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Review: “Taxi Driver” (1976)

Although Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) has some “bad ideas” in his head, those thoughts aren’t half as frightening as the man who’s thinking them — not because he’s a monster, but because he isn’t. There’s nothing monstrous about him. With his rumpled shirt and friendly manner, he seems … average, just a regular working man who wants his life to have “a sense of someplace to go.” But rejection, isolation and fear do strange, scary things a man, so it doesn’t take long for Travis to construct another reality, one based on paranoia, a thirst for justice, a desire to be heard. And he means to make to make sorry every last person who didn’t care enough to listen. 

Doubtless this is where Martin Scorcese’s eerie, savage and deeply unsettling “Taxi Driver” hits the hardest: in showing just how close Travis, a well-meaning loner who wants desperately to connect with anyone, is to his breaking point, and just how close we are to ours. Scorcese and DeNiro are unflinching in their portrayal of Bickle’s slow but completely believable descent into a world of delusions and violence. Both director and actor are painstakingly deliberate in their work, with Scorcese’s every shot providing silent insights into Bickle and DeNiro’s every look and expression — his bizarre smiles are extraordinarily effective — suggesting this quiet man is coming apart at the seams. From the moment the opening credits roll, it’s merely a question of what happens when the last thread gets pulled.

The opening credits, with Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score, do much to create the surreal atmosphere and tone of unease in “Taxi Driver.” Glimpsed through the smeary, rain-soaked windshield of a cab, New York City seems like a fresco painting, with all the grayness and the sharp angles blurred together. That togetherness, however, is merely an illusion for Bickle, a Vietnam veteran who takes the night shift as a taxi driver because he can’t sleep nights. “Might as well get paid,” he reasons, and attempts to joke with the personnel officer, who shoots him down. Bickle tries again with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde beauty working on a senator’s (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign. She seems interested until he takes her to a pornographic movie on their second date and the relationship comes to a screeching halt. Betsy brushes off every one of his inept but sweetly sincere apologies, and something deep in Bickle’s psyche snaps. 

Cleaning up his route — which takes him to the grimiest corners of the city, the ones he wishes he could “flush down the fuckin’ toilet” — becomes his new focus, and he hones in on Iris (Jody Foster), an prepubescent prostitute living under the thumb of Sport (Harvey Keitel), her slimy pimp. Bickle wants to liberate Iris from this life of drugs and smut; she doesn’t want to be rescued (“it saves me from myself,” she calmly explains), and her resistance sends him on a single-minded quest that ends in one of the bloodiest showdowns ever set to celluloid. Filmed in hazy slow motion with an almost tender attention to detail, the sequence is shocking in its brutality. Not once does Scorcese move the camera from the action; in doing this, he smashes down the barrier between audience and screen, forcing us into the gore, blood and gristle. It’s a remarkably effective method that also makes “Taxi Driver” seem like the director’s most personal film (indeed, he has said the movie was one he “had to make”).

The same seems true of DeNiro, who throws himself into Travis Bickle to such an alarming degree we fear for the actor’s safety. “Taxi Driver” is DeNiro’s film, and he owns every inch of it with his startlingly powerful performance. He’s convincing in Bickle’s quieter moments, when he visibly feels the sting of Betsy’s rejection and the degradation of the people he drives, and the later on, when his loneliness shapes into dangerous psychosis. But nowhere is he better than in the movie’s closing moments, where satisfaction and happiness seem within reach. With his eyes, DeNiro deals the final blow, and we know Bickle has made a trip he can’t come back from.

Grade: A

No. 2: “Young Frankenstein” (1974)

“For what we are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius.”  ~~Frederick Frankenstein*

Mel Brooks is a tricky, tricky director. People rarely notice this in his films (they are too busy trying to regain bladder control lost to uncontrollable laughter), but it’s true. He hits you hard with the pratfalls and lines like “Werewolf? There wolf,” and while you’re revelling in the exquisite craziness of it all, he sneaks in things like parody and, on occasion, when the planets and the stars all align, a smidgen of (dare I say it?) satire.

Then again, parsing for subtext in a Mel Brooks creation is madness in itself. He’d have my head. Or worse, he’d (eek) crown me the first female mayor of Rock Ridge for overthinking the likes of “Young Frankenstein,” a ripsnorter of a comedy that sends up Hollywood monster movies with dazzling wit and characters like Frau Blücher, whose very name inspires terror in the hearts of horses everywhere. Because, really, aren’t those things reason enough to enjoy “Young Frankenstein,” arguably Mel Brooks’ zaniest, funniest and most beloved creation?

The answer: Yes, yes, for the love of Igor’s dear ole’ dead dad yes. There are surface-level pleasures aplenty to delight the ears, eyes and the funny bone. Ponder the setup: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a neurosurgeon who’s spent years trying to live down his grandfather’s infamous experiments, discovers he’s inherited the old, discredited embarassment’s castle. Even worse, this inheritance comes with a collection of oddballs so nutty only a kook like Mel Brooks could dream them up: Igor (a brilliantly comic Marty Feldman), the grandson of the elder Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant who has a perpetually shifting hump; the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), whose interest in the departed doctor may have been more than professional; and Inga (Teri Garr), a blonde bombshell/lab assistant who loves rolls in the hay (literally, not figuratively). Inherited, too, are the fiery resentments of the neighboring townsfolk, who appoint Herr Falkstein (Kenneth Mars) to snoop about the castle and discover whether or not Frederick possesses the same off-the-grid mad scientist instincts his grandfather did. When Frederick’s high-maintenance wife-to-be Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) turns up unexpectedly, afraid he’s two-timing her and then certain he is when she glimpses Inga’s, uh, knockers, things get … hairy.

It’s nearly impossible to pin down what’s so great about “Young Frankenstein” because everything is great. Sounds crazy, right? Maybe so, but the movie just flat-out works. As an ensemble cast film, “Young Frankenstein” is flawless. Everyone’s in rare, fine form here, from the cameos (it takes several looks to deduce the actor playing Blindman) up to Gene Wilder, whose balance of screaming hissy fits and professional arrogance are wonderfully entertaining. Comic timing all-around is a thing of beauty, particularly as used by the late Kahn (the train station “taffeta, darling” sequence is genuis). Special praise must go to the late Feldman for going all-noble as Igor, a sly mischief maker who delights more in mocking his new employer than catering to his whims. “It’s pronounced ‘Eye-gor,'” he smugly informs Frederick, picking at the sore that is the young doctor’s last name. Such wit that Feldman had; it lights up the whole screen.

“Young Frankenstein” works on other levels as well. It’s a terrific parody of Hollywood’s monster films, poking fun at all the cliches — the creepy drafty castle! the dramatic-yet-ominous score! the shadowy secret passageway! — and the stock characters — the evil scientist, the mysterious housekeeper, the mindless monster — and taking no prisoners in the process. Yet “Young Frankenstein” also is something of a love letter to these movies, filmed in black and white with great care and attention to detail. The characters are crazy — would you expect anything less from Brooks? — but somehow still empathetic and lovingly etched. The monster (Peter Boyle) proves no better or worse than the scientist. So, sure, we laugh at these characters, but we love them, too. They make “Young Frankenstein” not just a great, timeless comedy, but a great movie period.

*It’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.”

(A special thanks to my parents, who had the good sense to introduce me to the wild, wild world of Mel Brooks at an impressionable age. Excuse me, folks. I just had to whip that out.)