Funny how time works sometimes. Given the year I was born and the things I was being exposed to, I saw most of the films of my favorite directors in reverse chronological order. First I saw Goodfellas and Cape Fear, and I started to get into this Scorsese guy, so I sought out some of his earlier work. I’m sure it works the same way for kids today; they probably see Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Grindhouse before Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Anyway, whatever I’d seen before, nothing could prepare me for the raw power and singular vision of Taxi Driver, a film I watched religiously as a teenager. Several things struck me about it at once: That Scorsese was a filmmaker with complete command of the camera; I can honestly think of no other director (except for maybe Paul Thomas Anderson) whose images have had such a powerful impact on me. The film also struck me as totally honest and uncompromising. This was humanity laid bare, raw and exposed, with none of the comforting affectations of other movies. And what a frightening place the world could be! A place without moral order, where the crazies weren’t locked up safely in the asylum (as they were in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) but were free to roam the streets.
Watching Taxi Driver recently, I noticed two things that contribute heavily to the film’s overall tone and impact: Travis Bickle’s voiceover narration (beautifully delivered by Robert De Niro and written by Paul Shrader), and the exterior shots of New York City. From the unforgettable opening shot of a taxi cab emerging from a cloud of steam, Scorsese establishes NYC as a nightmare world filled with sinister possibilities. And Travis’ description of it (”the dogs, the cunts, the screwheads”) reveals the city has produced a psychotic avenging angel.
So many images and moments from the film have stuck with me over the years: The frightening musical sting when Travis first sees Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster, crossing the street in front of his cab; the savage shooting and beating of a stick-up man inside a convenience store; Travis’ homemade sliding action holster; the climactic bloodbath involving Travis and the men he thinks are holding Iris captive. And I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful performances by De Niro, Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks.
Few movies work on so many levels. If the 1970s were the golden age for Hollywood cinema, then Taxi Driver is its apex.