Take a ride on the dark side with Robert DeNiro’s Character Travis Bickle
I grew up in Nassau County, Long Island. Numerous times over the years when I wanted to escape the suburbs for a more frenetic paced evening, I would take the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan. I’ve spent many an hour walking the city blocks where I’ve immersed myself in the best New York City has to offer in terms of its bars, restaurants, museums, performing arts centers, and the magnificence of Central Park; conversely, I’ve also spent time passing through the seedier more crime infested parts of the metropolis. In addition to my own personal experiences, I’ve seen New York City represented on both sides of the economic and social spectrum on countless television shows and in movies. This week’s blog focuses on a movie which portrays the underbelly of the city as a nightmarish, dystopia in a way that other films have attempted to, but have failed to capture as convincingly.
Directed by Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) and written by Paul Schrader (Raging Bull), in this blogger’s opinion, the film Taxi Driver is a visceral masterpiece. The movie had a budget of $1.3 million and would go on to gross over $28 million after its original release date of February 8, 1976. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, it won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. In addition to that honor, AFI (American Film Institute) ranked Taxi Driver number fifty-two on its list of the top one-hundred American films ever made.
The film concerns itself with a world populated by addicts, hookers, pimps, and an anti-hero chillingly portrayed by Robert DeNiro (Godfather II). DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle, is a Vietnam Veteran who is suffering from insomnia. In order to combat his affliction, he takes a job as a NYC cab driver on the night shift. During the day, he spends time contemplating the ills of society or frequents movie theaters that specialize in pornography. Making his way through his dreary life, he has a chance encounter with an attractive woman named Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd, (Moonlighting) who is a volunteer at the campaign offices of fictional New York Senator Charles Palantine, a role acted by Leonard Harris (Hero at Large). Travis makes his move and asks Betsy out on a date and she accepts; but when he takes her to an X-rated film, she quickly has second thoughts about associating with him, and no longer wants to spend time in his company.
The obsession Bickle has with Betsy leads him to begin stalking her. But, he does not stop there…his predatory instincts kick in even further, and he buys several hand guns, which he plans to use in order to assassinate Senator Palantine. Further complicating Bickle’s life is Iris who is a 12 year old prostitute played by a then 12 year old Jodie Foster (The Accused). Not that evening, but later on Travis meets Iris on the streets, not to pay her for sex, but to attempt to save her from both her pimp Sport, played to sleazy perfection by Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs) and life on the streets. Bickle’s association with Iris leads to the film’s hallucinogenic ending that has caused debate among movie fans and critics alike as to what is real and what perhaps is the imaginings of Bickle’s demented mind at work. I won’t reveal the specifics of what takes place during the final scenes, so if you have not yet watched the film, you can judge for yourself with fresh perspective.
I’ve added the following few pieces of information associated with the movie which I felt might be of interest to film and trivia buffs alike. Not only did screen writer Paul Schrader write the script for Taxi Driver in five days, but he conceived the character of Travis Bickle with actor Jeff Bridges in mind. Jeff Bridges was later considered for the role. Taxi Driver was the last film for Columbia Pictures which used the classic Torch Lady logo in her classic appearance. DeNiro drove a checkered cab in the movie, which was no longer produced after 1982, but the last one in New York City was not retired until 1999. Trivia aside, Taxi Driver, which is both disturbing and haunting to watch, is ‘must see’ viewing for any self-respecting cinephile; it became available on April 5th on Blu-Ray DVD.