A fully restored, 35mm print of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver? Oh, hell yeah! The last (and only) time I'd seen Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader's examination of a broken soul, and a broken city, was on a shitty VHS tape. The grunginess of that was a help and a hindrance: it really isn't the best way of being introduced to a Scorsese film but I don't really remember too much of it. So, this screening of Taxi Driver was almost like my first.
For those who may, for some bizarre reason, be in the dark: De Niro is Travis Bickle, a mentally disturbed ex-Marine Vietnam war vet who narrates from his obsessively kept journals (think Spacey in Se7en). Due to his inability to sleep he takes a job driving night-time cabs in New York city and talks of washing away all the scum and depravity he sees. He develops an obsession with Cybill Shepherd's campaign worker Betsy and, when that doesn't work out, trying to help Jodie Foster's child prostitute Iris from her life.
Scorsese fetishises the taxi while casting a glaring eye on the streets of New York; the opening shot of the film is a taxi sailing through the mists of an open New York sewer, like a bright yellow Horseman of the Apocalypse. The driver of said taxi, De Niro is a frightening vision of an urban nightmare; a tautly conditioned Marine’s body holding a diseased mind lashing out at the world. But this New York is not entirely a hive of scum and villainy: Shepherd’s Betsy is, at first, held up by Travis as an angel bringing light to where there is none. Of course, when she rejects his advances she is, in Travis’ mind, shown to be just as depraved and filthy as the rest of the scum (even if it was Travis who took her to a porno for their date). And man, I forgot how funny this film could be! Albert Brooks, as Betsy’s co-worker on the campaign Tom, is the Jew-fro’d, pink-shirted nervy antithesis of Bickle. He brings much needed laughs to almost every scene he’s in, helping to deflate tension before it builds up again.
Taxi Driver is a bonafide classic of American cinema and it’s still as dark, disturbing and potent as when it was first released. I find it interesting almost as a time capsule to compare the present with: take Taxi Driver’s filthy, crime-ridden New York and contrast that with the loud, brash and Disneyfied Time Square now. And where Scorsese seems to have acclimated to now being a seasoned master as opposed to the young hotshot with fire in his belly (and, yes, coke in his veins), De Niro has just gone soft. You watch him here, all taught and jangly, a dangerous fire behind his eyes, and then you think of Meet the Parents and you weep a little. But this fil, this moment in time, this is bravura filmmaking. The fevered script; the iconic character and performance; the pulsing, shifting Bernard Hermann score; the city... all woven together by Scorsese. Wonderful.