I was surprised to see several things in my recent re-viewing of Martin Scorsese’s classic, including Albert Brooks as the exact same character he has been playing for nearly 40 years; Scorsese himself making a Hitchcockian appearance in the background, but then taking a significant one-scene role as a lunatic in the back of Travis Bickle’s (Robert DeNiro) cab, suggesting he changed his mind about how much time he would spend in front of the camera; and the effectiveness of the score, which was Bernard Herrmann’s last one.
That aside, it holds up as the classic it is considered (47 on AFI’s Top 100). Scorsese’s New York is a modern hell. He shoots the city so it almost reeks. Steam pulses out of the grates, rot is everywhere and kindness is non-existent (I couldn’t get a fantastic book, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning” out of my mind). The viewer is immediately in kinship with Bickle’s voiceover, “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Bickle is a Vietnam vet who can’t sleep and teeters on the edge of sanity. When he falls for a campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) merely by viewing her through a plate glass window, it seems creepy only until he approaches her, and then there is charm and hope. He is similarly touching with teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster), passionately replying to her taunt that he is a square: “Hey, I’m not square, you’re the one that’s square. You’re full of shit, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those fuckin’ creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little pussy for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I’m square? You’re the one that’s square, man. I don’t go screwing fuck with a bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein’ hip? What world are you from?”
But they are from the same world. Bickle is not wired right, he sabotages himself with Shepherd, and soon, he retreats into the mode of a dangerous and unstable assassin, one who has gone from observer of the inferno to an extinguisher. Ahead of its time, Bickle’s would-be John Hinckley gets a Bernie Goetz makeover, cementing Scorsese’s theme that in the jungle, there’s often but a hair between hero and lunatic, moral beacon and dysfunctional threat. Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine doesn’t seem a natural comparison to Taxi Driver, but in essence, when it ends with Cate Blanchett in rumpled clothes, talking to herself in the park, the directors are exposing the same reality.