A brilliant actor, an even greater director, and a character that has stood the test of time.
Loved by audiences and critics the world over, #18 is nothing short of a long, winding road.
So buckle up…
#18. Taxi Driver (1976) Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster. Directed by Martin Scorsese.
I’ve mentioned this in a previous article, but I believe the seventies were probably the greatest ever era for Hollywood filmmakers to hone their craft. Coming out of the idealistic sixties, and not yet hampered by the overindulgent and materialistic eighties, directors in the seventies gained a massive amount of creative freedom. For the first time, it seemed as though movies were allowed (and encouraged) to be bold, gritty and downright confronting. Censorship and the idea of sugar-coating nefarious elements for the general public went out the window, as moviegoers were treated to some of the best films of all time.
Many of this era’s most innovative movies broke the mould by favouring character development over plot. Rocky, for instance, while being a movie about an underdog who finally gets his chance, is very much a character study. Likewise, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Apocalypse Now and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind mostly focus on their lead characters instead of progressing through a standard, plot-driven story.
Personally, I think there is no greater example of a character-driven, seventies film than Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It exemplifies everything about the cinematic style and more importantly, the anti-heroes of the time, by concentrating all of its attention on one of the Silver Screen’s most interesting characters: Travis Bickle.
Robert De Niro is one of my all-time favourite actors. While in recent years he has certainly starred in his fair share of stinkers, once upon a time, a De Niro film was an event. The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, The Deer Hunter, Casino and Raging Bull are testament to the man’s great talent, and Taxi Driver ranks right up there with the best of his ‘classic-era’ films.
As Travis Bickle, ex-marine and troubled insomniac, he delivers one of his most spellbinding performances. All-but two scenes revolve around Travis, which means we spend 99% of the movie getting to know him. And thanks to De Niro’s enigmatic and layered performance, we get to do exactly that, growing scarily close to everyone’s favourite late-night cabbie.
A man looking to make sense of the urban decline literally littered around him, Travis is haunted by an unknown mental affliction. His inner monologue narrates the film, sometimes quoting a briefly-seen diary. He often mentions his disdain for the city, secretly praying for a ‘real rain’ to come along and ‘wash away all the filth’, like some modern-day Biblical flood.
Travis’s journey is accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s unique score. Its gentle saxophone contrasts Travis’s conflicted mind with splashes of horns and drums, periodically and garishly interrupting the peace to symbolise his unsteady mind. The score and its crescendos also grow louder, more demented and more frequent the longer the film continues, almost leading Travis into madness.
The scenes of Travis driving alone through the city highlight his isolation, leaving him with nothing but his thoughts for company. A dangerous situation for a man like him. These scenes showcase some of the brilliant direction by Scorsese, using lighting to help set the tone and mood.
The saturation of certain colours, blending the urban neon with the troubled faces of the film’s characters, create an otherworldly effect, almost as though they are something else than human. At times, this is almost true.
Many of Scorsese’s camera shots are presented from the taxi’s point-of-view, as it silently observes the troubled night life of New York after dark. The very first shot of the film is (purposefully) the taxi driving through a cloud of steam with a hero’s entrance, as if the cab is a character in its own right.
More long, wide shots increase the feeling of Travis’s isolation and help us get inside his mind. He’s alone. Despite being in a city bursting at the seams with people, he cannot connect with any of them.
Travis listening to his fellow drivers (especially Peter Boyle’s Wizard) increases his distaste for mankind. He doesn’t believe their often-explicit tales of various customer encounters and quickly loses focus when they attempt to offer casual conversation.
His would-be cry for help when he confides in Wizard about how he has ‘some bad ideas in his head’ and wants to ‘really go out and do something’ is perhaps the one time Travis seeks help. At this point, he still isn’t sure of himself or what he should do.
Unfortunately, Wizard tells Travis to relax and not to worry, before admitting he doesn’t even understand what Travis is trying to say. The end of this scene sees Travis return to his taxi with an even more defeated and dangerous mindset.
For me, Taxi Driver can be broken down into Travis’s obsession with three people. First of which, is the lovely Betsy (Cybill Shepherd).
Travis’s fixation with the beautiful Presidential campaign worker is based on his belief that she is the one pure thing in a defiled city. We initially expect her to reject him on sight; however, Betsy is oddly and immediately smitten with Travis when he asks her out. To be fair, this scene is perhaps Travis at his most charming.
Shepherd has a tough role to play in this movie. She has to be the materialistic and chauvinistic ‘object of desire’, yet also has to embody a liberated seventies woman, with minimal screen-time, no less.
She succeeds in her task, delivering a performance that is both strong and sexy at the same time. Her banter with colleague, Tom (Albert Brooks) gives us a sneak-peek into her regular personality, before being swept up by Travis’s obsession.
