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Taxi Driver

March 4, 2007

The 1970’s was a decade of disillusionment for the US . It was for the first time it found it’s superpower status under threat. While Vietnam exposed the limitations of it’s military might, back home the Watergate scandal, made people lose faith in their elected Government and the office of the President. In the East, a rejuvenated Japan , rising from the rubble of WW2 , was emerging as an economic superpower in it’s own right, especially in the field of automobiles and electronics. OPEC’s decision to raise oil prices, and the Japanese introduction of small cars, hit the US auto industry badly. For the first time, the American Dream of having a home, a job and two cars in the garage, was not so rosy. It was around this time, that a young bunch of movie makers started to capture this feeling of cynicism and insecurity among ordinary Americans. Movies which questioned the values in the Amercian society, movies which were cynical and dark in nature.
One of the greatest movies which depicted this cynicism prevalent in the American society, at that time was Martin Scorcese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver. The plot centers around a loner and an ex marine, Travis Bickle( Robert De Niro) . Bickle is an insomaniac, a cynical loser who hates the society around him. As he says “ Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

In order to make a living, he keeps driving a taxi around some of Manhattan’s shadiest neighborhoods. This is where he comes in contact with what he calls “scum of society”, drug peddlers, prostitutes, pimps, small time crooks, hustlers, loan sharks. His only past time is to watch porno movies in seedy theaters, and rest of the time he spends talking to himself. He tries to date Betsy( Cybil Shepherd), who is an aide for the New York senator, Charles Palantine. However even that backfires when on their first date together, he takes her to a porno movie, and she leaves him in disgust.

This is a crucial moment, as now totally depressed and feeling a sense of rejection, he starts to see himself as one person against the filthy bad world. He is horrified by the moral decay he sees everywhere. He tries to save a child prostitute Iris( Jodie Foster) from her pimp Sport( Harvey Keitel). Though she is not interested in being saved, he wants her to go back and lead a normal life. His life becomes obsessed with her. His delusions and paranoia only intensify further, and he also plans to assasinate Senator Palantine , just to get back at Betsy. Will Travis succeed in his mission? Will Betsy come back to him again? Is Iris saved?

Well do watch the movie, but you would still find yourself asking a lot, especially the open ended climax, which just makes you keep guessing. This is one of Scorcese’s finest movies along with Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Raging Bull . The movie again like most of Scorcese’s movies is a pretty multi layered one, dealing with various issues.

One is the theme of urban decay, when many cities in the US were hit by rising crime rates, pollution, scandals during the 70’s. Here Scorcese explores the seedy underside of New York City , something which he had already done in Mean Streets . Only in this case, its more of an outsider’s view of it. Some of the best scenes in the movie are those, where Bickle drives along, and we see shots of the more unsavory side of New York.

The other aspect is the existentialist theme of the movie, where the hero suffers from loneliness and delusions. In this case, he sees himself, as a lone ranger against all the scum around him. As he says “Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Or of course the memorable quote “You talking to me”, which Travis keeps on repeating while looking at himself in the mirror. In fact if there is a single point on which the movie scores a lot, it’s the characterization of Travis Bickle . He is a loser, a loner, a misfit, yet he seems totally confused. He hates society, he hates the world around him, yet he wants to be accepted as part of that society. He lies to his parents that he is dating Betsy, when in effect she had already left him. He is not a pyschotic kind of character, just a social misfit, some one who is not comfortable with things around him. It was primarily a reflection of the cynicism, confusion and insecurity in the mind of the average American at that time.

Most of the movie is narrated in the first person by Travis, and it centers around him, and his observations. Again the climatic shoot out, is pretty graphic by the standards of those times. As also the scene, where a businessman( Scorcese in a cameo role), wants to kill his unfaithful wife, and Travis purchases the guns for him and ends up shooting a robber. Also the open ended ending, when Travis becomes an unwilling hero. Best left to be seen on the screen and interprted in whatever way you like.

Gritty, realistic and no nonsense, it also has an excellent score by Bernard Hermann. And of course there is Robert De Niro . Niro and Scorcese were to Hollywood in the 70’s and 80’s, what John Ford and John Wayne were in the 50’s, one of the greatest director-actor teams. Scorcese directed Niro in as many as 7 movies including Mean Streets, Raging Bull, New York, New York, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, Cape Fear and Casino. And this would make it any time to list of Robert De Niro’s best performances. As the cynical, weary, paranoid loser, De Niro, is simply outstanding in the role. Whether it’s hallucinating on being a fighter, or goofing up with his girl friend, or trying to save Iris, Robert De Niro gives an outstanding performance.

Harvey Keitel who played the lead role in another Scorcese movie Mean Streets, plays the sleazy pimp here, and he proves to be an able foil to De Niro.

Jodie Foster does an excellent job as the child prostitute, while Cybil Shepherd does a good job, playing the woman with whom Travis is eternally obsessed. All in all a movie to be seen by any passionate movie lover, and yes do watch this alone or maybe with person sharing your tastes. Because the language and violence, can put off some people.

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