Taxi Driver, the pressure cooker of a film about one man’s lonely journey into a nether region of metaphoric and literal hell by way of a society that doesn’t even want to begin to understand him, celebrated its 40th anniversary over the weekend, opening in New York City on Feb 7th, 1976 and opening in a wide release on February 8th.
The film, an early masterpiece by director Martin Scorsese, who was coming off twin successes with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore respectively, is a stark, brutal, dark, and pulsing look into the open wound that was New York City circa 1975. During that turbulent and gritty time, the city was almost limping on legs from a bygone era that started to erode and disintegrate by the time the film was made. On cracked concrete streets, with asphalt that seemed to emit snakelike steam from its sewers could only a film like this be born. Taxi Driver stands as a true testament to the blood, sweat, and tears put forth by the creative triumvirate of Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader, and the lead actor who played one Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro, was already a legend even then when the cameras started rolling as production commenced.
Loosely based on Arthur Bremer, a loner type who fired multiple rounds into Presidential hopeful and Governor George Wallace in a mall parking lot in 1972, paralyzing him until his death a few decades later, Taxi Driver has extreme amounts of layers to it, even just on the surface. The taxi driving, insomniac, and ex-Green Beret character of Bickle, as written by Schrader and portrayed by De Niro and directed by Scorsese, is adrift in a New York City that’s like an endless ocean that stretches far beyond horizon points. It’s that kind of loneliness that acts in counterpoint concert to making Travis the central arc of the film, and it’s through his perspective, for the most part, that we see and almost share in his vision of a black-holed and black-eyed New York that’s stained with ugliness.
And in his quest for purity, either for himself or in a grand vision, Travis can only surmise violence as an answer. His unease becomes our unease, and the result is that the film is unsettling throughout; even humor doesn’t ease tension, it strangely commits more of it. The searing score by the late Bernard Herrmann, who died when the film was in post-production, is at once jarring and soothing, as its melancholy saxophones play over angry harp lines driven by a repetitive rat-a-tat on a snare drum that sounds like cannon fire, almost acting as the sinister heartbeat of the film.
One of the great lines from the movie, endlessly quoted in various forms of media since its introduction back in 1976, is “You talkin’ to me?,” which is uttered during the apex of Travis’ bubbling rage and psychotic disappointment, in which he baits an imaginary adversary in his mirror. Ad-libbed for the most part by De Niro, it’s one of the screen’s most unsettling and sinister images, possibly the most memorable image of 1970s cinema and of the careers of De Niro and Scorsese.
As a film, Taxi Driver doesn’t just talk to us, it blasts like fire through a megaphone at us, and the white and black and blood red noise it bellows is as loud and as memorable as ever 40 years later. It’s that kind of film, but in a way, you already knew that. There aren’t casual fans of Taxi Driver, it’s not that kind of film; it’s an emotionally immersive experience — Scorsese is asking the viewer to kind of walk an uneasy tightrope in watching the film, and will promise he won’t let you fall, even though your feet are bloody and vertigo sets in. It’s a ride with no seat belts. Nothing is made easy, exemplified by the color-saturated and pulse-stopping ending of the film in which we wonder if it was simply one man’s dream, a fantasy. The same themes were also explored in Scorsese’s equal weight masterpiece a few years later, the sardonic and magnificent The King of Comedy, in which De Niro also plays a loner character who emits an unsettling feeling throughout and also ends with a “you-aren’t-quite-sure-what’s-reality-and-what–is-fantasy” skein.
While Taxi Driver earned its rightful accolades, going on to snag Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (for Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (for Jodie Foster), and Best Original Score (for Bernard Herrmann), as well as other awards, it also unfortunately drew a dark side most famously by its inadvertent influence on John Hinckley, Jr., President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin. Hinckley became obsessed with the film, especially with its then-underaged co-star Jodie Foster, who played a teen prostitute. In 1981, Hinkley stalked the actress, but when it didn’t yield the desired results, he shot and wounded President Reagan in Washington, D.C. in an effort to get Foster’s attention and to impress her.
Years after the film’s release, it was selected to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry, and has gone on to top many a Best Movies list. As great as some of the films of the 1970s hold up, only Taxi Driver seems to beat like a dizzying tom tom right in the viewers’ senses, presenting a world and a character who seems more relevant than ever. The dangerous energy Taxi Driver emits on screen has never been more relevant than in today’s day and age, where frustration, disappointment, and cynicism run sky high. What also runs high is expert filmmaking; superb and organic performances (by people like a young Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, and especially Harvey Keitel); a dazzling script, and a kind of dogeared production design throughout, all elements which keep Taxi Driver high in the consciousness of cinephiles and rightfully securing its place on the mantle of the all-time great cinema 40 years on.