When Betsy actually goes on the date with Travis, the entire affair becomes a sad realisation of Travis’s inability to connect with people. While he is trying so hard to be nice and impress Betsy, she is trying even harder to like him. She’s definitely attracted to him, but it seems she can tell he’s more than meets the eye. She even tells him he’s a ‘walking contradiction’.
And she’s 100% right.
What really kills off any chance of a relationship with Betsy is when Travis inexplicably takes her to a ‘foreign film’ that is nothing more than a documentary about orgies and sex. His regret is instant, although he remains confused as to why Betsy is upset. His confusion then leads to anger and ultimately, despair, when we see his disastrous attempt to reconcile with Betsy via payphone.
This scene is another one of the great directions by Scorsese. Travis is framed slightly off centre, just as he is in life. And as we continue to hear his hopeless attempts to win back Betsy’s favour, the camera pans away from him, leaving us with only the sound of his broken voice. It’s as though even the camera cannot stand to watch this man be rejected, and tries to shield us from the embarrassment.
Finally, disillusioned and bewildered, Travis confronts Betsy at her workplace, and it’s the first real outburst we see from him in the film. In his mind, Betsy has been tainted like ‘the rest of them’, and his one beacon of virtue has been destroyed.
The second of Travis’s obsessions comes on the heels of his dealings with Betsy and her work with Presidential hopeful, Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).
When Travis finds Palantine in the back of his taxi as a customer, it allows him to vent his thoughts about the city’s problems. He reiterates how bad he believes things have become, wanting the new President (whoever that may end up being) to ‘flush it all down the f**king toilet.’
The encounter with Palantine is immediately followed by the first meeting with Travis’s third-and-final object of obsession, Iris (Jodie Foster), when the child prostitute attempts to escape from her pimp, Matthew (Harvey Keitel). It’s a quick scene, and Iris is hastily dragged from the taxi, but it’s enough to light a fuse within Travis, one that will soon ignite into a raging bonfire.
As a side note, I like how Travis purposefully saves the twenty dollar bill given to him by Matthew ‘for his trouble’ like a trophy, something all disturbed killers tend to keep.
The brush with Iris only emphasises exactly what Travis was saying to Palantine, yet after replying with some pre-practiced clichés, Palantine walks right past the problem and triggers more disappointment in Travis.
The movie drops these numerous encounters into Travis’s cab, slowly building the resentment and rage within him. One of the harshest is his dealing with a frazzled customer (played by director, Scorsese) who laments and confesses his pre-meditated intent to kill his cheating wife and her African-American lover. This is also the first mention of a .44 Magnum in the film, which Travis later specifically asks for upon meeting with his gun dealer.
I respect Scorsese’s choices in the way he directs the meeting with the gun dealer. In no way is this scene trying to glorify what’s happening. The camera pans along the barrel of the largest gun as the seller details its ferocity, making us as viewers aware just how serious Travis is becoming in his quest.
Also interesting in this scene is Travis’s reaction. As he lines up his arsenal like a twisted James Bond, his disgust for the gun dealer grows when he’s offered a litany of drugs. If not for the daytime circumstances, the dealer may very well have become Travis’s first victim.
Now the film turns up the heat, quite literally in some cases. With his arsenal collected, Travis dedicates himself to his cause like an urban, underground Batman, learning to use his weaponry and train his body in a montage expertly directed by Scorsese.
We see Travis’s ingenuity as he constructs a device to slide a gun into his hand at a moment’s notice. He learns to conceal his myriad of weapons on his person and practices various confrontation scenarios in his apartment. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice Travis carving crosses into the tips of his bullets. Like the earlier Noah’s Ark reference, this is another subtle reminder that he believes his cause to be a righteous one.
These scenes and Travis’s declining mental health, eventually give rise to the now-iconic ‘You talkin’ to me?’ moment, one of cinemas most-quoted lines. This scene is partnered with more of Travis’s internal monologues about how he has become a man who ‘would not take it anymore’ and ‘stood up’, to really ram home his new psychological state.
Stand up he does, in the very next scene in which he prevents a stick-up by gunning down the perpetrator without a second thought. His initial remorse at his actions is instantly alleviated by the shop owner, who not only praises Travis’s deeds but goes about finishing the job.
Watching the film again, this seems to be Travis’s first confirmation that what he plans to do is right, and will be looked upon favourably by those he ‘helps’. It’s a huge moment in the narrative since this all but tightens his focus, confirms his beliefs and causes Travis to double-down on his vigilante agenda.
All he needs, is the right person to save.
