The 1970’s were a dark, terrible time of power cuts, Seaside Special, strikes, wars, environmental damage and for American’s, the latter half of the decade had them facing up to the Vietnam War’s aftermath as tens of thousands of troops came home damaged in some shape or form from their time at war. As such, art was quick to reflect on these dark times and, in 1976, director Martin Scorcese unleashed Taxi Driver upon the country like some massive primal scream aimed at the people and state of America at the time.
Starring Robert DeNiro in a performance that’s one of the finest performances from an actor during the 1970’s (and that’s saying something as there are some amazing performances from that particular decade) he portrays Travis Bickle – not as some dumb idiot who is essentially evil, or the cartoon antihero of Michael Winner’s Death Wish series – an alienated, mentally damaged and scarred human being trying to make connections outwith the seedy world he’s rooted in. On a daily basis he deals with pimps, thugs, hookers and all manner of people (including the director in a cameo that’s one of the best director cameos in film), as they use his cab for their own often seedy purposes.
Bickle forms a relationship with Betsy (a subtle performance by Cybil Shepard), an aid to presidential candidate Charles Palantine. He tries to do normal things as one would on a date, such as going to the cinema. But sadly Travis is so rooted in his downtrodden world that his idea of a night at the movies is taking her to a porno theatre. Thus, his one attempt at creating a relationship with a ‘normal’ person is destroyed by Travis himself.
To find some sort of redemption, Travis befriends the underage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster in a performance and role that’d never ever get into a mainstream film today) as he tries to convince her to dump her pimps and return to a life of normality. This ends in a massive explosion of violence as Travis ‘rescues’ Iris from her pimps by slaughtering them though he himself suffers serious injuries in the process.
Taxi Driver ends on a note of hope, yet it doesn’t. Travis has recovered from his wounds and has even met with Betsy, not to mention that Iris’s parents have been in touch to thank him. Travis has become a New York folk hero. The man that cleaned up the filth from the streets, but the threat of more violence lurks behind the final shot of Travis. He’s a ticking time bomb. He might have been able to save one life; but he’s so far gone from a normal existence of his own that tragedy is inevitable in his own future.
Taxi Driver is on the face of it, an exceptionally good thriller; but it’s not just that. It’s a highly political film that deals with the New York underclass and the way the American middle class try to ignore these sorts of people, like Travis. People like Betsy see Travis as sympathetic as their middle class liberal values try to guide them through a relationship with him, but when confronted by what his life actually is she’s repulsed by him. This was what many returning soldiers had to face upon their return to the country they fought for; and it’s this alienation that Scorsese and DeNiro use to great effect to tell the story of Travis Bickle, another solider trying to integrate upon his return.
In the process they also tapped into the nascent Punk movement. Indeed, the image of a mohawked Travis inspired many an early Punk to adopt the same hairstyle, and indeed, even the same nihilistic attitude of the film itself.
The legacy of Taxi Driver has been somewhat lost in decades of parody of its most famous scene; but the power and influence of the film can’t be played down. This is an assault upon not just the senses as Scorsese’s roaming camera prowls the neon lit dark of 1970’s New York, but DeNiro’s painfully tortured taxi driver trying to work out what his place is in a world that’s shunned him – and whether he can escape the seedy underground for a chance at redemption. Go back and look at Taxi Driver now as an historical document of a bygone era, as well as one of the best films in a decade of truly great films.