Collaboration. The relationship between actor and director can sometimes bring about a synergy that produces some incredible feats of cinema. Though it’s not a common as you might expect, given the amount of films made. Some well known collaborators are Blake and Sellers, Russell and Reed, Kurosawa and Mifune and of course Scorsese and De Niro. Since 1973, the collaboration between these two gentlemen has provided some of the most exciting cinema ever produced. And what’s more it was there right from the start, the pair finding a common ground on which to grow a fruitful relationship that has blossomed with treats the like of which the cinema going public had never seen before, and have devoured ever since. Sometimes they may have been bitter, others juicy and yet others dry, but always enjoyable and ever satisfying. Taxi Driver was their second collaboration, insisted upon by the studio (!) and Scorsese’s first with writer Paul Schrader, a future collaborator himself. Together the three produced a body of work that’s legacy resonates to this day. Say to most anyone “You talkin’ at me?” and the reply you get is Taxi Driver.
Somewhat difficult to discuss, as I there are literally thousands of other writers out there to whom Taxi Driver is the embodiment of genius and, as such, many thousands of reviews, indeed Cas recently reviewed the US version, and I, myself, looked at the Japanese SD DVD Superbit release, from which a large part of this essay is taken, a few years back; I shall therefore content myself with observing some of the finer points and a few personal thoughts before getting onto the AV section, which is, after all, why anyone would look at this UK release, because anyone who is anyone will already own a copy and will want to know if the upgrade is worth it.
Taxi Driver starts in slow motion; a huge plume of impenetrable steam obscures our view until a yellow taxi cab rises from it, like a mythical beast rising from the depths, a beast with acid in its belly, an acid used to clean the streets, an acid called Travis Bickle (De Niro). Travis is a Vietnam veteran, social retard and chronic insomniac. He takes a job at a taxi firm, working nights, or most other times as a way to relieve his boredom. He also lives alone, writing a journal to himself in which he professes hatred to the streets’ inhabitants, projecting his own self loathing outwards, he is totally alone. It is from the window of his cab that he views the life around him, a metal shell in which he is isolated, a metaphor for his own mental anguish. It is from this shell that two ladies come into his life, the beautiful Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) to whom he reaches out and the prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) that reaches out to him.
Bickle’s first sit down with Betsy at the coffee shop is an exercise on neurosis, as he tries so desperately hard to form a relationship, yet in his outbursts there are already the seeds of madness; when Betsy comments that she has never met anyone like him, she is not wrong, but in saying so perhaps considers herself superior to him. Contrary to his and Iris’ first sit down, again at a coffee shop, where she compares herself to him, “I don’t know who is weirder, you or me?” and thus placing herself at a level footing. Little wonder then when the final seeds of madness are sown, Bickle’s first idea is to destroy Betsy’s world, bring her down to his level, but when that fails he goes to Iris to save her from hers, in a brutal shootout. After which the camera pulls back in a Hitchcockian reverse to show the streets, complete with their inhabitants. Did Bickle really make a difference. He did to perhaps two people, Iris, safe and back with her parents and himself, the excesses seemed to stay the madness even to the point where he can now relate to his co-workers. Pulling away from Betsy in the final scene after only looking at her in the mirror, he adjusts to look at himself ...
The raw power of Taxi Driver is not from the infamous brothel shootout, but from watching Bickle’s decent into madness. De Niro is the only person who could have played this character, such is the performance. Every little thing he does conveys a message, a little head movement here, and little twitch there it is a charismatic performance deserving of all the praise; ably helped by the framing, Bickle is always just out of centre frame, and sometimes not in it at all! Scorsese wisely surrounds this central performance with a host of other excellent characters, Shepherd’s Betsy plays the tease excellently, a perfect folly for the office, and Bickle’s, attentions. Fosters’ portrayal of Iris is one of the best performances of any child star at any time, little wonder she was nominated and won so many awards, two outstanding scenes; when Sport (Harvey Keitel, in another excellently cast role, it’s all about that hat) is dragging her away from the cab and her feeble attempts at resistance, watch as she is manhandled down the street, and her line in the brothel shootout, conveying even then her indecision, marvellous stuff.
I’d like to mention Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score, which I’ve never heard as clear and wonderful as it is on this disc, leads me to consider it as a character itself, as manic depressive as it builds to a crescendo before rolling off in madness; listening to it during the opening credits you get a feel for how the film is going to play out; and listening to it isolated brings home images of the film; the two are as inseparable and inevitable as Travis’ descent into madness.
Taxi Driver, as raw and powerful now as it was back in 1976, as much a study of loneliness as that of insanity, of social interaction as aspiration, of depravity as redemption. As collaborations go Taxi Driver is perhaps as perfect as it gets, even though the three have worked together since, it remains, at least to me, their best work and a testament to the medium of cinema.
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