Film noir flourishes at TCM film festival in Hollywood

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was a prime location at the TCM fest. Photo by John Nowak

From Marie Windsor’s character in “The Killing” telling her wounded husband (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) to cab to the hospital because she doesn’t feel like calling an ambulance to Grace Kelly fending off her attacker and foiling the eponymous plot in “Dial M for Murder,” on-screen femmes fatales claimed their power at the TCM Classic Film Festival April 25-28 in Hollywood.

Marie Windsor

The film noir slate was particularly rich as was the experience of seeing these film on the big screen – the lighting, the compositions, the close-ups all popped in a way that just doesn’t happen when you watch these titles on TV. Additionally, the festival does a splendid job of finding guests to introduce the films.

At Thursday’s screening of “The Killing,” actress Coleen Gray shared memories of working with director Stanley Kubrick on what would turn out to be his break-though movie. “I knew he was good,” she said. “The cast is wonderful. The story, the director and the actors are in tune. And look at the cutting – it was cut to create a masterpiece. You go and see it and you bow to Mr. Kubrick.” She added that Kubrick spent much of his directorial energy working with Marie Windsor on her hard-as-nails dame Sherry Peatty.

There was film noir aplenty at the TCM festival as well as special guests, panels, a poolside screening and parties. Photo by Edward M. Pio Roda

Fans of Ms. Windsor’s got another chance to connect with her at Friday’s screening of “The Narrow Margin.” The special guest was actress Jacqueline White. Also during that time slot producer Stanley Rubin reminisced about Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Otto Preminger before a showing of 1954’s “River of No Return,” a stunning example of CinemaScope’s capabilities.

“[Marilyn] and Otto didn’t like each other and so we became very friendly. She was a perfect lady,” he said, adding that she was friendly and professional with Mitchum as well.

Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe in “River of No Return.”

Watching Monroe and Mitchum, at the height of their physical radiance in this picture, ignited in me a newfound passion for Westerns. (Believe me, this is quite a feat.)

It’s always a toss-up when deciding between a beloved classic and a little-screened rarity. We at FNB decided to mix it up a little and forgo “Notorious,” which I often liken to a glass of Veuve Clicquot, for the chance to see a 1956 Jean Gabin black comedy “La Traversée de Paris.” Gabin is always good, but the film is uneven, without much tension or humor, a bit like a flabby claret.

A much better rare treat was the definitive British film noir “It Always Rains on Sunday,” (1947, Robert Hamer), set in London’s East End, featuring a Jewish family and starring John McCallum as prison escapee Tommy Swann and tough yet oddly dainty Googie Withers as his ex-gf. The Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller introduced the film, noting that it was less a crime flick than an effective portrayal of the plight of the poor and downtrodden.

We watched this with our friend Debra Levine of artsmeme.com. Our verdict: It’s a good, engaging film but what makes it great is the sleek, striking cinematography. “Tommy made some poor choices,” Ms. Levine overheard someone saying as we left the theater. Aah, but we all know that “choice” is but a futile joke in the world of film noir!

Eva Marie Saint discussed “On the Waterfront” with Bob Osborne on Friday night. Photo by John Nowak

Another Friday highlight: the lovely and gracious Eva Marie Saint discussing “On the Waterfront.”

The next morning, early birds were rewarded with a talk by Polly Bergen at the screening of “Cape Fear,” one of Robert Mitchum’s most menacing roles. Later-risers could head to the Egyptian Theatre for the West Coast restoration premiere of 1929’s “The Donovan Affair” with live actors (from Bruce Goldstein and company) and sound effects to recreate the lost soundtrack.

Eddie Muller interviewed Susan Ray at the screening of “They Live by Night.” Photo by John Nowak

Next up was a film noir must-see: “They Live by Night” (1949, Nicholas Ray), the quintessential young-lovers-on-the-run story, with an appearance by his widow Susan Ray and introduction by Eddie Muller. Commenting on Ray’s exploratory directing style, she said: “He did not go in with a preconceived idea of what should happen in a scene. He would set it up, light a fuse and watch. He would prod or provoke if necessary. He didn’t impose truth, he looked for it.”

And on Ray’s interest in telling the stories of young people, often loners or societal outcasts, she noted: “He saw the juice, potential, openness and flexibility of youth and he loved it.” Nick Ray’s gift as a visual poet is never more apparent than when you see “They Live by Night” on the big screen.

Continuing the noir mood was “Tall Target” (1951, Anthony Mann), a period noir, starring Dick Powell, Paula Raymond and Ruby Dee, based on an actual plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before he could take the oath office in 1861. Film historian Donald Bogle gave an insightful introduction.

