I recently again watched this Neo-Noir classic from a younger Martin Scorsese for the first time since it came out in 1976; the cinematography is still gorgeous, as is the wonderful (and last) score from the great composer Bernard Herrmann, but the film was no longer shocking to me in the same way it was back then.
Maybe that’s the effect of the Directors who followed like Quentin Tarantino, who exponentially upped the level of violence in their films with mostly unsympathetic characters. Maybe it’s the skinhead culture that adopted the “Mohawk” look of Robert De Niro in the scene from this film when he went postal. Maybe it’s a popular culture that has jaded us to the use of the “n” word and other degrading language used in this film; back in the 70’s, we were not bombarded with these kinds of epithets every day in music and on television. Even the shocking behavior of 12 year old Jodie Foster’s character in this film does not now still have the same impact it did then, before the sad case of JonBenet Ramsey and other manifestations of our culture that now sexualize even much younger girls — although it still strikes me that putting a 12 year old on a movie set into this kind of role was abusive and inappropriate. I am now the parent of a 15 year old young woman, and wonder what kind of parent would allow their child to portray a young prostitute in a film like this?
The film does feature an amazing ensemble of actors and actresses, many of whom were not well known at the time. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a Vietnam Veteran with Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome who takes to driving a taxi because he can’t sleep, stays up all night, and figures he might as well get paid for it. The opening scenes of the film are classic noir:
Opening Scene (click on the link that says Go to HD version)
Travis Bickle: Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.
Bickle has a crush on Betsy (Cybill Shepard), a campaign volunteer for the vacuous Senator Charles Palentine; his campaign slogan of “We are the People” made me think of an equally vacuous political candidate last year with the slogan “Believe in America.” A startlingly young Albert Brooks has a straightforward role as Tom, another volunteer for Palentine; Tom tries to protect Betsy from the oddball cab driver who seems to be stalking her. Here is where Travis goes into Palentine Headquarters, determined to ask Betsy out:
Travis meets Betsy on a late afternoon break, and she admits to being curious enough to get to know him better:
Betsy: You know what you remind me of?
Travis Bickle: What?
Betsy: That song by Kris Kristofferson.
Travis Bickle: Who’s that?
Betsy: A songwriter. ‘He’s a prophet… he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.’
Travis Bickle: [uneasily] You sayin’ that about me?
Betsy: Who else would I be talkin’ about?
Travis Bickle: I’m no pusher. I never have pushed.
Betsy: No, no. Just the part about the contradictions. You are that.
Travis then persuades Betsy to go on a date with him, but makes the socially bizarre choice of taking her to see a Swedish porn film!
After this, Betsy understandably refuses to see Travis again or even talk to him on the phone. Discouraged with the direction of his life, Travis talks to fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle):
Wizard: Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job – I mean, like that – That becomes what he is. You know, like – You do a thing and that’s what you are. Like I’ve been a cabbie for thirteen years. Ten years at night. I still don’t own my own cab. You know why? Because I don’t want to. That must be what I want. To be on the night shift drivin’ somebody else’s cab. You understand? I mean, you become – You get a job, you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn. One guy lives in Sutton Place. You got a lawyer. Another guy’s a doctor. Another guy dies. Another guy gets well. People are born, y’know? I envy you, your youth. Go on, get laid, get drunk. Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we’re all fucked. More or less, ya know.
Travis Bickle: I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.
Wizard: It’s not Bertrand Russell. But what do you want? I’m a cabbie. What do I know? I don’t even know what the f*ck you’re talking about.
Travis Bickle: Maybe I don’t know either.
Their conversation leaves Travis unsatisfied, so he embarks on a program to get in better physical shape and also purchases an arsenal from gun dealer Easy Andy. He seeks out Iris, the young prostitute played by Foster, but the only way to talk to her is to buy her services from her pimp.
Travis decides he wants to help her escape the sordid life she is leading, and asks her to join him for breakfast the next day; their dialogue in this scene is classic.
Iris: God, you’re square.
Travis Bickle: Hey, I’m not square, you’re the one that’s square. You’re full of sh*t, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those f*ckin’ creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little p***y for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I’m square? You’re the one that’s square, man. I don’t go screwing f**k with a bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein’ hip? What world are you from?
Travis Bickle: You’re a young girl, you should be at home. You should be dressed up, going out with boys, going to school, you know, that kind of stuff.
Jodie Foster has said in a number of interviews that is was De Niro who really taught her how to act; before being in this film with him. Other Directors would just tell her to “be herself”, but listen to her describe how De Niro coached and influenced her:
Jodie Foster on De Niro at the AFI Lifetime Achievement Salute
Towards the end of the film, Travis then decides go out in a blaze of glory, and leave whatever money he has to Iris to help her escape. The first part of his plan is to assassinate Palentine; Travis shaves his head into a Mohawk, conceals his weapons inside his army jacket and clothes, but is spotted by the Secret Service agents protecting Palentine and flees the scene. His backup plan is to kill Iris’s pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), along with a mobster and the sleazebag who rents out the hotel rooms to the prostitutes, and he does all of this in what can only be described as a true bloodbath.
Ironically, Travis not only survives, but is crowned a hero by the media for taking out all of the other lowlifes. In the epilogue six months later, Travis goes back to driving his cab and happens to pick up Betsy as a fare. She has heard about his exploits and tries to discuss them with him, but he merely takes her home and drops her off, free of charge, and the movie ends.
At the time this film was made, New York City was a far more depraved city than it seems today. XXX rated movie theaters were everywhere and the streets were filthy; there were definitely parts of town where it would have been easy for anyone to despair about the human condition, much as Travis does. He is a very lonely man, despite being surrounded by people, and his loneliness is like a giant weight on top of his head that eventually crushes him.
Herrmann’s incredible score helps to bring this out; a wailing saxophone is a musical counterpart to the very alienated main character.
All of the blood in the climactic shootout scene caused problems for the film with the MPAA censorship board; eventually Scorsese agreed to de-saturate the red colors in the scene to make it appear less gory.
This film unfortunately was a favorite of John Hinckley, the disturbed young man who shaved his head into a Mohawk like Travis and tried to assassinate President Reagan in 1981. He stated at his trial that part of his motivation was that he wanted to impress Jodie Foster, which is just disturbingly creepy.
Finally, there is this description from the late film critic Roger Ebert, which I think is very accurate and fitting:
“Taxi Driver” is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down. Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.”