Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The taxi driver scores an ace in the hole

Or The Chuck Tatum /Travis Bickle show ...

Watching two searing dramas one after the other left one limp on the sofa. I had not seen Billy Wilder's 1951 ACE IN THE HOLE for years (its before my time obviously, I only started going to the movies in 1954 when I was 8) and maybe only ever saw it once so it was rather unfamiliar to me, whereas we over-dosed on Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER back in 1976, and in that pre-video age, went to it several times and even got the soundtrack album, but again I had not seen it for a long time ...

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a ruthless former New York newspaper reporter now trapped in a dead-end job at a New Mexico newspaper, sees his way out by covering the story of a man trapped inside a mine. He sees this as his way back to the big time and New York. When Tatum's first story appears, crowds begin arriving at the mine site to watch the unfolding rescue. Although the man, Leo Minosa, can be rescued in about a day, Tatutm gets the local corrupt sheriff and the mining engineer to prolong the rescue by using a drilling process that will take about a week, thus ensuring that Tatum can milk the story for all its worth, as crowds gather to see what happens. It becomes a carnival as everyone is out to make a fast buck. 
This Wilder film is a dark allegory and he outdid himself in cynicism and savage wit with this assault on the trashy press which was a colossal flop at the time, even changing the title to THE BIG CARNIVAL did not help - Wilder stuck to proven hits and successful plays for most of the 50s after that. Kirk Douglas plays another heel (THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) and is the man you love to hate. 
Jan Sterling too plays another sneering, trashy blonde, a real hard-boiled number who won't kneel to pray, as it "bags her nylons". She is the trapped man's wife and runs that forlorn diner which does not make any money - soon, though the cash register is ringing as she caters to the crowds arriving - she too wants to get away, as Chuck slaps her around and gets her to act the part of the concerned wife, only he goes too far ... 

The film undoubtedly exaggerates not only the greed of the reporter and of local traders but also ghoulishness of the public. In the end, though, it all backfires on him as the trapped man dies, thus making him effectively guilty of manslaughter, as the public and the media circus leave.  Presumably back then, the heel has to pay for his callousness, it might be a different ending today, as we are used to television cashing in on tragedies ... Co-written by Wilder and Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, not his usual collaborators. 

TAXI DRIVER. The plot of Scorsese's classic is too well known to go into again, but here it is anyway:
Travis Bickle is an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran living in New York City. As he suffers from insomnia, he spends his time working as a taxi driver at night, watching porn movies at seedy cinemas during the day, He is a loner who sees New York as a cesspool. His one bright spot in New York humanity is Betsy, a worker on the presidential nomination campaign of Senator Charles Palantine. He becomes obsessed with her, but takes her to the porn cinema when she agrees to a date with him..He then wants to save Iris, a twelve-year-old runaway and prostitute who he believes wants out of the profession and under the thumb of her pimp, and he may also want to shoot the senator. so the scene is set for a showdown of savage intensity. 

After years of seeing De Niro in lesser movies or movies one does not need to see at all, one forgot how stunning he was in TAXI DRIVER, and of course MEAN STREETS. I particularly like NEW YORK NEW YORK and then there was RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS, among others (1900, THE DEER HUNTER). 
But Travis Bickle is his iconic role, "God's loney man" the classic loner going out of his mind, whether alone in his room ("You talking to me?"), or his eyes in close-up as he drives that big yellow taxi as the brilliant Bernard Herrmann score plays - and then that final shoot-out. Everyone is excellent here: Jodie Foster, Harvey Kietel, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, even Scorsese himself in that cameo as the client spying on his wife, and of course Paul Schrader's script. It was the film of 1976 for most of us.  

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