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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

10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.

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Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

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When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)