It has come to represent an iconic moment of menace, the kind that teenage boys like to recite to their friends or uninspired stand-up comics like to reference in their routines. What not everyone may realize is that this line, as originally performed in the film by a young Robert De Niro, is spoken to a mirror and that it's meant to convey not genuine menace but childish playacting. "Taxi Driver," shown last Monday as part of St. Olaf's semester-long Classic American Film Festival, can strike viewers as a kind of toxic time capsule from the year when it was released, 1976, by most accounts a low point in American history.
For those familiar with New York City, the film is particularly interesting for how it captures the look of the city in those days, with a Times Square still crammed with porno theaters and peep shows instead of corporate showcase stores.
De Niro's role as the title character, Travis Bickle, is also very much of its time. Bickle is a disturbed ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran who seems cut off from any kind of mainstream society. Friendless, jobless and unable to sleep nights, he takes a night shift driving a cab as an excuse for exploring and prowling around a city that seems to alternately repel and fascinate him. He becomes obsessed from afar with a beautiful woman (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for a smarmy presidential candidate. He also becomes fixated on "saving" a 12-year-old hooker (Jodie Foster, playing her age) from her pimp, played by a scary, charismatic Harvey Keitel.
Many other films of the time, from "Rolling Thunder" (1976) to "First Blood" (1981), cast vets in the same role, as killers who can't stop fighting even after returning home. Where "Taxi Driver" differs from most of its brethren is in how it accords compassion towards its alienating "hero" by refusing to romanticize him.
Travis Bickle is not a Rambo; he's more like an armed Walter Mitty, imagining himself as a Hollywood action hero in a world more nuanced and complex than he can account for. When the film eventually builds to some startling acts of violence, it's to explore Bickle's personal demons and their lasting repercussions absent from the Schwarzenegger-Stallone brand of films.
"Taxi Driver" is an intense film; it doesn't exactly make for a relaxing Friday night's entertainment. It turns off as many people as it captivates, the latter including Academy Award voters, who in 1976 awarded Best Picture to the crowd-pleasing, comparatively mediocre "Rocky."
Still, for anyone seriously interested in film, "Taxi Driver" is invaluable, a great introduction to the many talented people who worked on it. For its young director Martin Scorsese, it followed up on the promise of his autobiographical "Mean Streets" (1973) with a feverish visual style that established him as one of America's finest filmmakers.
Some of his best work has been with screenwriter Paul Schrader, an interesting director in his own right ("Blue Collar," "Cat People"). While most of the actors and filmmakers involved were at the start of their careers, one was at the very end of his: composer Bernard Herrmann, who worked on "Citizen Kane" and innumerable Hitchcock pictures, and who died just hours after completing the film's moody, sleazy, jazz-inflected score.
For all of these people, "Taxi Driver" represents one of the high points of their work, and it still stands as one of the high points of American movies.