – were simply described in the script and left to Scorsese and De Niro to develop on the set. The film's most quoted line, "You talkin' to me?" was inspired by a New York comedian who used the phrase in his act. De Niro, who drove a cab for a month and read up on mental illness to prepare for his role, twisted it into a confrontational rap turned into a vigilante fantasy.

Harvey Keitel, who had starred in Mean Streets, helped develop the relatively small role of Sport, the pimp, by talking to and improvising scenes with real-life pimps in his Greenwich Village neighborhood. Jodie Foster had a small part in Scorsese's previous film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, but was not his first choice for the role of the adolescent prostitute; Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedron, was originally offered the role but turned it down. Foster won the part after beating out over two hundred other hopefuls (among them Mariel Hemingway, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Heather Locklear and Kristy McNichol) in a long audition process and earned an Oscar® nomination for her work.

Filling out the cast are Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks (who improvised much of his role as a campaign organizer) and Peter Boyle as the veteran cabbie Wizard. Steven Prince, who plays the gun seller, was a former road manager for Neil Diamond and became the subject of Scorsese's 1978 documentary American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. Scorsese even took a supporting role in the movie himself, as a passenger who spews out a virulent monologue while parked outside of an apartment window; the actor originally cast in the part dropped out after an accident on another film. "I didn't trust anybody else with it," he remembered in an interview years later. "So I just got in the back of the taxi and played the part myself. I learned a lot from Bob in that scene."

Taxi Driver was shot on a tight schedule largely on location in 1974 during a sweltering New York summer. The conditions of the shoot helped define the film, from the night shooting during a heat wave ("there's an atmosphere at night that's like a seeping kind of virus") to the street shooting during the garbage strike ("everywhere I aimed the camera, there were mounds of garbage"). It was tightly storyboarded, which helped Scorsese focus on the chaos of location shooting and the improvisations of key dialogues and monologues. The intense, oversaturated nocturnal imagery was created in collaboration with a relatively young cinematographer. Scorsese admired the way Michael Chapman shot the urban environment of Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973) and together they created an almost hellish visual world for Taxi Driver: New York at night as seen through the eyes of self-appointed avenging angel, Travis Bickle. Steam rises out of the grates and manhole covers like some primordial urban swamp (some of the street scenes were shot at slightly higher speeds, to give the steam an eerie, unreal slowness when played back) and there's a lurid, abrupt quality to the violence, like a Weegee photo, blunt and grotesque and explosive. Chapman went on to earn his first Oscar® nomination for shooting Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980).

For the score, Scorsese approached one of the greats of American film music. Bernard Herrmann is legendary for his groundbreaking soundtracks for Orson Welles (Citizen Kane [1941] and The Magnificent Ambersons [1942]) and his brilliant Hitchcock scores (such as Vertigo [1958], North by Northwest [1959] and Psycho [1960]), among his many accomplishments. Though he was initially reluctant to work on such a violent film, Herrmann wrote an evocative score that is by turns gentle, sultry and ominous. He died on Christmas Eve, 1975, hours after he completed the recording sessions for the film.

Taxi Driver won the Palm d'or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival and has since been lauded as one of the great American films, not just of the seventies but of all-time. Yet it received only four Academy Award nominations (for Best Picture, for the performances by Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster and for Bernard Herrmann's score) and didn't win any. Neither Martin Scorsese nor Paul Schrader were even nominated for direction and screenplay, which surely illustrates the discomfort the film caused Academy voters. The film's more uncomfortable legacy is its link years later to John Hinkley, who became obsessed with the movie and with Jodie Foster and attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in his delusion. More pointedly, Bernard Goetz became a modern day Travis Bickle when he shot and killed members of a street gang on the subway with self-righteous justification. Taxi Driver only looks more prescient in the wake of his vigilantism and the verdict of "Not Guilty" at his trial.

Bickle is no hero and the film is no celebration of his actions. Taxi Driver is a portrait in psychosis and dislocation with a protagonist whose racism and intolerance becomes his excuse to unleash his anger in a violent spree under the guise of heroism. And the film's final, sour irony is that the world condones and applauds his delusions of chivalry.

Producer: Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Art Direction: Charles Rosen
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro
Cast: Robert DeNiro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Albert Brooks (Tom), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Diahnne Abbott (Concession Girl), Frank Adu (Angry Black Man), Gino Ardito (Policeman at Rally), Vic Argo (Melio), Garth Avery (Iris' Friend), Harry Cohn (Cabbie in Bellmore).
C-113m. Letterboxed.

by Sean Axmaker



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