Bob Osborne chats with Ann Blyth before Saturday night’s screening of “Mildred Pierce.” Photo by John Nowak

Then it was back to the Egyptian, where the line for “Mildred Pierce,” snaked down a busy side street of Hollywood Boulevard. Special guest actress Ann Blyth said of Joan Crawford, the film’s mega-star: “I have nothing but wonderful memories of her. She was kind to me during the making of the movie and she was kind to me for many years after.”

Popcorn, Coke, Raisinets and watching Crawford pull out all the shoulder-padded stops – what more could a noirista wish for?

Sunday morning kicked off with a choice between “Badlands,” “Gilda,” or sleeping in a bit and we hit snooze. Sorry. They don’t call me Lazy Legs for nothing. Our first movie was 1973’s “Scarecrow,” starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman – it was one of the best and most resonant films we’ve seen in a long time. The acting is tremendous in this great-looking film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Director Jerry Schatzberg discussed his work in a pre-film chat with Leonard Maltin.

Anthony Dawson and Grace Kelly in “Dial M for Murder.”

Afterward, we managed to catch the very noirish “Safe in Hell” (1931, William Wellman), starring Dorothy Mackaill as a streetwise blonde who holds her own among a slew of unsavory men while she’s hiding out in the Caribbean. Donald Bogle introduced the movie and William Wellman, Jr. answered questions afterward.

A great way to wrap up the fest, before heading to the after-party at the Roosevelt Hotel, was a 3-D presentation of “Dial M for Murder.” Leonard Maltin and the always-entertaining actor-producer-director Norman Lloyd, 98, discussed 3-D and the working methods of Alfred Hitchcock. This Hitchcock gem, a perfect example of his subversive casting, is often underrated so we particularly enjoyed seeing it; we noticed that just about every seat was taken.

Hats off to TCM for another superb film festival! The staff does an excellent job running every aspect of this event and it is much appreciated.

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‘Stanley Kubrick’ opens today at LACMA

Director Stanley Kubrick sits in the interior of the space ship Discovery from “2001.” © Warner Bros. Entertainment

Acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s storytelling sometimes leaves me cold, but I’ve always admired his arresting images and balletic camera. I think his best movies are his classic noir and neo-noir titles – “Killer’s Kiss,” “The Killing,” “Lolita,” “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Shining.”

Born in New York in 1928, Kubrick began as a photographer. He had his first photograph published in Look magazine when he was 16 (he was paid $25). Later, as a Look staffer, he shot on city streets, often swathes of nighttime blackness pierced by patches of light. His desire for precision and painstaking quest for technical innovation started early and stayed with him for the next 55 years.

The range and richness of his art are explored in the first U.S. retrospective of his work, co-presented by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Railroad station, Chicago 1949. Stanley Kubrick photo for Look magazine/Library of Congress

The exhibition highlights Kubrick’s bond with film noir, noting: “In the title of his first feature film, ‘Fear and Desire’ (1953), Kubrick declared two themes that he would return to throughout his career. The atmosphere of film noir – its claustrophobia, paranoia and hopelessness – creates a worldview made more tangible through style: low-key lighting, high-contrast and silhouetted images, the blackest shadows. These characteristics of noir, together with the camera movements that would soon be identified with the director, were coherently articulated in Kubrick’s three early features.”

And later: “What Kubrick began with ‘Lolita’ (1962) – disrupting the conventions of film noir – he accomplished completely with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964). Kubrick made the decision to treat the story as nightmare comedy.”

Kubrick’s films, including “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” among others, are represented through archival material, annotated scripts, photography, costumes, cameras and equipment, set models, original promotional materials and props.

Sue Lyon stars in “Lolita,” based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov.

In one of several letters rebuking Kubrick over the making of “Lolita,” the Bible Presbyterian Church of Tampa, Fla., decries that the movie “is based upon sex appeal. And that appeal is quite degenerate in its nature.”

There are also sections on Kubrick’s special effects and an alternate beginning to “2001” as well as displays about projects that Kubrick never completed (“Napoleon” and “The Aryan Papers”).

Kubrick died in 1999 in England, at the age of 70. He garnered 13 Academy Award nominations and “2001” (1968) won the Best Effects Oscar.

The exhibition, which runs through June 30, 2013, will be accompanied by a film retrospective at LACMA’s Bing Theater beginning this month.

