Where to? Why, straight to the taxi movie section of the local video store, driver—and there’s a fiver in it for you if you can find me something without Steve Guttenberg.
Taxi Driver (1976)
The most obvious first choice—unless you’re telling me there’s a cabbie out there who has inspired more critical adulation, quoted monologue and oversized dorm-room posters than Travis Bickle. Unless you’re trying to tell me there’s a more iconic image of cabbiedom—nay, of all angry American cinema of the ’70s—than a demented Robert De Niro in an army jacket, waving a gun and sporting a mohawk that looks like he shaved it himself while sniffing modeling glue. No, reader, I did not think you were talking to me.
James Cagney speaking Yiddish? It’s true: though Irish and Norwegian by birth, Cagney grew up in a Yiddish-speaking part of New York and knew the language well. In the opening scene of Taxi!
, his character, Matthew Nolan, intervenes in a dispute between an Irish cop and a recent Russian immigrant trying to get to Ellis Island to pick up his wife and three kids. Nolan gets the fare, the bewildered cop asks Nolan what part of Ireland his family came from anyway, and Cagney establishes himself as an insider/outsider ethnic icon at a time when over half of New York City’s households are Polish, Jewish, Slavic or Italian. Keep the change, Jimmy!
Heavy Metal (1981)
Speaking of iconic New York cabbies, no list would be complete without mention of Harry Canyon, cynical antihero of a future Gotham in this midnight movie favorite. Harry hates aliens, gripes that the U.N. building is now low-rent housing, sleeps with his fares (“This dame was going for broke,” he brags, “and I was giving her the stars and stripes forever.”), and vaporizes stick-up hoodlums with a de-atomizer concealed behind his seat.
D.C. Cab (1983)
Okay, so I haven’t really seen this one: it’s one of a handful of early ’80s comedies I’ve only cobbled together in my imagination from lines repeated on the playground and a few furtive glimpses at the houses of friends with HBO. But I definitely remember Mr. T calling people fools, murmurs of impending race war and dubious claims about Bruce Lee being frozen in carbonite. Caveat emptor.
Taxi Blues (1990)
Once lauded as an avatar of perestroika cinema—a genre which didn’t end up amounting to a hill of devalued kopeks—Taxi Blues
pits a shiftless Jewish jazz musician (read: the New Russia) against a patriotic, proletarian Moscow cabbie (the Old Russia) who tracks him down to collect on a stiffing and winds up making uneasy friends. Clattery, complacently “radical” and too long by a third or so, Taxi Blues
makes some valid observations through its characters but ultimately outstays its welcome by several free-form saxophone solos. Cultural note: In St. Petersburg, it’s a tradition for young newlyweds to hire taxi drivers to drive them around the city and take pictures of them in front of famous landmarks.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Barcelona—now, that’s the place to take a taxi. They always arrive right when you need them: just in time to beat your ex-lover’s psychotic wife to the airport to prevent her from shooting him. And they come stocked with magazines, drinks and prescription drugs, driven by kitsch-loving bleached-blond drivers who double as relationship counselors. Yet the Lonely Planet and Let’s Go: Europe guides say nothing about them. Go figure.
Night on Earth (1991)
The tagline says it all: Five taxis, five cities (Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki), one night. The New York episode is the most obnoxious (Giancarlo Esposito opposite Rosie Perez at full nasal blast); Rome is the funniest (a hyperactive Roberto Benigni recounting marital relations with vegetables, livestock and his sister-in-law to a captive priest with a heart condition); and Helsinki is the weirdest and most depressing, with three Aki Kaurismäki regulars trying to top each other with the sobbiest sob-story. Cultural note: My friend Miikka lives up the real-life street from where the Finnish passengers wind up, and he once calculated that Matti Pellonpää’s cabbie character drives his drunken fares 10 times farther than necessary to get from points A to B. But the roundabout trip makes me nostalgic for drab, wintry Helsinki—one of many personal reasons why Night on Earth
is my favorite taxi movie.