|It’s Called Hell’s Kitchen For A Reason||1 out of 1 user found this review helpful.|
New York in the 60s and 70s was hell. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t even born, but if movies such as Marathon Man, Midnight Cowboy and Death Wish, among many, many others are to be believed, the city was a sewer. A sentiment shared by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, a film that takes everything the big city has and condenses it all to the viewpoint of one man.
Travis Bickle is the squarest peg in the round hole of New York City. A disaffected young man who may or may not have had military service, doesn’t follow music, movies or politics and spends 12 hours a day working in his cab. In a city of millions that exists on the bleeding edge of modern culture, Bickle slipped through the cracks and exists as a figure as menacing as he is tragic. The world he drives through is alienating and aggravating and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t make a connection, he can’t figure it out, something he relays in his monotonous diary entries.
This performance is most definitely that of a world class actor. Considering what he’s become over the past decade, it’s easy to forget that De Niro is a strong contender for the greatest screen actor of all time and Bickle is perhaps the finest example of his work. There’s a persistent and unsettling duality to everything he does, even when just shooting the breeze with his fellow taxi drivers, he always feels a syllable away from exploding into a ball of rage, that is besides for the times when he straight up lies to people, such as the man running for mayor, Charles Palantine. Here he is icy smooth but just as terrifying. And then, there are the times when we see him on his own, throwing all his frustrations into the iconic mirror scene and toning himself up as if taking part in an act of self flagellation. Yet, he does all this without becoming a monster; there’s always a human edge to the performance. When he gets threatened in the Governor’s office and strikes a kung fu pose, it’s difficult not to laugh, something that could have ruined a lesser film and been played like a moment of comedy but here, it’s a moment of distance between who Travis thinks he is and who he really is.
It is a film that’s concerned with the journey of its protagonist and so Bickle is the only character who is prominent from start to finish but the surrounding bit players shouldn’t be forgotten. Scorsese obviously knew he needed actors who could do a lot with a little and that is really brought to light in the latter half with pitch perfect performances from Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster as Iris and Sport, her pimp. In just one short monologue, Sport embodies the ugly underbelly that Travis detests and Iris, who is barely even a teenager and yet already worn out and cynical. They make for a tragic, disgusting and compelling couple, complete opposite of the yuppies, Tom and Betsy, co-workers at a political rally office. Bland and oblivious to the hateful world of Travis that surrounds them. Compared to the sleaze of the city, they stick out like a sore thumb but, if anything, this makes the attraction between Bickle and Betsy, played by the then-radiant Cybill Shepherd, more poignant. She embodies Travis’ escape, he just doesn’t know to get out.
As a native New Yorker, it’s unsurprising that Scorsese knows how to get the best out of his city. The scenes of a day portray the place as a hustling and bustling metropolis but what really shines are the scenes of a night. What looked so vibrant in the daylight looks murky and vicious when bathed in the neon that radiates from streetlights and billboards. At points, it almost rationalizes Travis’ point of view. And, on top of that is a perfect score from the original great movie composer himself, Bernard Herrmann. This may have been the last movie he was involved in before his death but all the inventiveness that was there during the Hitchcock years, not to mention his other iconic works, is still present. With a meandering and restless saxophone, the sounds of Travis’ journey into the night is just as seedy as the sights and just as sad as the man himself.
The socially conscious character study of the piece is essentially the draw of the feature but just from a technical point of view, experiencing three masters at work; De Niro, Herrmann and Scorsese, each at the top of their game, is something rarely seen in all of cinema. The word ‘masterpiece’ is often misplaced, but here, it’s the only word that can come close to giving a fitting description.
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