“American Gigolo” (1980) dir. Paul Schrader

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“American Gigolo” was a transitional film for writer/director Paul Schrader. Pre-“Gigolo”, Schrader was primarily known as the writer of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Hardcore,” which unabashedly showed the nastier side of the inner city sex industry. On one level, “Gigolo” was as sleazy as “Taxi Driver” and “Hardcore,” but it’s the film where Schrader started to trade (in his words) “violence for style.”  The style in question was appropriated from Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the set designer for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece “The Conformist,” and who served as visual consultant for “Gigolo” (as well as for Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of “Scarface”).  Arguably, this is the film that made Giorgio Armani a household name in America and was the film that made Richard Gere a star.

“Gigolo”‘s story is almost like the seamier flipside of “Pretty Woman,” which came out 10 years later.  Gere plays Julian Kay, a high-priced gigolo catering to rich women in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and Palm Springs.  While he has risen high enough in the ranks of prostitution to not trick with men, it’s clear that this wasn’t always the case.  Julian eventually finds himself set up for a murder he didn’t commit, but his alibi is one of his tricks, who is married to a local politician.  He needs to find a way to exonerate himself, but his journey leads him down some very dark paths and finds himself increasingly in danger.

“Gigolo” is a film that manages to be extremely sleazy without being offensive.  But despite its high style, it’s not what I would call classy or clean (I mean that as a compliment, by the way.)  Schrader has acknowledged the debt of Robert Bresson’s 1959 film “Pickpocket,”  even though they are very different films from each other.  However, if you watch and like “Gigolo,” you should really check out “Pickpocket” (which is available to watch for free if you have a HuluPlus subscription). The endings of both films are very very similar.

“Taxi Driver” (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese

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“Taxi Driver” is arguably director Martin Scorsese’s best film. While I admire “Raging Bull” a lot, will watch “Hugo” with my kids anytime they want to watch it, and will put on “Goodfellas” when I want a Scorsese film to entertain me and make me laugh, “Taxi Driver” is the one that sticks to my brain the most.

Written by Paul Schrader when Schrader was coming out of the tail end of a hellish personal period when he was drinking too much and going to porn theaters, “Taxi Driver” is a brilliant portrait of a damaged mind rotting away into the ugliest thoughts a mind can have.

The lead character, Travis Bickle (in what’s arguably, Robert DeNiro’s greatest performance), is an ex-Marine who can’t sleep and decides to deal with his insomnia by being a taxi cab driver in NYC. However, Travis purposely seems to go the worse areas of NYC, specifically Times Square and 42nd street, for fares.  As the unreliable narrator, he spits at this world and predicts that one day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.

But Travis can’t help subjecting himself to this world, even spending time in low-rent 8mm and 16mm porno theaters on his off hours.  His vision is so warped that  he convinces Betsy, a beautiful blonde campaign worker (played by Cybill Shepherd) to go on a date with him, but  takes her to a fancy porno theater because he thinks it’s a classy date.  He could be naive … or he could be wanting to subject her to the same filth he’s subjecting himself to … in much the same way emotionally crippled people put potential lovers through the ringer to prove their love for them.  Betsy wisely ditches him, which sends Travis further down a downward spiral.  Notice how the camera pans away from Travis while he’s on the phone.  It’s almost like we can’t watch him being rejected because it’s too painful.

Travis then becomes obsessed with a teen prostitute named Iris, played by Jodie Foster and decides he wants to rescue her from her pimp, played by Harvey Keitel.  He also becomes obsessed with the political candidate Betsy is working for.   Travis starts buying guns and working out.  The conclusion is troubling to say the least.  Below is a scene where Travis in the middle of his madness is quietly watching “American Bandstand” with jaundiced eyes … especially watching the interracial couples dancing while pointing his gun at the TV.  The song playing is Jackson Browne’s terrifically sad “Late for the Sky”:

“Taxi Driver” is the flipside and middle finger to the mid-1970s Charles Bronson urban revenge blockbuster “Death Wish.”  DeNiro’s Travis character is not only nuts, but racist and sexually twisted.  However, the way that Scorsese directs the film (with brilliant editing by Marcia Lucas), you can’t help but feel for Travis while also being repulsed by him.

Of course, by now, everyone knows that “Taxi Driver” was the film that inspired John Hinckley Jr. to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in order to impress Jodie Foster.  While this is (hopefully) a ridiculous notion to most of us, the film is so brilliantly made and gets you so far inside the mind of a gone individual, it really does seem like a blueprint for being a psychopath if one were not in the right frame of mind.

But that’s the problem with great art.  By conveying the darkest parts of the human soul in a realistic and convincing manner, you run the risk of encouraging those in a similar frame of mind to identify a bit too deeply with what you’re trying to express.  However, you can’t begin to understand such dark souls without realistically looking into the heart of darkness that beats in many lost souls that wander through our culture.

“The King of Comedy” (1982) dir. Martin Scorsese

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“The King of Comedy” was Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his legendary Jake LaMotta biopic “Raging Bull.” “King” flopped with audiences and got mixed reviews from critics. However, I think it’s one of Scorsese’s best films and as I much as I admire “Raging Bull,” I would watch “King” before “Bull” any day.

