50 years, 50 films: Taxi Driver (1976)
As we move through the last half decade, we come across Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough picture.
We have tended to avoid obvious choices in this place, but it’s worth making an exception for the film that won the 1976 Palme d’Or, secured Martin Scorsese’s position and didn’t change Hollywood. That last point is worth stressing. By the time Scorsese made a proper noise — after modest hits with the brilliant Mean Streets and the underrated Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — the industry was on the point of shaking off all that post-nouvelle vague innovation and diving into naked commercialism. Jaws had just chewed the box office alive. Star Wars was creaking into production. So, rather than being a trailblazer for the New Hollywood, Taxi Driver marked the beginning of the end.
What a desperate, disturbing howl it still seems. Paul Schrader, the lapsed-Calvinist paranoiac who wrote the script, recalls typing the piece in his car while borderline homeless. All the influences are existential. There is a bit of samurai lore in there. Schrader borrows heavily from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. More than anything, however, the picture is a nod to John Ford’s still disturbing The Searchers. Travis Bickle, the demented cabbie, follows Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute through contemporaneous badlands in much the same way that Ethan Edwards hunted Natalie Wood’s abducted settler across the blazing valleys of Indian territory. One anti-hero up with an unambiguous sort of redemption. The other ends up celebrated for his psychoses. You won’t need to be told which is which.
It is not unreasonable to see Taxi Driver as the most complete exploitation of the ideas — and possibilities — that were floating about the industry in those years. De Niro was allowed to mix explosions with some very internalised acting. It’s worth noting quite how quiet he is in quite so much of the movie. It’s startlingly modern. But it also finds space for an overpowering traditional score from Bernard Hermann. The Stravinsky thumping of the credit sequence contrasts strikingly with the sleazy saxophone motif later on. As I suggested, Scorsese manages to be both contemporary and classical.
The picture also paints a powerful picture of New York during that difficult period. It is odd to remember now that, when the city was mentioned in the 1970s, one thought of danger, drugs and dissolution. New York had just gone conspicuously bust (but hadn’t really been told to drop dead by Gerald Ford). If you were visiting, old hands would give you tips about how to avoid muggers. Nowadays, you expect to be able to plod around almost all of Manhattan in relative safety. Back then folk would have you believe you were travelling to the wildest parts of the wild west (that Searchers theme returns).
Obviously, it’s a good thing that people can now walk through Times Square without getting assaulted or having to place hands over their children’s eyes. It is, nonetheless, a little sad that the frontier spirit that ruled in this section of New York — depicted in the grim poster — during this period has largely vanished. You won’t discover this era’s Patti Smith playing in a downtown dive either. Those places are all inhabited by hedge-fund managers and the like. You know, the sort of people who we expect to inhabit Scorsese’s upcoming Wolf of Wall Street. The films may end up forming an interesting pair of bookends.
Other films considered for 1976 included The Man who Fell to Earth, Rocky, The Outlaw Josey Wales, All the President’s Men, Carrie and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.