Taxi Driver. 1976. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Paul Schrader.
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Savage, Joe Spinell, Martin Scorsese, Harry Northup, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, & Victor Argo.
Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Rated R. 113 minutes.
Forever, until the end of time, Martin Scorsese is one of my favourites. His directing is some of the greatest of his generation, as well as all time. He has a way of captivating the audience with a subject, never letting go. As a director, the way he paces a script from the page to screen is part of why I find him so fascinating.
Taxi Driver has come to mean many things to many people. Some take it plainly as a classic film from Scorsese featuring Robert De Niro’s biggest performance, the one which propelled him into the stratosphere of Hollywood and cemented him as proper method actor willing to even drive a cab for a while to get into a character’s skin. Others recognise it as a deeply important, poignant movie that tackles the PTSD of a Vietnam vet in an usual way, not focusing on the act of war but rather what exactly happens when a man comes home to try living normally afterwards. There’s a lot to unpack. I’ll try to work with what I find most interesting, which involves the visual aesthetic, the score, and the many ways Scorsese pushes us to see the world through the eyes of our disturbed vigilante protagonist, Travis Bickle.
Rest assured, you’ll not learn anything that’s been said before. Nevertheless, these are my thoughts, and the reasons I dig Taxi Driver so god damn deeply. The reason why I watch it once every few months, each time as if it were the first.
The slight suggestions of many psychological moments in Travis’ head are hinted at impeccably. In this film, you can see how tuned in to the character’s inner workings Scorsese found himself as a director. For instance, in the diner when Travis goes to hang with his cabby buddies, his racism – or at the very least his racist-leaning thoughts and ideas – becomes immediately clear with a brief shot of him looking at the black men sitting nearby. It’s so short, yet you can tell by the way Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman manage to make the shot look there’s a deep seated sense of racism in Travis. These come in handfuls throughout the screenplay. Even in the last couple shots we’re given this amazing series of shots where Travis looks in his rear-view mirror, that paranoia and fear, that anger, every last drop comes back fierce. If only for a moment. Enough to make us question whether a violent episode will again strike in Travis’ life (I believe it will). Same as in the diner scene. Of course we later get more of Bickle’s inner feelings, but for the time being that single shot allows us to speculatively enter his thoughts. His look, his previous glance at the man Peter Boyle’s character introduces him to, these tiny pieces add up to give us a pathway in. Although it isn’t particularly a pleasant path. The morality with which we’re confronted in the journey Travis takes, a dark and often nasty journey, is never easy to stomach. Ultimately, drawing us into the inner world of this man is a technique for gearing us up towards the big moral dilemma Schrader’s script poses. That is to say, Travis kills men in the finale who, by most accounts, probably deserve to die; they’re all complicit in prostituting a minor(s). But he also only killed those guys because he failed to murder a politician. His killing them was a diverted murder. Either way, Travis was going to kill. Can we still accept that he, in the process, did a good thing? Or is that all tainted by his lust for violence? A hard question to answer.
Overall, the cinematography is fantastic. The editing – by Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro, before the collaboration between Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker – is another perfect addition. The way so many of the scenes are cut adds that definitive 1970s style. Moreover, it helps everything flow well, which is the primary goal of any editing. There are lots of instances where the editing can make or break a picture’s worthiness. Luckily, Taxi Driver is put together so that every little cut only serves to make the flow and the look and feel of the movie unique. My personal favourite instance of where the shots and the editing collide in perfection: when Scorsese’s unstable character gets into the cab he asks Travis to look up to the building across the street, and not only does he verbally guide him, the sequence is edited so that we literally follow Bickle’s eyes as they go up the building, across a couple windows until landing on the right one. It’s an impressive, underrated scene that doesn’t always get mentioned. Even better is the fact that the Scorsese character is effectively a catalyst, the antagonist who plants a truly ugly seed of violence in the mind of Bickle.
Something else worth mentioning is one of Bickle’s speeches. He poses in the mirror, drawing his gun, all the while a voiceover recites: “Listen up…” And what I love is how he screws up, then starts over. We see the well-rehearsed character that Travis has become even in his own life; he is a creature of habit, one of rehearsal and practice. This shows there’s no fixed identity to which he subscribes. He’s still trying to figure it out.
On top of the visual aesthetic, the final score of Bernard Herrmann’s career. Apparently Brian De Palma suggested Scorsese use him. And what a great decision. The various compositions have an eerie tone, as well as at times an outright scary feel. His arrangements give us a feeling of, at times, being in a horror film. All the while there’s a very dreamy feel. The rise and swell of the horns, lulling down into the background after flaring up, it’s a famous soundtrack, as well as a fresh and exciting one.
This is a 5 star, flawless piece of cinema. I haven’t bothered to mention De Niro specifically because what’s to say? One of the most famous portrayals of an outsider on film, and one of the most famous characters in the history of moving pictures. His outrageous dedication to the craft of acting makes for something spectacular to behold. Travis Bickle comes alive with each and every viewing, every time becoming more and more disturbing, as you dissect the layers of his performance, and also the layers of Schrader’s writing.
The man with the plan is Scorsese. Naturally Schrader instilled his script with portions of his own feelings, re: isolation. However, it is the strong directorial hand of a young Scorsese which crafted this picture into an iconic piece of art. There’s too much to talk about in a single review, or a single conversation. For years I’ve gone over and over the details, the imagery, the music, every element. I’ve tried to dissect all the pieces to figure out how I feel about Travis, how we’re meant to feel, what exactly Scorsese and Schrader want to say with their work. All I know for sure is that I love this movie. Whatever else there is comes as a bonus – the deeper meanings, the imagery. In the end, the story is enough to make me stick around. Only helps the whole package is put together with expert care.