From “The Shining” (1980): The daughters of Grady (Lisa and Louise Burns). © Warner Bros. Entertainment

To kick off the film retrospective, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, the Academy will present an evening of clips and tributes to honor Kubrick, hosted by actor Malcolm McDowell. The event will also launch the Academy’s Kubrick exhibition, which will be open to the public through February 2013.

As for the LACMA/Academy collaboration: “It is a taste of things to come when we open the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in the historic Wilshire May Company building on the LACMA campus,” said Dawn Hudson, Academy CEO.

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One of film noir’s most memorable duos: Gardner and Lancaster in ‘The Killers’

“The Killers” plays today at 4 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of AFI FEST 2011.

The Killers/1946/Universal Pictures/105 min.

Of all film noir’s femmes fatales, Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins in “The Killers” ranks as the most devastatingly efficient. She doesn’t waste time chit-chatting or getting to know a guy. Just a glance gets them hooked and firmly planted in the palm of her hand. “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster) takes all of 10 seconds to fall for her and then get lured into “a double-cross to end all double-crosses.”

The Swede (Burt Lancaster) falls for Kitty (Ava Gardner) in about 10 seconds.

Based on the famous Ernest Hemingway short story, this 1946 film is the crowning achievement of one of Hollywood’s most prolific noir directors, Robert Siodmak, earning him an Oscar nomination for best director and leaving us with some of the genre’s most memorable characters.

The films starts with two hit men (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) coming to get the Swede, who lies back in his lonely little bed and passively accepts his fate. (This is the only part of the movie that comes from Hemingway’s story.) The fact that Swede left $2,500 to an Atlantic City chambermaid piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien). Reardon senses there is much more to Swede’s story and pieces together, through a series of flashbacks, the events leading up to the murder.

Of course, there’s money involved and dogged, determined Reardon links Swede to the infamous Prentiss Hat Company robbery. The $250,000 score was never recovered and Reardon’s firm had to pay out for that loss.

Swede doesn’t seem like a career criminal. He was a boxer until an injury forced him to quit and his childhood pal Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) tried to sell him on being a cop. But the Swede wanted something that paid more than a police paycheck. Oh and did I mention a girl named Kitty? One look at the sultry temptress has him dumping his sweet girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and doing anything Kitty says.

You’d think taking the rap for Kitty and doing three years “in stir” would be a bit of a wakeup call for Swede but not so much. This is noir, after all. By the time the Swede is out of jail, Kitty’s dating Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker), the mastermind of the Prentiss caper. The Swede gets involved with this job, along with Dum-Dum (Jack Lambert) and Blinky (Jeff Corey). Swede’s fellow ex-con Charleston (Vince Barnett) takes a pass on the job, but that doesn’t raise any red flags.

The robbery goes according to plan but there’s a twist on a twist that only Reardon figures out; sourcing his facts by scouring each of the robbers for info and playing one against the other. (You can see how this film, along with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” entrenched itself in Quentin Tarantino’s brain.)

It may seem that the Swede isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he comes across as decent and sympathetic – a testament to Lancaster’s skill as a subtle but powerful performer and Siodmak’s way with actors. Gardner also gives her character nuance along with vampish flair. My only complaint is that they don’t get enough screen time together, but that said, O’Brien is a lot of fun to watch.

The acting, the dramatic (high-contrast) shadow-slicked compositions, the fatalistic mood, the sexy script and the music all contribute to the film’s status as one of the best noirs ever made. Anthony Veiller wrote the screenplay with uncredited help from Richard Brooks and John Huston; after a dispute with producer Mark Hellinger, Huston quit. The original music by Miklós Rózsa helped inspire the theme of TV’s “Dragnet.”

Robert Siodmak

Ernest Hemingway

Siodmak lost the Oscar to William Wyler for “The Best Years of Our Lives.” (The fierce competition that year also included “Brief Encounter” by David Lean; Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which has a 15-minute noir segment; and “The Yearling” by Clarence Brown.)

A German Jew, Siodmak came to Hollywood in 1940 and made his reputation as a crime/whodunit director with works such as “Phantom Lady” (1944), “The Suspect” (1945), “The Spiral Staircase” (1946) and “Criss Cross” (1948).

Though he is highly regarded now for his meticulous, tight storytelling and stylish visuals, his popularity diminished in the 1950s. He returned to Europe in 1953. Four years later, his “Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam”/ “The Devil Strikes at Night” competed in the Oscars for best foreign film but Fellini’s “Le Notti di Cabiria”/“The Nights of Cabiria” (Italy) claimed the prize.

