Assassins, mass murderers and other freakish criminals more often than not turn out to be the quiet kid down the street, and not the “nuts” and “radicals” that society views with regular alarm. “Taxi Driver” is Martin Scorsese’s frighteningly plausible case history of such a person. It’s a powerful film, an excellent credit for Scorsese, and a terrific showcase for the versatility of star Robert De Niro. The intricate production planning gives the Columbia release a quasi-documentary look, and the late Bernard Herrmann’s final score is superb. Michael and Julia Phillips produced this hot b.o. item, which has class and mass audience appeal.
Paul Schrader’s original screenplay is in fact a sociological horror story. We leave a theatre after a conventional horror film, comfortable in the delusion that the unseen goblins and ghosts which briefiy terrified the screen players are safely locked up in the film can. But out on the street walk the next Arthur Bremers, the unindicted My Lai butchers, this year’s freeway snipers. We can’t spot them in advance, but they’re there, and depending on the catalytic situation, they are us.
Take a young veteran like Travis Bickle, Schrader’s focal character. A night cabbie, he prowls the N.Y. streets until dawn, stopping occasionally for coffee with Peter Boyle and some others, kllling off-duty time in porno theatres. He’s been (like most all of us), deceived by false advertising, phony movie and tv dramaturgy, vote-hungry politicians, simplistic and pat morality. An introverted loner life makes the complex frustrations more vivid, and the urge to “do something” more strong. Why not lash out violently at the perceived wrongs in the world? And what better way than with guns and knives – the sex organs of pornographic violence?
A guy like that just needs a little push towards a starring spot on tonight’s tv news. What prods Travis are a series of rejections: By Cybill Shepherd, adroitly cast as the teleblurb hairspray heroine lookalike working for the presidential campaign of Senator Leonard Harris; by Jodie Foster, teenage prostitute working the streets for her lover-pimp, Harvey Keitel, and his assistant Murray Moston; even by his pal Boyle, whose advice to keep cool (though valid in itself; it’s the way most of us avoid freaking out) just doesn’t take.
So, with the help of gun-runner Steven Prince (no ideologue he: guns, dope, pllls – something for everyone), Travis suits up to make his personal statement to the world. Alert Secret Service Agent Richard Higgs aborts an assassination try on Senator Harris, but there’s always Keitel, Moston and Foster’s clients.
In a climactic sequence, desaturated in Metrocolor printing as one way of avoiding an X rating for the film, the madman exorcises himself. It’s a brutal, horrendous and cinematically brilliant sequence, capped by the irony that he becomes a media hero for a day, and, passions subdued, resumes his average-Joe life among us. But for how long, we don’t know.
De Niro gives the role the precise blend of awkwardness, naivete and latent violence which makes Travis a character who is compelling even when he is at his most revolting. It is a smash performance. Every other player fits perfectly into this psychotic puzzle. Director Scorsese has a slightly overripe cameo as a deranged husband who takes De Niro’s cab to where his wife is living with another man, and his talk of guns turns on De Niro.
The screen credits are as much of a maze as the plot, what with “visual consultant,” “creative consultant” and “special photography” billings piled atop the more conventional credlts listed above. Credits prostitution has run amok, and if the film industry doesn’t begin cleaning up this mess, nobody is going to deserve any mention. (Maybe the public is right: The actors improvise everything.)
But one credit leaves no doubt – Herrmann’s glorious music score, on which he finished work the night before his death last Dec. 24. In a rare tribute, the final credit card conveys “our gratitude and respect.” Among his themes is a haunting urban blues-type refrain, featuring the mellow sax of Ronnie Lang, whose name was furnished on inquiry.
Scorsese and crew have an excellent film here which has a real gut appeal to both discriminating audiences as well as the popcorn trade. By a coincidence of timing, it will be playing concurrent with Paul Mazursky’s latest, “Next Stop, Greenwich Village.” Two excellent films – same city, same underlying human natures, but what a difference a generation has made in social values. It’s as horrendous as it is probably wrong to project ahead and shudder at the prospect that, someday, “Taxi Driver” might well be considered humanistic nostalgia.
1976: Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Robert De Niro), Supp. Actress (Jodie Foster), Original Score