(director: Martin Scorsese; screenwriter: Paul Schrader; cinematographer: Michael Chapman; editor: Marcia Lucas/Tom Rolf/Melvin Shapiro; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Jodie Foster (Iris), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Albert Brooks (Tom), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Harry Cohn (Cabby in Bellmore), Norman Matlock (Charlie T), Steven Prince (Gun Salesman), Harry Northrup (Doughboy), Leonard Harris (Sen. Palantine), Murray Moston (Iris’ Time Keeper), Martin Scorsese (Demented Taxi Passenger); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Phillips/Julia Phillips; Columbia; 1976)

“Jarring urban psychological drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Martin Scorsese’s (“The King of Comedy”/”Raging Bull”) brilliantly jarring urban psychological drama was inspired by Arthur Bremer’s diaries of the would-be assassin of George Wallace. Scorsese does much more with this material, as writer Paul Schrader thickly lays on it an underlying theme of sin and redemption. On the surface it seethes with the rage and fear the ordinary NYC citizen has of his world turned screwy, and unfolds as critic David Kehr says like a “thinking man’s Death Wish (74).” Its arty and plebeian touches are reasons it was both critically acclaimed and also a smash at the box-office–nominated for Best Picture Oscar, but lost to the strictly plebeian Rocky.

Scorsese forcefully examines the seamy side of the city at night with scenes such as: the cab riding over the shooting steam coming out of the sewer manholes (looking like something out of Dante’s Inferno), the filth and hustle around the neon-lit gaudy Times Square, the desperate cabby chatter on their break at the Bellmore Cafeteria on 24th Street, and the squalor and human degradation of the Upper West Side tenement buildings. It’s an ugly and violent city framed on a ghastly gothic palette, a city whose moral decadence feeds on the mental instability of a loner taxi driver who wishes that there was someone who would get rid of the scum. The confused taxi driver comes to realize that it’s up to him to save the world from its fall, as he arms himself with firepower and just like he was asked to do in Vietnam he aims to make the world a better place to live in by removing the scum–believing he can’t wait any longer for help from the smooth-talking politicians.

An unsettled 26-year-old former Marine, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), returning from Vietnam with a sleeping disorder becomes a hack and volunteers for the nightshift. He becomes increasingly more paranoid as he witnesses a sweltering summer-time city overrun by a street parade of hookers in hot pants, pimps, druggies, drug dealers, two-faced politicians, angry blacks, frightened whites and muggers. On the verge of snapping Travis cries out “All the animals come out at night.” At another point he wishes for a “real rain” to wash the “scum” off the dirty nighttime streets.

The awkwardly social Travis searching for meaning in his life acts on his yen for a pretty upstate blonde presidential campaign worker, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), whom he fantasizes as someone pure and meant only for him. Out of curiosity she agrees to a coffee date, but angrily rejects him when he foolishly takes her on a more formal date to a 42nd Street porno movie.

Travis is unable to connect conversationally with the other cabbies who hangout at the Bellmore, not even the philosophical know-it-all Wizard (Peter Boyle). The loner can only communicate with himself and is lost in his own hazy world. He not only writes everything down in his diary, tells us what he feels in a voice-over, but starts talking to himself. In the film’s much ballyhooed scene to indicate his increasing madness, he converses with himself in the mirror saying in a threatening way: “You talkin’ to me?” Building up his courage to go on another dangerous mission, he gets one of the cabby hustlers to introduce him to a gun dealer who unloads on him a .44 magnum and three other smaller handguns. Travis, at first, plans to knock off Senator Palantine, who is running for president on the wishy-washy platform of “We are the people;” and, is the one Betsy is supporting. But when Travis accidentally meets a 12-year-old runaway turned prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), his mission now becomes to rescue her from “sin” and knock off her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and Mafia handlers. Travis turns himself from a cowboy looking hick into a Mohawk-wearing warrior, and follows up on his credo that “No one’s safe from the filth; we need to clean the city.”

De Niro gives a superb performance as the dummy “everyman,” who idiotically reflects the conservative pledge to clean-up the country morally and hides his racism by letting the other whites say what he’s thinking as he shines as the appealing innocent savior of angelic white girls. In his disenfranchised status after his service days are over, he goes from one meaningless experience to the next hoping to find something that’s meaningful in his empty life– choosing to drive a cab because he’s too alienated to fit into society in any other way. He’s viewed as someone not educated enough to know he’s being used by the corporate type of politician to fight their battles, and he’s conveyed through De Niro’s charismatic performance as someone who is to be pitied when he becomes tossed aside like a bag of garbage by those politicians he supported (think Bush and his failure to provide more benefits for the wounded and dead soldiers fighting in the Iraq War!).

De Niro gives his creepy character a life of his own that defies that he’s a whiny bitter man with a chip on his shoulder, a sexist, a killer, a socio-path, and an anti-intellectual.

Composer Bernard Herrmann’s emotionally charged thematic score added great fervor to the disturbing nightlife scenes in the city. At age 64, Herrmann died on the night after finishing the film’s score.

It should also be noted that in order to avoid an X rating, Scorsese was forced to desaturate the color of the brutally violent climax and thereby receive his R rating. Before that Scorsese changed on his own the color of the men’s skins that Travis kills from black to white, fearing otherwise it might cause a riot for his mid-1970s audiences.