Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Taxi Driver (1976)

Dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel 

We can see the change in Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver over the course of two statements.

“All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. One of these days a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets...”
“Listen you fuckers, you screwheads! Here is a man who would not take it any more! A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up!”
Inarticulate and insomniac, Travis has no friends. He is distant from his family. He has no particular views on politics, music, cinema. He prowls the rain-slick streets of 1970s New York at night as a taxi driver. And what he sees of life disgusts him. The streets are thick with prostitutes and pimps, crazies and killers. And in the back seat of his cab all the seven sins are played out: lust, wrath, envy, you name it. In one of the most shocking (to me) lines in the film Travis casually states “Each night when I return the cab to the garage I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights I clean off the blood.” But he can put up with it. He wishes the world weren’t so, but what can you do? Only sit and wait for the rain…

But then he becomes the rain. He takes it upon himself to cleanse the city of those who bring it down. He gets “some bad ideas” in his head. The ramblings in his diary become more psychotic. He buys guns. Lots of guns. He talks to himself in the mirror – the famous “You talkin’ to me?” scene. And he starts to choose his targets. Unable to relate effectively to women he idealises them as symbols of purity. It doesn’t work. So he looks at the most important men in the lives of the women he loves, the men who have – in his eyes – corrupted them. For campaign-worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) that man would be presidential candidate Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris); for 12 year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) it would be her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), and the Mafioso brothel-owners he reports to.

Travis is in no way a good well-adjusted man. His idea of a suitable second date is to take Betsy to a porn theatre to watch a Swedish sex film. When the other taxi drivers bitch and tell tall tales he watches, but does not really interact unless he has to. Same with his passengers. He is an outsider casting a jaundiced eye on the world. In his head he fantasises. He tells his parents he has to remain incognito due to his work for the Government but that he has a nice girl. Yet he survives his killing spree and ends up a hero. Too slow to shoot Palantine he takes out his anger on Iris’s pimps. He wakes from a coma to be hailed a hero. But the savagery is not hiding very far below the surface. In the very last scene he suddenly glances up at his rear-view mirror, shock and hate etched onto his features. Travis has merely been vindicated; he is still a ticking time-bomb. 

But so is the city. This is not Woody Allen’s romanticised black and white Manhattan. This is the New York of Martin Scorsese. In his New York the darkness is only contrasted with garish neon. Sex is sold on every corner. The wet streets reflect back this world; so too does Travis. He sees the scum and takes it upon himself to clean up the city. Obviously, he doesn’t look inwards enough to recognise that he himself is scum. 

The ending looks as though it was cut and pasted from another film altogether. To appease the MPAA Scorsese deliberately desaturated the colours of the final shoot-out. This gives it a grainy, almost dreamy atmosphere. Scorsese is on record as saying that he prefers the final appearance to the original. I cannot make that comparison, but I don’t like the desaturated print. It makes the film look like some dodgy chop-socky video import. 

I told you not to pick it...

The young De Niro is amazing here. His scenes conversing with himself in the mirror are famous, but for most of the film he is flat and empty. All we have are his eyes flickering. Nor is he the only actor that appears here years before we become more familiar with them. Frankly, the idea that he won an Oscar for his fleeting appearance in The Untouchables but not for carrying Taxi Driver is an insult. Keitel – who starred alongside De Niro in Cop Land - not only has hair, he has a mane of the stuff, black and flowing. As the twelve-year-old hooker Jodie Foster is old before her times, debating her life precociously with Travis over breakfast (a breakfast that, admittedly, consists of jam and sugar toast sandwiches while she tries on different pairs of sunglasses). Scorsese himself even appears in one scene as a jealous and murderous husband. Only having seen him before as the avuncular bushy-eyebrowed Marty of recent years I completely failed to recognise the black-bearded sociopath in the back of Bickle’s cab. 

