A mentally unstable Vietnam war veteran works as a night-time taxi driver in New York City where the perceived decadence and sleaze feeds his urge for violent action, attempting to save a preadolescent prostitute in the process.
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Travis Bickle is an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran living in New York City. As he suffers from insomnia, he spends his time working as a taxi driver at night, watching porn movies at seedy cinemas during the day, or thinking about how the world, New York in particular, has deteriorated into a cesspool. He's a loner who has strong opinions about what is right and wrong with mankind. For him, the one bright spot in New York humanity is Betsy, a worker on the presidential nomination campaign of Senator Charles Palantine. He becomes obsessed with her. After an incident with her, he believes he has to do whatever he needs to make the world a better place in his opinion. One of his priorities is to be the savior for Iris, a twelve-year-old runaway and prostitute who he believes wants out of the profession and under the thumb of her pimp and lover Matthew. Written by
The script of "Taxi Driver" is built like a diary, the diary of a very ordinary guy who gets hired as a night taxi driver back from Vietnam, because he can't sleep at night. A very ordinary guy who tries to break his isolation, but can't, while violence accumulates inside him. One of those unnoticed people with dark things on their mind, one of those who break up the news one day with some extraordinary outburst of rage, to fall back immediately into anonymity.
The gradual transformation of man into beast in this movie is chilling. It's still funny and pathetic when the hero threatens himself in front of the mirror ("you're talking to me?"), but when he comes out with a mohawk hairdo and dark glasses, it is obvious that nasty stuff is going to take place. As in "A Clockwork Orange", violence is recuperated by society depending on what purpose it is used for. Whereas he was about to murder the candidate for presidency, "god's lonely man" fails and instead kills a vicious pimp who exploits teenage prostitutes. The potential criminal becomes a hero for a day.
Such stories happen everywhere of course, but it seems that the bewildering atmosphere of New York City's summer night was the best choice. "Taxi Driver" gives us a very realistic approach of New York, in a way that is not seen on screen so often, at least not anymore, whilst that city is probably the one in the world that has been filmed the biggest number of times.
Most of the movie takes place at night. The credits open on the blazing lights of the yellow taxi cab moving slowly in the dark rainy streets. A kaleidoscope of neonlight appears through the dripping windows as the driver's eyes blink in the front mirror. The night is the hero's universe, it's the time when "all the animals come out", as he says. By contrast, the few daylight scenes look somewhat off-key, but this was definitely intentional.
The final scene still appears today as extremely violent, but at least, it shows murder for what it is. Brutal, ugly, crude. It is something one tends to forget about after seeing so many police series where people get shot so often that it gets casual. Real violence is not casual when you face it, and here is a film that makes you face it.
The directing is first class and deservedly made path for Scorsese as a world renowned artist. Some techniques he used here are unusual for American cinema, like focusing on details for a few seconds. The movie is enhanced by an excellent music soundtrack by jazz composer Bernard Herrman who died before the picture was even released.
Two of the actors also deservedly made it to stardom. Robert de Niro plays a very unglamorous character, but his presence on screen is so intense that it's no wonder it made such an impression. As for Jodie Foster, she already appeared in films as a child, but playing a teenage prostitute was certainly not an easy challenge, and probably it was that role that really turned her into a major actress.
"Taxi Driver" was a big hit when it came out, both for the public and the critics. It won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, and served as a trend setter for many later films, like for instance Quentin Tarantino's and Abel Ferrara's. But even today, the original model seems difficult to emulate, probably because achieving a masterpiece is a rare thing, by definition.
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