Apparently, Gardner’s performance in “The Killers” even impressed Hemingway and spurred a friendship between the two. Given that Hemingway was fond of a drink and Gardner hoped to leave this world “with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other” it was probably quite a bond.

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Earthy, sexy and wry, Marie Windsor was born to play fatales

Let’s be fair. Marie Windsor as femme fatale Sherry Peatty in “The Killing” by Stanley Kubrick may seem venal, treacherous and manipulative. And yes she hatches a scheme to feather her nest that’s a bit dangerous. But is it right that she’s punished for being as smart, decisive and daring as the men?

Sherry is married, need I say unhappily, to George (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a nervous, Milquetoast cashier at a racetrack. Through George, she gets wind of a heist taking place at the track by Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) and his gang. Sherry tips off her lover Val (Vince Edwards) and comes up with this idea: let George and his friends do the heavy lifting, then she and Val can take off with the stolen cash, about $2 million.

In "The Killing," Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty is so over her dreary husband George (Elisha Cook, Jr.).

Of course, you could argue that the deeply flawed Sherry is downright immoral. And so are the men. But Sherry only gets as far as she does because of George’s colossal ego. Or perhaps it’s his tremendous capacity for denial. Clearly, she’s been after money all along and she’s tired of George not coming through with it. C’mon, George, did you really think she was into your swagger? (Offscreen, Windsor and Cook were chums. She said of him in a 1992 interview, “Elisha Cook was a darling and full of the devil.”)

Earthy, sexy and wry, Windsor was an actress born to play femmes fatales – with her huge, restless eyes, slightly cynical smile and lean but curvy body. Regardless of how many lines or how many scenes Windsor was in, she had a quality both luminous and tawdry, an expressiveness bordering on vulgarity that meshed perfectly with noir sensibility.

Windsor won an award from Look magazine for her role in "The Killing."

Born and raised in Utah, Windsor was especially popular with directors of Westerns and of noirs (in particular, “Force of Evil,” 1948, by Abraham Polonsky; “The Narrow Margin,” 1952, by Richard Fleischer; and “The Sniper,” 1952, by Edward Dmytryk). Once Windsor had been cast, the director had one less thing to worry about, knowing that she’d nail the character.

Kubrick so wanted Windsor for “The Killing” that he delayed filming until she had wrapped up 1955’s “Swamp Women” by Roger Corman. She was worth the wait; for playing Sherry in “The Killing,” Windsor was rewarded with a 1956 Best Supporting Actress award from Look magazine, a prestigious honor at the time.

Windsor worked steadily in movies and TV through the early 1990s. She was married to Jack Hupp for 46 years, from 1954 until her death in 2000.

Despite Sherry’s, um, blemished character, I prefer her gumption to Johnny’s girlfriend, the desperately needy Fay (Coleen Gray). As Fay tells Johnny: “I’m not very pretty and I’m not smart so please don’t leave me alone any more. I’ll go along with anything you say, Johnny. I always will.”

Ever heard of a spine, lady? Well, Sherry has.

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Kubrick creates his defining template with ‘The Killing’

The Killing/1956/United Artists/85 min.

A DVD copy of ”The Killing” from Criterion is this month’s Film Noir Blonde reader giveaway. Newly digitally restored, the two-disc set contains many extras, including Kubrick’s 1955 noir, “Killer’s Kiss,” also reviewed below.

By Michael Wilmington

It takes guts and brains to pull the perfect heist. Or to shoot the perfect heist movie.

In 1956, at the age of 28, Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, traveled to Hollywood and San Francisco to direct the movie that would not only make his reputation but would provide the template – the clockwork nightmare with humans caught in the machinery – that defines most of the films he made from then on.

A Kubrick self-portrait, 1950

Those later films include acknowledged masterpieces: “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “2001: a Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). But none of them is more brilliantly designed or more perfectly executed than that inexpensive film, “The Killing.”

Kubrick and nonpareil pulp novelist Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me”) wrote the script, based on Lionel White’s neatly plotted crime novel “Clean Break.” The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (“The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”) photographed the film.

That cast – a Who’s Who of noir types – includes Sterling Hayden (“The Asphalt Jungle”), Coleen Gray (“Kiss of Death”), Elisha Cook, Jr. (“The Maltese Falcon”), Marie Windsor (“The Narrow Margin”), Ted De Corsia (“The Naked City”), Timothy Carey (“Crime Wave”), James Edwards (“The Phenix City Story”), Joe Sawyer (“Deadline at Dawn”), Vince Edwards (“Murder by Contract”), Jay Adler (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and Jay C. Flippen (“They Live By Night”).

