New York City has been the backdrop for countless movies. Yesterday, this column reviewed “Night at the Museum,” a family-oriented film that is set in the American Museum of Natural History, on the tony upper west side amidst splendid and expensive residences. But the southern part of the city is far less affluent and often lends itself to much more troubling films. One of the most consistently celebrated of films depicting the seediest side of New York life is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” from 1976.
In “Taxi Driver,” Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a lonely and mentally unbalanced Vietnam veteran. Plagued by insomnia and depression, he takes a job driving a taxi at night in the roughest areas of the city. After becoming infatuated from afar with Betsy (played by Cybill Shepard), who works on the Presidential campaign of Senator Charles Palantine, he sets up a way to meet her and convinces her to go out with him. His understanding of appropriate date activity is completely off-kilter, and he takes her to a sexually explicit film. Betsy is completely repulsed and rejects him and his subsequent attempts to undo the damage of this date. His failure with this relationship pushes the already disturbed Travis over the edge. When he meets a hard-edged child prostitute, 12 year-old Iris (played by Jodie Foster), he becomes determined to rescue her from her obnoxious pimp (played by Harvey Keitel).
“Taxi Driver” has a great screenplay by Paul Schrader. Travis is a fascinating character. He always tries to do the right thing, but because he is unstable, he often does the wrong thing.
Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances. He makes Travis seem real, and we always feel sorry for him, even when he begins to take the law into his own hands. Also, he immortalized the seemingly simple line of dialogue "are you talking to me?" Equally strong is Jodie Foster, who chose her life as a prostitute because of her frustration with her home life. Both actors earned Oscar nominations. Cybill Shepard is also great as Betsy, who, at least initially, sees the humanity in Travis.
“Taxi Driver” is a must-see for Martin Scorsese fans.