USA / Columbia – Italo – Judeo / 114 minutes / 1976
Writer: Paul Schrader / Music: Bernard Herrmann / Cinematography: Michael Chapman / Producers: Michael and Julia Philips / Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel
“To my mind, it is Scorsese’s worst film to date,” Nigel Andrews wrote in the Financial Times when Taxi Driver was released. That was very much a minority opinion, as Scorsese’s chilling depiction of a man “who would not take it any more” was acclaimed by many critics as a modern masterpiece, winning the 1979 Palme d’Or at Cannes and subsequently receiving a nomination for an Oscar. Almost 30 years later, the film has lost none of its power to disturb, provoke and mesmerise, with Robert De Niro’s performance as unbalanced loner Travis Bickle a career high.
A great deal of credit lies with film critic-turned-scriptwriter Paul Schrader, who originally wrote the script in 1972. Somewhat worryingly, the film’s unremitting bleakness came easily, with Schrader completing the script in a mere 12 days. “I wrote it after a bout of depression where I received a lot of psychological body blows. My marriage broke up, I was badly in debt, I had begun to drink heavily and I was having enormous stomach pains which turned out to be an ulcer.” He made the protagonist a taxi driver because he was someone who “moved, worked, walked and talked, and yet somehow was invisible to the eyes of his fellow man.”
Although De Niro’s descent into psychotic madness is the acting highlight, there is another career best performance from Cybill Shepherd, as presidential campaign worker Betsy, plus a frighteningly mature performance from Jodie Foster as the teenage prostitute working for her pimp and lover Sport (Harvey Keitel). And Bernard Herrmann’s score – his last – adds an extra dimension of menace to proceedings. Not content with directing, Scorsese also contributes a cameo as a passenger who manages to rival Bickle for scariness. ” Taxi Driver,” Derek Malcolm said in The Guardian, reflecting the view of most critics, “is a tour de force which doesn’t so much explain America as reflect part of it with unerring accuracy. You may not like what you see, but you can’t stop it hitting you between the eyes.”