1976 / Best Actor / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #296: Taxi Driver (1976)

As you’ve seen so far in this blog, a lot of stars came into their own in the 1970s. One of them was definitely Robert De Niro, who we’ve already seen in Oscar-winning form when he appeared in The Godfather Part Two. However, it was only later in the decade that De Niro became a leading man and this was partly thanks to his association with director Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese and De Niro’s first Oscar-nominated collaboration came in the form of Taxi Driver. The film saw De Niro playing Travis Bickle, a former marine turned cabbie whose insomnia meant that he often trawled the streets of New York late at night. The episodic structure of Taxi Driver saw Travis struggle to comprehend the stresses of modern day life as we quickly learnt that he was a fairly unhinged young man. The first half of the film sees Travis attempt to woo young campaigner Betsy but their relationship is cut short after he takes her to see a fairly explicit Swedish film. Betsy’s rejection sends Travis further down a dark street as he get himself into tip top condition and buys a gun which he later uses to stop an armed robbery at a convenience store. The final half of the film watches Travis’ plan to assassinate presidential candidate Charles Palantine which is ultimately quashed when he is spotted by secret service guards. Instead, Travis sees it as his mission to prevent young prostitute Iris from being corrupted by her pimp Sport. The relationship between Travis and Iris is an interesting one as he attempts to be a positive influence on this young soul. As the film reaches its violent and bloody conclusion, the once incredibly isolated Travis finds himself becoming something of a hero.

From the first strains of Bernard Hermann’s haunting score, I was completely entranced by Taxi Driver. Though I have seen the film before, I think that I appreciate it a lot more than I did when I first saw it ten years ago. I personally feel that this was the film that put Scorsese on the map and showed what an interesting film-maker he could be. Oddly, he wasn’t nominated for Best Director and there was no love either for Paul Schrader’s brilliantly dark screenplay. I have to say Schrader’s script perfectly constructs one of film’s most memorable anti-heroes and he and Scorsese do a brilliant job of making us identify with someone who is as mentally unstable as Bickle. But I believe that the primary reason that we want to follow Travis is because of De Niro’s Oscar-nominated performance. I feel that he makes you understand Bickle’s mind and the reasons he has behind all of his ideas from taking Betsy to the adult cinema to attempting to rescue Iris from Sport. De Niro is ably supported by Jodie Foster, the only other cast member to be nominated for an Oscar, who is absolutely brilliant as the aforementioned Iris. Foster plays Iris as someone who has plenty of experience beyond her years but you can see behind her eyes that she’s just a frightened little girl. Cybil Shepherd is equally great as the stuck-up Betsy while Harvey Keitel is fairly frightening as Iris’ pimp. As with a lot of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver is an ode to New York, a city which is captured here by Michael Chapman’s superb cinematography which lets us see the area through the eyes of Travis. Not always an easy watch, Taxi Driver isn’t as violent as I remembered and instead Scorsese really makes you anticipate the violence by building up the tension. I’m personally not sure if the ending makes sense after what has come before, but ultimately I feel that Taxi Driver is one of the best films of the 1970s and the fact that it didn’t win one Oscar is a major travesty.


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