Golden Oldies: Taxi Driver (1976)

Joe Holloran takes a retrospective look back at Taxi Drive, its influence on pop culture and De Niro’s thing for mirrors..

Joe Holloran
27th February 2017
Regular readers may recall a Golden Oldies article from a few weeks ago, concerning Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic Goodfellas. Well, I’m not quite done passing praise on the old Sicilian master. This week we travel back in time to post-Vietnam New York City in the company of Travis Bickle and his yellow cab in Scorsese’s second outing; Taxi Driver.

As a wannabe film critic, it’s rare that one gets to talk about one of their favourite films, but that pleasure befalls me this week. “You talkin’ to me, well I’m the only one here”, recites Robert De Niro in a scene that has become synonymous with a character losing his mind. Even those who’ve never seen the movie know the line, thanks to its repetition our collective culture. This combined with the movie’s tagline, ‘On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody’, sums up Travis Bickle’s character.

"You talking to me?" De Niro rhetorically asks in one of the most infamous scenes in cinema history. Image:IMDB

Vietnam vet Bickle is a single, depressed man living in the hustle and bustle of a decaying Manhattan. Haunted by his past and suffering from insomnia, Travis spends his days writing in his journal, patronising porno theatres, and driving his taxi around the five boroughs. Seemingly content to fall into isolated madness, all changes for Travis when thirteen-year-old child prostitute ‘Easy’ Iris (Jodie Foster) enters his cab attempting to escape the clutches of her pimp. This chance encounter is the final straw for Bickle, forcing him to abandon his nihilism and attempt to rid the city and himself of the rot.

13-year-old Jodie Foster as the child street-walker Iris. Image:IMDB

Foster’s performance as Iris is relatively brief in the overall film, but is staggeringly well done. Few characters’ garner as much sympathy and frustration in equal measure. Both Foster and De Niro were Oscar nominated for their performances; De Niro was very unfortunate to have been nominated alongside eventual winner Peter Finch for his career-defining role in The Network.

Scorsese addressed in Taxi Driver a theme that would be recurrent in his later work, that of a man searching for meaning and identity in life. While Henry Hill in Goodfellas seeks out his place through the New York underworld, Travis Bickle, like Dante in the Inferno, crawls through the slime of this world with the much-needed assistance of his own Virgil in Iris, and comes out a better person on the other side. Bickle combines the honour bound mindset of a samurai, the swagger (however false) of Dirty Harry and his environment is that of late 70s Manhattan and the genesis of punk rock.

There is little else that needs to be said about Taxi Driver, those who have seen it know what it’s about, those yet to have that pleasure will sit down to a film that is no easy watch at times, but like Dante and Travis you will emerge from watching a little better for it.

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