Taxi Driver – An Appreciation
Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese from a Paul Schrader script, is simply put one of the all-time great movies. It is the movie that made me want to learn more about movies. The story of Travis Bickle, “God’s Lonely Man”, roaming the streets of New York City, burning with an urge to do something, anything, to rid the streets of the scum he so hated, left an impression on me that has lasted until today, I’d never seen anything quite like it before, or since.
This is the film where Martin Scorsese made a name for himself as one of America’s best directors, a title he has yet to relinquish. A graduate of NYU, Scorsese drew attention to himself with his first feature I Call First (1967), later to be renamed Who’s That Knocking at My Door. In 1972, he made Boxcar Bertha, an exploitation film for Roger Corman. Even with these early works, one can already see the visual flair that Scorsese had with the camera, his use of popular rock music, and the relationship between the Catholicism and violence of his youth. 1973 would bring Scorsese’s first critical hit, Mean Streets, a semi-autobiographical film starring Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, actors Scorsese would famously collaborate with again in future works. Combined with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), a film that would win Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Oscar, Scorsese would be primed and ready to take on the film world with Taxi Driver.
The story of Taxi Driver is one of a kind. A returning Vietnam veteran, Travis Bickle (played with an intense focus by Robert DeNiro) gets a job as a cabbie. Night after night, Travis moves along the streets, picking up the dreck of society, witnessing first hand the dangerous and unpredictable world of New York’s underbelly. At one point of the movie, Travis speaks about a rain coming to wash the filth away. Little do we know as viewers, that that rain would actually be himself. All the while, Travis yearns to do something, be a part of something bigger than what he is. This makes him quite the interesting character: although Bickle is one of the great psychos of film history, his intentions are all too understandable. He is lonely; he wishes to be with people, to have a girlfriend, to contribute to society. However, because of his social awkwardness and ineptitude (possibly due to his time in Vietnam) Bickle pushes people away instead of toward him. Even his fellow cabbies act more like acquaintances than actual friends. In a scene where he drives a political candidate to a press stop, Travis’ attempt at support and sincerity comes off more aggressive and alarming. His attempt to befriend and ultimately save Iris, a child-prostitute, becomes uncomfortable, because it is not exactly clear that Iris actually wants to be saved. This pent up frustration, anger, and loneliness all builds up to one of the most famous (and most violent) shoot ‘em up scenes in modern movie history.
Although the storyline may sound dark and depressing, the film also contains some surprisingly funny scenes. One of these includes Travis taking a date to a porno movie, because “that’s what other couples do.” Another includes a scene where Wizard, a veteran cabbie, tries to give Travis some advice on life. Instead of being thoughtful and giving useful advice, Wizard stumbles with his words and rambles along, completely losing Travis along the way despite the sincere meaning. A funny scene takes place between Betsy, the love interest of Travis, and her coworker Tom, as she challenges him to light a match with his pinkie finger and thumb. All funny in their own way, these scenes help relieve some of the tension that the story puts upon the viewer, and gives the characters life and dimension, a uniqueness that works well combined with the character of Travis.
No other film, in my mind, better captures the inner thoughts of a character better than in Taxi Driver. Although he never says exactly what he is thinking, we know what the character of Travis Bickle is thinking through the direction that Scorsese gives us. Take for example a scene where Travis stands outside of a diner, and eyes down a group of pimps and prostitutes walking by him. How does Scorsese choose to portray this moment? Through slow motion. Why? Because the slow-motion effect requires the viewer to focus in on this moment, as if Scorsese is telling us that this is important to the character, and we should pay attention to it. Another example comes when Travis, recently dumped by the character of Betsy played by Cybill Sheperd, awkwardly asks to meet again on a payphone. Here Scorsese deliberately tracks the camera away from DeNiro to a nearby empty hallway. This move is abrupt and calls attention to itself, but is appropriate and correct because of the context of the scene: as if to say that the groveling that Bickle is doing here is so embarrassing that even the camera can’t look, and instead moves to the empty, lonely hallway, a reflection of Travis himself. These stylistic choices (along with many others) are examples of a director in complete understanding of his material, and because of that the work shines.
Scorsese was accompanied on this film by a group of actors all working at top form. The great Robert DeNiro, brings a subtlety that is required to play a character like Travis, because the character is not a wild and crazy nut job, but a ticking time-bomb ready to go off at any moment. Cybill Shepherd, long before her days on Moonlighting, surprisingly has a weight about her that allows her to stand toe-to-toe with Travis. Jodie Foster, child star of Disney fame, makes a left turn career-wise to play the prostitute Iris, giving a glimpse of the strong actress to be. Harvey Keitel, star of Scorsese’s previous film Mean Streets, disappears in to his character Sport, Iris’ pimp. Other than DeNiro, I was most impressed by Keitel, he is so naturally convincing in his role here that if I were told that he was a real pimp off the street, I wouldn’t disagree. In the scene where Sport and Travis discuss a deal to meet with Iris, Keitel moves and acts as if he had been doing something like this everyday for ten years. As a test, watch Mean Streets and Taxi Driver back to back. I bet one couldn’t find a single thing in which Keitel brought to those two roles that are common acting wise. From top to bottom, not one person gave a bad performance in the film. Even Scorsese himself, playing a crazy customer of Travis’, brings the right tone and energy to his one and only scene.
There is not one bad aspect about this film. The music by the late Bernard Hermann gives the film a quiet, jazzy atmosphere, a perfect accompaniment to the late-night tone of the movie. The editing has a unique repeating pattern, especially during the driving scenes, giving the film a monotonous, almost boring feel, a reflection of Travis’ mental state. And finally, the film contains arguably one of the most debated endings in all the movies. Are those final moments of the film a dream? Are they reality? Did Travis truly achieve what he wanted, or are they the fleeting final thoughts after the whorehouse shoot out? Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader have already publicly given their thoughts on the ending, but I can see it going either way, which is what makes the ending so great. People can have their own thoughts about the ending, fill in the blanks for themselves, and debate others about it, allowing the film to continue way after the credits are over.
Scorsese would go on to direct other instant classics, such as Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990), but it is here where I believe he jumped in to the ranks of the great directors. Like many of the characters throughout most of Scorsese’s films, Travis seeks emotional acceptance, redemption, and love. He hates the world around him, but slowly and surely, he becomes that which he hates. Whether or not the ending is real is ultimately beside the point: whatever it is Travis Bickle is looking for throughout the story of Taxi Driver, I feel, by the end, he found it.