Winner of the Cannes Palme d'or in 1976, Taxi Driver came out fighting, guns ablaze, and heralded the definitive arrival of Martin Scorsese as a major American filmmaker, at the intersection of the post-1967 "new Hollywood" generation and of the deep reverence for "classic Hollywood" cinema. Yet the tale of damaged Vietnam vet Travis Bickle, a New York cabbie spiralling down into the void of his own paranoia and delusion as a sort of martyr-warrior ready to cleanse the city from its filth, remains as elusive as it was almost 40 years ago, not to mention as contemporary as it ever was.
What is so striking about Taxi Driver in 2013 is how unabashedly classic its filmmaking is, how Mr. Scorsese was appropriating the lush camerawork of Vincente Minnelli or Orson Welles and the nocturnal poetry of the finest American film noir (visible in Bernard Herrmann's romantic score) and meshing it with the more jagged, modern approaches of Jean-Luc Godard or John Cassavetes to tell a story that would not be acceptable to film prior to the 1960s. It is, moreso, a story of its time, condensing the anxieties of post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America in an explosive portrait of a man on the edge living in a city on the edge - the seedy downtown New York of the mid-1970s, away from the well-off comedies of uptown Manhattan manners that Woody Allen would start trading in at this time, before the gentrification started changing the city. Travis, as portrayed by Robert de Niro in a nuanced, seethingly controlled performance always one beat away from madness, takes his job as a night cabbie to make up for his inability to sleep at night, and he begins slowly to take into himself the thousand stories of the city he picks up with his fares - from the man who's preparing to kill his wife (Mr. Scorsese himself) to the politician running for president (Leonard Harris) who comes up with a series of stump-speech platitudes.
Travis can't identify with any of them but can't be himself a passive observer of the city; instead, to quote from Whitman, he will contain multitudes and style himself as the paladin New York needs to be saved from itself. Only he is a delusional, psychotic paladin who targets a politician out of spite for having been scorned by a staffer (Cybill Shepherd) on his campaign on whom he had romantic designs and, once that fails, moves to release a teenage prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her indenture to her pimp (Harvey Keitel). Travis is a self-appointed saviour in search of someone whom he'll save - but can he even save himself from his own psychosis?
Mr. Scorsese's interest in guilt and redemption dovetails neatly with screenwriter Paul Schrader's own portrayal of violent martyrdom, but ultimately Travis Bickle embodies the dark side of 1970s America, the prescient realisation of the polarisation between the city and the country, metropolis and the heartland, that moment where "manifest destiny" seemed like a tragic joke and the country as a whole seemed adrift and in search of a course. Taxi Driver, as spewed in a jolt of cathartic energy by a lean, hungry Mr. Scorsese, is a film of its time, but that transcends it both as a cinematic achievement and as a masterful allegory.
Cast: Robert de Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Michael Chapman (colour)
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Art director: Charles Rosen
Costumes: Ruth Morley
Supervising editor: Marcia Lucas
Editors: Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro
Producers: Michael Phillips, Julia Phillips (Columbia Pictures, Bill/Phillips Productions and Italo-Judeo Productions)
USA, 1976, 114 minutes
Screened: 2011 4K digital restoration distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), February 27th 2013