Scorsese of course presents the same problem as Kubrick, doubly so. Just where do you begin with him, what do you leave out? Again it would have been easy to have populated the list with his films, the pop dazzle of Goodfellas (the last thirty minutes of which remain one of the most thrillingly edited pieces of film I’ve seen), the otherworldly nature of The Age of Innocence and Kundun. If the truth be told however it came down to the films that defined him, although Mean Streets was thankfully booted from the list by virtue of being outside the allowed remit. Taxi Driver remained, and marks the beginning of a trend on the list, the almost horror film.
Actually, omit the word almost from that final sentence – Taxi Driver is a horror film through and through, a blistering, offensive, ugly stain of a film that compels you to watch it. In some ways it’s my least favourite Scorsese film, I find it far too difficult to watch (some films I could sit down and watch week in, week out – Taxi Driver almost demands that you take a year off between viewings), it leaves you feeling drained and exhausted, dirty from the experience. It gets under the skin and stays there afterwards, how many who have seen it have driven through a particularly run down part of the city slightly too late at night and caught a snippet of Bernard Hermann’s superb score drift across their mind? Been slightly unnerved by the man on the corner on whom the Mohican looks slightly odd? Stood in front of a mirror and asked “You talking to me?”? That’s the Taxi Driver effect, one small, grubby little film defining the way we act.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t without merit; technically the film is superb, the constant prowling camera (with all those odd angles that David Lynch would later use throughout his career, although speeded up from the slow crawl that unsettles so much here) that brings the viewer into the action, the near constant clatter of the sounds of the city beyond, the oppressive heat (few films can make you experience the weather like Taxi Driver) and the oversaturated colour palate. Scorsese shoots New York as the seventh level of hell, it’s no coincidence that the cab emerges from a pall of smoke & mist at the beginning of a film – all the animals come out at night. It’s a warning, this film is going to look into some ugly places. No one will emerge unscathed.
At the centre of it all stands De Niro, acting as if his life depended on it and this was his last chance at glory. The method madness was already beginning to take shape, the hours spent driving a cab around New York to get a sense of the mood, the radical physical alterations (he is painfully thin in this film, almost a wire of muscle) and the willingness to play a deeply unpleasant character. Only Pacino’s Tony Montanna presents us with as unremittingly foul example of humanity as the protagonist, a racist fantasist obsessed with saving women from themselves, but also unable to react with them in a normal fashion. Travis Bickle is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from the seventies, a call back to film noir (dragging himself deeper into trouble over a woman) and a reaction to the sixties, Bickle avoided peace & love and joined the army putting him at odds with society forever. Scorsese (wisely) chooses to shoot every other character through the lens of Bickle’s opinion, watch how the colour palate for Betsy darkens as his relationship with her fractures. The last (real) time he interacts with her the screen is a sickly green, as far from the bright, pastel hues that we first see her in. Iris is the same, when she’s allowed to act like a child the screen is bright and cheery, at other times it is deep red, never more so than during the infamous finale. Characters are shot in a way that exaggerates what Bickle sees in them, the gangsters in the diner are shot from below in order to emphasise his fear of them, whilst the camera rarely focusses on Sport as he can’t bear to look at him.
It’s far from a one man show however, Jodie Foster having possibly the most complex role as the child prostitute whom may be the only real adult in the film – although this has been forced upon her. Hers is the healthiest relationship with Bickle, although all he wants to do is save her. The scene they share in a diner where she realises that she is smarter than him (but also knows not to let him know that she knows that) gave an indication of how good an actress she would become (and of how brave her choices would be). Elsewhere, Harvey Kietel is fine as the man who to Bickle is everything that is wrong with America (it’s too liberal, too ethnic) even though they are fundamentally from the same backgrounds.
All good horror films need a finale, and Taxi Driver delivers its final descent into hell in spades. From the moment Bickle walks up to Sport and shoots it feels endless, a man deciding he’s going to die doing something right. Shot in as claustrophobic a manner as possible, it’s relentless in the true sense of barely allowing you to breathe. Violence is shown as brutal, dirty and loud rather than the (almost) sanitised vigilante action seen elsewhere at the time. When the police enter Bickle’s head is covered in blood, his rebirth complete. From here Scorsese leaves the ending vague, is it the dream of a dying man or does the city see him as the acceptable face of judgement, a man willing to do what the authorities are not. No comment is made, although the final shot in the mirror indicates that even Bickle may have doubts as to the veracity of his action.