Perhaps inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 art-house classic “Rashomon,” Kubrick’s movie repeatedly circles back to the fictional Lansdowne race track (actually the Bay Meadows in San Francisco) during a fictional race. It’s a “jumbled jigsaw puzzle,” as one character calls it, that will supposedly end with a $2 million score of Lansdowne’s Saturday gambling receipts.

Immaculately orchestrated by a brusque criminal mastermind named Johnny Clay (Hayden), the heist kicks off when crack rifleman Nikki Arcane (Carey), shoots the favorite, Red Lightning, from a parking lot outside the track, at one of the turns. Thanks to Johnny, the robbery has been cleverly designed and planned to the last detail with each of the participants keenly aware of his part, executing it with precision and together getting away with the cash.

But like almost all great movie heists, like the robberies in “Rififi” and “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” the one in “The Killing” has to unravel. And it does. The flaw in this system is the dysfunctional marriage between mousy cashier George (Cook, Jr., in his archetypal role) and George’s lazily sexy, unfaithful wife Sherry (Windsor, in hers).

Vince Edwards and Marie Windsor as the lovers.

George, desperate to keep his wayward wife interested, hints at an upcoming windfall. Sherry shares the leak with loverboy Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) – that has to be one of the great adulterous boyfriend movie names – and we can feel doom coming up fast on the outside.

The show clicked. It conquered audiences, especially critics. “The Killing” was immediately hailed by many as a classic of its kind, the very model of a high-style, low-budget thriller. “Kubrick is a giant,” said Orson Welles and it was the young Welles, of “Citizen Kane,” to whom the young Kubrick was most often compared.

If anything, his third feature’s reputation has grown over the years, as has the stature of the type of movie it embodies: the lean, swift, shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled crime genre we call film noir.

Also includes: “Killer’s Kiss”/1955/United Artists/67 min. This was Kubrick’s second feature and his first collaboration with producer James Harris. One of the most gorgeous-looking B movies ever, Kubrick shot in a style that effortlessly mixes the street-scene poetic realism of movies like “Little Fugitive” and “On the Waterfront” with film noir expressionism.

Jamie Smith plays a boxer in "Killer's Kiss."

But Kubrick’s script is subpar, mostly in the dialogue. It creaks, while his cinematography soars. A nearly washed-up boxer (Jamie Smith) falls in love with the woman across the courtyard (Irene Kane, aka Chris Chase), a dance hall girl who’s tyrannized by her obsessively smitten gangster boss (Frank Silvera).

The story sounds trite and that’s how it plays. But Silvera is good and the classy visuals give “Killer’s Kiss” a power that holds you. All Kubrick needed was a writer and a cast, and in “The Killing,” he got them.

Stanley Kubrick photo from Vanity Fair, courtesy of the Look Magazine Photograph Collection/The Library of Congress.

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Free stuff: Win ‘The Killing’ and try Cafecito Organico

The winner of the August reader giveaway has been selected. For September, I am giving away a copy of Criterion’s new DVD release of “The Killing” (1956).

Stanley Kubrick directed this racetrack-robbery noir; pulp novelist Jim Thompson wrote dialogue. The impressive cast includes Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook Jr., and Marie Windsor.

Criterion’s new digital restoration features a slew of great special features, namely:

*a new interview with producer James B. Harris

*excerpted interviews with Hayden from the French TV series “Cinéma cinemas”

*a new interview with author Robert Polito about Thompson

*restored high-definition digital transfer of Kubrick’s 1955 noir feature “Killer’s Kiss” and a video appreciation of “Killer’s Kiss” featuring film critic Geoffrey O’Brien

*trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by film historian Haden Guest as well as a reprinted interview with Windsor.

Additionally, I am giving away a T-shirt and 12-ounce bag of Espresso Clandestino from Los Angeles-based Cafecito Organico. Their coffee is sustainably grown and locally roasted, which results in a rich, robust flavor that’s also uncommonly smooth – there’s no trace of bitterness or harsh acidity.

Perfecting summing up how many noir denizens feel first thing in the morning, Cafecito’s motto is Café o Muerte (Coffee or Death).

To enter the September giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post from Sept. 1-30. The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early October. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared. Good luck!

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‘Taxi Driver,’ the ultimate big-city bad dream, screens Sunday at TCM Classic Film Festival

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/113 min.

One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.

And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)

Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver"

In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.

Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).

Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.

After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.

Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.

Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. [Read more...]

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