Jodie Foster was only twelve when she shot this movie, but it remains one of her best performances, right up there with her turns in Silence of the Lambs and The Accused. Foster plays Iris as a girl utterly brainwashed by her pimp. Whether suffering from some form of Stockholm Syndrome or not, she actually believes that being a prostitute is her idea, and that she enjoys her ‘occupation’.
When Travis offers to save her by taking her away from her exploiters, she rejects him. Only when Travis verbally runs her down does she stand up for herself. It’s the first step in standing up to anyone, which helps plant the idea in her head that she needs to escape.
We do get a quick glimpse of Iris’s attempt to leave, only to watch with dejection as Matthew works his magic and ‘convinces’ her to stay. At this point, the film is basically telling us she is indeed a victim, in desperate need of a saviour.
Luckily, we already know who that will be.
With a wonderful moment of foreshadowing, Travis hands the doorman the money originally given to him by Matthew. When the doorman reminds him to come back anytime, Travis replies only with, “I will.”
That one line draws a sly smile across my face each time I hear it, knowing that Travis indeed will return, bringing Hell with him.
Oddly enough though, instead of going straight after Matthew, Travis’s psychosis returns him to the next Palantine rally. Now sporting a menacing Mohawk, when we see Travis amongst the crowd, the sudden change in demeanour and appearance is so jarring that we can’t help but be disturbed by it.
We know his intentions now, and they’re not coming from a good place. He is very clearly shown ready to pull a gun and assassinate Palantine before being spotted by the senator’s bodyguards. Only after fleeing the scene does Travis become the embodiment of the saying, ‘You can’t fight City Hall’ and instead decides to start ‘washing away the filth’ from the bottom up, i.e. Matthew the Pimp.
The movie’s climax is as satisfying as it is unsettling. Watching Travis intentionally taunt Matthew into a confrontation has us on the edge of our seats. We know what’s coming, we’re squeamish at the thought of what Travis may do, yet are unable to turn away.
The violence is confronting and harsh. But it’s supposed to be. It should be. Travis isn’t some glorified hero-cop; he’s a dangerous and unhinged vigilante, bent on ridding the city of its more-despicable elements by committing unadulterated, pre-meditated murder.
Travis even acknowledges this fact when he immediately tries to kill himself after the shootout is over. But without any bullets left to finish the job, he simply collapses and waits for the police to arrive, crazily mimicking a gun to his own head with a bloodied finger.
The ending of the film has been speculated about by various fans and critics over time, and after hearing the theories, it’s tough not to comment. Did Travis survive the shootout to be hailed as a local hero, saving Iris from the scum that was mistreating her (as the movie presents to us), or are the final scenes some kind of fantasy flashing through Travis’s mind as he passes away from his injuries?
The camera does indeed float over the crime scene at the end, surveying the carnage. Is this Scorsese telling us that Travis did not survive? Is the camera’s point-of-view, complete with melodic, dream-like harps playing in the background, meant to symbolise Travis’s soul leaving his body?
Personally, I interpret the ending in the more literal, straightforward sense. Iris has been saved, Palantine has won his Presidential nomination and Travis has recovered from his coma to return to his taxi.
The fact that Travis has been pardoned of his crimes and viewed as a saviour by the public is quite disturbing when you think about it. What if he hadn’t been frightened off by Palantine’s bodyguards? What if he’d actually assassinated a United States senator in broad daylight? If he’d acted a little sooner, Travis could very well be viewed as a deranged psychopath, much like the Taxi Driver-inspired John Hinckley Jr. and his 1981 attack on Ronald Reagan.
Hinckley’s motivation? Impress Jodie Foster.
Despite the irony of his fate, we are left to wonder what will become of Travis, especially after he sees Betsy one last time. Despite her return, this time, Travis dismisses her in such a way; it appears that he has given up on her and all those ‘like her’.
Not a good sign for the future, especially since we’re left with one last ‘incident’. As he drives away into the night, he sees a flash of someone (it’s actually the eyes of the man who planned to kill his wife) in the rear-view-mirror, reminding us that his demons will return. And the next time they do, who knows what damage they may inflict upon the world around him?
I doubt Travis will act as a hero next time…
Taxi Driver is both one of De Niro and Scorsese’s best films. It was always going to feature somewhere on this list, the only question was where? Its quality is undeniable from beginning to end, with a gritty ‘neo-noir’ style, combining the aspects of a psychological thriller with the popular anti-hero / vigilante craze of the times. It holds up, all these years later, and I honestly believe with only minimal alterations, such as updating the technology and vehicles to modern-day counterparts, it could easily be set in today’s world.
And in a movie about a man and his scary thoughts, that might be the scariest thought of all.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Mohawks.
Favourite Moment: Travis attacks.
Honourable Mention: “You talkin’ to me?”
Next week: #17 – “There’s something out there waiting for us. And it ain’t no man…”