Taxi Driver also occupies an interesting place in the annals of political violence in America. In 1972 a man called Artie Bremer attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor (and Presidential hopeful) George Wallace. Scriptwriter Paul Schrader used Bremer’s rambling diaries as inspiration for Travis Bickle. Bickle, of course, sets out to assassinate Presidential hopeful Charles Palantine. A young man from New York called John Hinckley Jr. became so obsessed with Jodie Foster’s characterisation of Iris in Taxi Driver that he fell in love with her. In 1981 he decided to prove his love by – yep – trying to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley’s abortive attempt was later incorporated in to Stephen Sondheim’s 1991 Broadway musical Assassins. This means that Assassins was a curious case of art imitating life imitating art imitating life. 

What have I learnt about New York?
New York in the ‘70s is a world away from the top tourist destination we know it as now. There is nothing romantic or appealing about it. It is sordid, sleazy and dangerous and everyone knows it.  I understand now why Rudy Giullani is so feted in New York. I'm not saying that his 'Zero Tolerance' programme made all the difference between the NYC of Taxi Driver and the safe, relatively-clean city we can see today, but crikey, something was needed. It could be argued that New York has become bland, corporatised and homogenous compared to the edgy, grungy, New York of independent businesses seen in this film. But here's the question: where would you rather walk around at night?

I probably now understand more about the world of taxi drivers. They are contracted to a company, which owns the cab. The drivers aim to put enough money away to be able to buy their own license and car. Travis says that he makes $300-350 a week (is this true or just another fantasy?). Bear in mind that even when Isaac downgrades his apartment in Manhattan he is still paying $700 a month.  

Can we go there?
Really? About the only place as it portrayed in this film I would even contemplate going is Columbus Circle, where Travis fails to shoot Palantine. However, the city has changed a lot in the last 36 years. It has been cleaned out, scrubbed up and is open for tourists and business. A real rain did wash all the scum off the streets, in Manhattan at least. So the difficulty will not be in going to the locations and staying safe: it is in finding them in a very different urban landscape.

The film is quite true to the actual layout of New York City. None of this jumping from location to location to give a better-looking journey. The scenes with Iris and Sport all took place around the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 13th Street. Iris first tries to get into Travis’s cab outside the Iris the Variety Photoplay Theatre on 3rd Avenue (between 13th and 14th Streets; it has now been torn down). He later meets Iris and her friend on the 13th Street corner. Continuing down the street he meets Sport in the doorway of 204 East 13th Street. The brothel (and location for the final shoot-out) is 226 East 13th Street. In 1988 the stoop here collapsed and killed two girls, so be considerate if you do visit.

Other locations: the taxi cab garage was located at the west end of 57th Street (a snatch of New Jersey can be seen way back in the distance). It has now been torn down. When Travis goes to the porn theatre he is seen walking down 8th Avenue south of 47th Street. The ‘Show and Tell Theatre’ is long gone, but was located at 737 8th Avenue. The Palantine campaign headquarters was located at the corner of 63rd Street and Broadway. It too is now no longer there. Travis and Betsy have their first date at Charles’ Coffee Shop at the corner of 58th Street and 8th Avenue. Guess what? It’s no longer there. Their ill-fated second date was at the Lyric porn cinma on 42nd Street. It is now the Foxwoods Theatre (showing at the present time a musical about a vigilante cleaning up New York: Spiderman: Turn off the Dark). Travis calls Betsy up from a payphone located within the Ed Sullivan Theatre at 1697 Broadway. Elvis and The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show here, and David Letterman still broadcasts his Late Show from the building. The Belmore Cafeteria was a real cabbie hang-out; it was located at 28th Street and Park Avenue South. It has since been demolished, but the building that stands in its place is still called ‘The Belmore’. Anthony Bourdain’s Brasserie Les Halles restaurant sits next door. If ever a statement needed to be made about the gentrification of New York, this is it: from cab drivers’ greasy spoon to a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef that sells sirloin steak at $32 a time. Farewell New York – we hardly knew ye’!

Overall Rating: 3/5

1 comment:

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