35 years on, Taxi Driver is being re-released in cinemas – “one of the greatest films ever made” according to Jonathon Ross, and so iconically powerful that even people who have never seen a frame of it can quote de Niro’s ad-libbed “You lookin’ at me??” routine, or wear his picture on a t-shirt.
It’s an amazing piece of alchemy – the way it looks (as with Blade Runner, you can almost taste the rain and smog and smells), Bernard Herrmann’s score, Paul Schrader’s script and director Martin Scorsese’s dark vision of the city as a steamy, foreboding dystopia full of lost souls. Robert de Niro’s intense method-style immersion in a role is legendary, but here you really feel he wasn’t just playing a role, he had become Travis, the disconnected, disorientated Vietnam war vet driving cabs at night because he can’t sleep.
Something about this alchemical mixture seems to draw out extraordinary performances from the entire cast – and what a cast. Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel and Cybill Shepherd are all unforgettable and arguably have never been better, with de Niro’s ticking timebomb Travis always at the centre of the drama – though often at the edge of the frame, just highlighting his sense of distance and living as a permanent outsider. Although there is violence, it comes as an inevitable conclusion and not in a gratuitous way – 35 years on it looks almost tame compared to the casual blood-splattering we have become used to in even “light-hearted” movies – although, scarily, Travis has become a cypher for so many other damaged outsiders – “God’s Lonely Man” with a misplaced sense of entitlement, a mission and a gun.
Yet Taxi Driver is a visually beautiful and even funny film. The script is brilliant and says in a few lines what might take lesser writers a whole scene to convey – as in the painful scene where Travis tries to talk to his fellow taxi driver about his “bad thoughts” and just can’t begin to express himself to another person. Hence the voiceover theme, running that internal monologue we all have but that in Travis’s case can never surface into conversation or be shared.
It’s one of those movies that seems to change very subtly with every new viewing, constantly throwing up new possibilities or little details you hadn’t noticed before, and it’s worth seeing again for just that reason.