Unpopular opinion time! To me, Taxi Driver is Martin Scorsese’s most overrated movie and almost his least-interesting feature of the ’70s, beaten only by the insufferable Boxcar Bertha. I find it takes all of the director’s control and Robert De Niro’s savage animal power to redeem – barely – Paul Schrader’s obnoxious screenplay, and even then it’s neither as insightful about codes of violent masculinity or the gritty awfulness of ’70s New York City, nor as interesting to look at, as Scorsese and De Niro’s masterful first collaboration, Mean Streets.
So now that I’ve gone and ruined all my credibility forever, we can turn to the business of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, which this week journeys to Scorsese’s career for the very first time with the aforementioned story of an unhinged cabbie and his antisocial attitudes and cruel behavior. It’s also, at its best, a superb document of New York at its filthiest, when Time Square was a hellpit of dead-eyed whores, sex shows, and trash littering every flat surface, and it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I could possibly make it all the way through the movie without picking an image of all that squalor, preferably one that juxtaposed the ratty ugliness of the city with the even rattier soul of its broken, misanthropic title character. And yet I went somewhere completely different.
Travis Bickle (De Niro), having received his taxi and begun making his pronouncements against the deviants and minorities and all things and people he regards as scum, has begun to drive through the city in a fashion I can only describe as “prowling”, his taxi viewed in isolated pieces that slice through the night air like a shark’s dorsal fin.
And that image having occurred to me, it was with giddy delight that I ran across a shot that perfectly summed up that aspect of the protagonist as silent predator, gliding into the shot smoothly and silently, casually sucking on his drink like he doesn’t care about anything in the world, and then catching sight of the resolutely decent and normal political campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and just… stopping…. staring her down with that that one bright eye of his, shining in the center of the frame, perfectly spotted by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman as the piercing focal point of the whole shot. That’s a cold, predatory eye, one that sizes Betsy up less as a woman than as a target, and the first half of the movie largely plays out as an exercise in seeing what happens when that kind of devouring attitude is let loose in a world that wants really badly to believe that people are basically nice.
My biggest concern with the screenplay has always been that Schrader seems entirely too interested in siding with Bickle; my greatest appreciation for Scorsese’s direction is that he never gives into that impulse – even in the scenes that allow us to understand Bickle as a sad dope who has been broken by society as much as anybody, the director and the lead actor both understand that there’s something red and raw and deadly dangerous about him. And that, to me, is the heart and soul of this shot: a stalker, a shark, a silent killer moving in for the attack with a loose physical carriage that borders on disinterest. It’s a great moment of menace, flawlessly choreographed down to the way that De Niro’s right eye is blocked out by the door frame, and immaculately acted without any words to support it, without any action at all other than the conscious lack of action.
Look, I said it was overrated. I never said it wasn’t extraordinarily well-made.