Monday, September 28, 2009

1976 - Taxi Driver

As promised, dear readers, I have now added voting polls to each of the verdict posts. So, now you can chime in with your own opinion on the best films of each year. Looking ahead, each poll will begin when I post the verdict for that year, but you can go back to the verdicts that have already been delivered in the project to vote on them, as well. There won't be any closing date for any poll. Currently, you can vote on 1939, 1966 and 1992.

I have started off each poll with two votes - one to represent my favourite and one to represent the Academy's choice for Best Picture. Let's see how much agreement there is amongst my readership. And don't feel like you can't vote if you haven't seen all the nominees. As I mentioned previously, Academy members have no such restriction on their voting rights, so there's certainly no reason to feel that these polls should be any different. Vote away!

To completely digress for a second, I used to own the project's next film on VHS many years ago. Before I got around to watching it, I loaned it to a friend who was writing some kind of university paper on film. I promptly forgot all about it and, years later, I lost touch with the friend. Fortunately, a new technological age began, so I purchased the film again, this time on DVD. Once again, before I managed to sit down to watch it, I loaned it to a different friend, and the whole scenario repeated itself. I was beginning to think I was fated to never see this film again. I estimate it's probably been at least fifteen years since I last saw it and, thanks to Netflix, I managed to view it this morning.

The film in question is, of course, the modern classic from the 1976 Best Picture race...

Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese
Paul Schrader
Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Travis Bickle is one of those iconic cinematic characters that only comes around once in a generation. He's a lonely cab driver working the night shift in New York City, disgusted by the low-life scum that troll the streets during those dark hours. Upon spying the beautiful Betsy, a campaign volunteer for a Presidential hopeful, Bickle becomes a little obsessed. Somehow, he manages to keep his creepiness at bay just long enough to convince Betsy to grab a coffee with him and, surprisingly, he's at least charming enough for her to agree to go on a second date. Unfortunately, Bickle's cluelessness leads to him taking her to an X-rated movie, during which she storms out. After all his attempts at reconciliation are rejected, his depressed thoughts deteriorate into violent thoughts and, after illegally purchasing several firearms, he transfers his attention to saving a pre-teen prostitute named Iris from her dead-beat pimp with severely violent consequences.

There is so much atmosphere in Taxi Driver. All the elements of film making come together to create such a deliciously seedy mood and it really draws you in. At first, I was a little distracted by some of Scorsese's strange choices. He definitely likes to be interesting with his shot selection. But there's just something so hypnotic about the result that it's almost like a dream. There are several sequences in which my eyes were glued to the screen not because of any conventional suspense, just because it was indescribably fascinating. Bickle is watching a soap opera on his television set that sits atop a small rickety table. He puts his foot up against the screen and slowly pushes the television back. The camera stays with him for several moments as he deliberately rocks the set back and forth ever so gently. Nothing particularly suspenseful about that but, for some reason, I was transfixed. Only when the television eventually succumbs to gravity and crashes to the floor, exploding in an electrical mess, was I jolted out of my spell.

Bernard Hermann's terrifically sinister score is a perfect addition to the film. The composer, probably most famous for his frequent collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, including the famous violin shrieks from Psycho, highlights the sleaziness of 1970s New York at night, and, in particular, Bickle's creepiness. Coupled with the softly spoken narration, it cements this film as a brilliant example of modern film noir.

And what can you say about Robert De Niro that would do this performance justice? The consummate professional, De Niro spent time working as a night cabbie to get into his role. And whether you agree with that kind of Method acting preparation or not, it's hard to deny that De Niro's portrayal is extraordinary. He begins the film creepy, but he just gets creepier and creepier as the story progresses, furthering himself from society before mentally unravelling completely. It's such a well structured performance with all the nuances of character you would expect from someone with his reputation. You see, underneath it all, Travis Bickle is really just an innocent guy who wants to help people. He just doesn't understand how. And in De Niro's hands, you almost pity him, because you begin to comprehend that he genuinely doesn't realise that taking a date to a porn movie is a bad idea.

Scorsese himself shows up in a cameo as a bitter and threatening cab passenger who spies on his wife's affair. There is a fantastic naturalism to Scorsese's performance. He really should get in front of the camera more often. Also worthy of a mention is Harvey Keitel as the pimp, showing us why he has become such a legendary player of gritty and seedy characters.

So, I think there's no doubt in my mind that Taxi Driver is leading the 1976 race at the moment with just two movies to go. But my mind shall remain open, for the next two films are certainly nothing to shake a stick at.

1 comment:

  1. The 70s are going to offer many challenges. I can say now that 1971, 1974 and 1976 will be difficult years for me to choose a favorite.

    1976 has four very competitive choices for me. Two films are gritty urban stories of redemption that take completely different approaches. The two other films deal with the media with one a dogged investigative story and the other a blistering satire on television ratings and news.

    I can tell you now, Matt that at this stage of my movie viewing life, I have a strong affinity for film noir. I didn't really appreciate it until I was around 40 years old, but since then it has easily become the genre I most re-visit. I think if any decade will rival the 70s it will be the 40s, and I could probably pick a film noir as a favorite movie for each year in that decade.

    So, that should give you a hint as to my appreciation of Taxi Driver. You hit the nail on the head describing it as hypnotic and dreamlike. Seeing the steam rising through the sewer vents, you feel that Travis Bickle is riding on the lid of hell. It is mesmerizing despite several uncomfortable scenes. You want to look away, yet can't.

    Taxi Driver had no chance to win the Best Picture Award, and I suspect if Peter Finch didn't win Best Actor, it would have gone to Sylvester Stallone or William Holden. While all gave great performances, Robert De Niro was amazing. It's the closest anyone has come to reaching the depths that Brando was able to reach.