This movie seriously rubbed many the wrong way, because “King” did not resemble the typical Scorsese film. (There’s no gangsters, rat-a-tat dialogue and editing, or violence.) And star Robert DeNiro, as obnoxious autograph hound and wanna-be comedian Rupert Pupkin, likely really repulsed people. Granted, Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle were scary characters, but let’s be honest, people love scary characters. Pupkin is the delusional loudmouth that most people go out of their way to avoid, let alone avoid seeing a movie about.  But DeNiro really brings it in this role, as well as Jerry Lewis as talk show host Jerry Langford and Sandra Bernhard as DeNiro’s arguably more demented cohort Masha.  Berhnard’s “seduction” of Lewis’s character is absolutely hilarious and frightening.

But I think time has been really kind to “King.” Uncomfortable, queasy comedy (i.e. “Curb Your Enthusiam,” “Louis”) has attained a certain kind of cache and if you like Larry David and Louis C.K., you should really give “King” a chance. “King” is one of the most brutal critiques of celebrity culture / worship ever created. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch, but also very darkly funny.

“The Searchers” (1956) dir. John Ford

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Arguably, the most revered Western of all time and voted 7th greatest film of all time in the esteemed British film journal Sight and Sound in 2012, “The Searchers” is my personal favorite among the 10 films selected. It was highly regarded by many of the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s and its influence can be seen most significantly in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.”

“The Searchers” is about a woman (played as an adult by Natalie Wood), who is kidnapped as a young girl by Native Americans and her uncle’s obsessive search to find her. The uncle, played by John Wayne, is a Confederate Civil War veteran, on the outside of the law, and extremely racist. In his mission, he’s accompanied by his adopted nephew and the woman’s brother, played by Jeffrey Hunter, who is Native American by birth. Wayne’s character doesn’t consider Hunter to be part of his family and the two quarrel throughout the film. Wayne even reveals that his mission once he finds his niece is to kill her, because she’s likely been defiled by the tribe that kidnapped her. Yes, this is not exactly the most evolved film … but stay with me, please. Though, I’m going to reveal major spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens … STOP READING NOW!!

The first clip shows what happens when Wayne’s character eventually catches up with Wood. As he’s been saying, you expect Wayne’s character to kill her, but instead, he lifts her up and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” This scene leaves me in tears every time I see it.

However, the saddest moment is yet to come. Wayne’s character carries Debbie back to her home and gives her back to his brother. Wayne’s nephew joins hands with the love of his life and enters the home. And then … Wayne turns around and walks off and the door closes behind him. The End.

A devastating masterpiece.

“The Joe Spinnell Story” (2001) dir. David Gregory

Like John Cazale, Joe Spinnell was one of the greatest and most recognizable character actors of the 1970s.  Spinnell played pivotal roles in several 1970s film classics (“The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Taxi Driver,” “Rocky,” “Big Wednesday,” “Cruising”) and was the star, co-writer, and executive producer of 1981’s “Maniac,” arguably the most notorious of all the early 1980s slasher films.

To say Spinnell was a “character” is an understatement.  The man was a terrific actor and had a big heart, but was more than a little loony.  Really loony.  Apparently, John Wayne Gacy wanted Spinnell to play him if they ever made a movie about him.  But as loony as Spinnell was, he was arguably, crazy like a fox at times.  Reportedly, he was the second highest paid actor in “The Godfather” after Marlon Brando.  He apparently made more money from “The Godfather” than Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton, even though he only had a minor role.  Why?  He asked Francis Ford Coppola if he could hang out on the set when he wasn’t working and Coppola agreed.  Since Spinnell was a SAG actor, he was logged in as “working” every day he was on the set.  As a result, he collected a huge paycheck and collected huge residuals from what was then, the biggest box-office hit in movie history.  As they say, nice work if you can get it.

“The Joe Spinnell Story” is a terrific documentary that was sort-of thrown away as an extra on the “Maniac” DVD.   However, the entire documentary is available on YouTube.  If you’re a fan of 70s cinema or cult cinema in general, this documentary is a must-see.

7. “Goodfellas” (1991) dir. Martin Scorsese

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Number 7 on Dave’s Strange World’s list of all-time favorite films is Martin Scorsese’s vicious, profane, and hilarious gangster classic “Goodfellas.” Since I tried limiting myself to just one film by each director, it was hard picking my favorite Scorsese film. “Taxi Driver” and “Hugo” almost made the cut on all my time Top 10, but “Taxi Driver” is a really heavy, painful film that I don’t watch that often these days and “Hugo,” while being emotionally uplifting, is heavy in its own way too. These aren’t criticisms, it’s just that if I’m picking a Scorsese film to watch at the end of a long, hard day at work, “Goodfellas” never disappoints. Even at 2.5 hours long, it feels like it’s half that length. Everything about this film, from the script to the acting to the editing to the music is a pure adrenalin rush. And while you may feel exhausted at the end of this, it’s a good exhaustion.

The scene I included here is where Liotta’s, DeNiro’s, and Pesci’s characters need to borrow a shovel from Pesci’s mother’s house to bury the body of a gangster they just killed. Playing Pesci’s mother is Scorsese’s mother Catherine, who is totally sweet and funny in this scene. There is some pixelation during the first 11 seconds of this clip, but everything else is fine after that. Favorite line: “Looks like someone we know.”