In 1981, John Hinckley, Junior, shot then United States President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster. His stalkerish obsession with the actress began at the release of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), when she was still only just a child star.
The would-be assassin even sported Robert De Niro’s mohawk from the film.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Taxi Driver is available to stream on Netflix.
The neo-noir psychological thriller was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for De Niro, Best Supporting Actress for Foster, and Best Original Score for Bernard Herrmann.
It is based off the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.
Travis Bickle (De Niro) is an insomniac Vietnam War veteran living in New York who works as an overnight cabbie.
He becomes infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), and befriends Iris “Easy” Steensma (Foster), a twelve-year-old runaway prostitute whom he fixates upon saving from herself.
As the city falls apart around him, Travis’s mind descends into madness right along with it, until he resorts to violence in his desperation to connect with the women in his life.
The filmmaker cinematically externalizes Travis’s broken psyche via the setting, thanks in no small part to Herrmann’s atmospheric composition.
Herrmann, whose most iconic work is featured in Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), also scored Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as well as Hitchcock’s own Vertigo (1958), both of which are in competition for greatest film ever made.
The songsmith died in his sleep Christmas Eve 1975, after going home from finalizing Taxi Driver.
But a cinematic character study such as this is a marriage between the musical in addition to the dramatic arts, and De Niro proves to be a bedfellow worthy of Herrmann, and, for that matter, Scorsese.
If an actor is only as good as their director, then Scorsese and De Niro’s partnership is a match made in Heaven.
Scorsese’s rapport with editor Thelma Schoonmaker speaks to his understanding of film as a collaborative medium, and his Cape Fear (1991) is his most cathartic concert with De Niro, capturing him at the capstone of his Method acting.
Travis Bickle festers at the more sympathetic end of the spectrum, a product of his ultraviolent environment.
As for Foster, even at Iris’s age, she could be counted upon to hold her own against De Niro. She is all at once childishly innocent and aged beyond her years, something for Travis to live for but also something for him to kill for.
She is the foil reflecting back at us our (anti)hero’s journey from ticking time bomb to celebrated media vigilante, and it would be rhapsodic, if not for its real-world consequences (for which Foster is not to blame).
Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) is the last New Hollywood masterpiece, and this critic writes this knowing Taxi Driver came out the same year, because it is not Scorsese’s masterwork (that honor belongs to GoodFellas (1990)).
The auteur almost quit filmmaking over the Reagan shooting. While Hinckley probably would have turned to terrorism anyway with or without Taxi Driver, his fetishization of Foster and his plan to get her to notice him were both informed by the movie, leading one to wonder…
…Does Travis get what he deserves from Scorsese?
Again, this is an artistic judgment of the director, not a legal one; no artist is anything other than human, and at least he doesn’t take the power of his craft lightly.
Fascist propagandists employed motion pictures to Nazify Germany, and, though militant antisemitism existed before cinema, Doctor Joseph Goebbels still articulated this far-right ideology for Adolf Hitler and his followers.
It’s his reverence for the art form where Scorsese’s genius comes to life, and a movie that can change the course of history itself is an essential study for any cinephile.