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Published on February 6th, 2016 | by Padraic Coffey

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Taxi Driver: 40 years on, Scorsese’s film is still shocking

With themes of child prostitution and mental illness, Taxi Driver still has the power to disturb.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Taxi Driver is now forty years old. Its images and its words are so ubiquitous in popular culture, it is difficult to imagine a time when audiences were not acquainted with a tousled-haired Robert De Niro double-taking in a mirror and uttering the immortal words, ‘You talkin’ to me?’. The temptation to distil Martin Scorsese’s film to a series of iconic stills or snatches of dialogue is natural – even a work as major as Citizen Kane can be reduced to the word ‘Rosebud’ in the minds of some – but, as in case of other films, it does it a disservice. Older now than either its director, its writer or its star were when it was first released in 1976, the film’s place not among the pantheon of modern classics, but of classics, is firmly secured.

Scorsese was in his prime. Mean Streets had shown he had a keen eye and ear for cinema, marrying startling camerawork to a contemporary rock music soundtrack as well as Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had done in Easy Rider four years previously, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore had won an Oscar for lead actress Ellen Burnystn. Here, he was reuniting with De Niro, and making his fourth film with Harvey Keitel, though the strongest female performance does not belong to would-be ‘love interest’ Cybil Shepherd, but to a pubescent Jodie Foster, earning her own Oscar nomination as the twelve year old prostitute Iris. Keitel is vile as her manipulative pimp, and his attempts to sell his wares while De Niro maintains a poker-face are still shocking, even in era when under-age sexual abuse is reported to have happened everywhere from television stations to global churches.

A fresh revisit of the film is also a reminder – to a generation who may have forgotten, or a generation who may never have known – of how invaluable an acting force De Niro once was. The weight of Paul Schrader’s highly personal screenplay rests on the then 32-year-old’s shoulders, and while Travis Bickle may not be his most attention-grabbing performance, it is as worthy of praise as any he has given. It is also notable given that his most recent film, the lamentably-titled Dirty Grandpa, has just been torn to shreds by every reputable critic, as have many of his starring roles for the past two decades. He appears in every scene here, even observing Keitel woo Foster back to sex work from his yellow cab, parked outside the flop-house where the gore-splattered climax takes place.

In hiring Bernard Hermann to write his last score, Scorsese bridged a gap between the classic era of American film, exemplified by the likes of Hitchcock and and Welles, and the modern Hollywood New Wave, which had introduced Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, and of course, Scorsese himself. Now Scorsese is an elder statesmen of American cinema. He is still helming skilful if divisive works like The Wolf of Wall Street, but it is unlikely he will ever produce a better film than Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver was released in US cinemas on 08 February 1976.

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About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.



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