Taxi Driver

Martin Scorcese | USA | 1976

1976 Cannes
2004 Berlin
2005 Iceland
2007 Deauville
2009 Pusan
2016 (restored version) Tribeca, Sydney, Sarajevo

Martin Scorsese’s unflinching plunge into the darkest recesses of the human soul feels painfully relevant. In anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) we see traits of what would become the archetypal online troll – he’s bitter, reactionary and self-involved, describing himself as ‘God’s lonely man’. But still, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader never treat him with anything less than the utmost empathy. This is a man scarred by war, perplexed by the permissive society and desperate to leave his mark on a world that barely acknowledges his existence. Travis may wear his isolation proudly, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Forty years on, Taxi Driver remains almost impossibly perfect: it’s hard to think of another film that creates and sustains such a unique, evocative tone, of dread blended with pity, loathing, savage humour and a scuzzy edge of New York cool. Bernard Herrmann’s score sounds like the city breathing, ominous and clammy, while De Niro’s performance is a masterclass in restraint and honesty… This is still one of the pinnacles of cinema.
– Time Out.

A raw factual look is jostled by some ironic lyricism in the visuals of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and the juxtaposition of these elements has been shrewdly arranged to suggest the dangerous bewilderment of the title character’s mind. A marked survivor of the action in Vietnam, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) reconciles himself to his insomnia by taking on a night job as a taxi driver in New York, working mainly in the seamier areas that the cinema so often shows us. Scorsese’s impressive feat on this occasion is to wrest a sour poetry out of locations that could easily have seemed hackneyed by now, and to make this exercise germane to the dreaminess of Travis, who regards the human flotsam on the sidewalks through soothing raindrops on his windscreen. But even one of those burst fire hydrants (whose gushing fountains hinted at an urban brand of spiritual release in Scorsese’s Mean Streets) cannot wash clean the puritan revolt that swells in this taxi driver’s brain.

‘The animals are out at night,’ he says to himself in a snatch of the intermittent disembodied monologue so sparely and effectively written by Paul Schrader; and in his mounting antipathy to what he observes in the course of his work, Travis takes pains to ready himself, with gun and knife and much obsessive practice in his lonely room, for a personal reprisal against the vicious and the ugly: a dark personality streak that will be construed as heroism by the conformist world at large, but which can be assessed from our controlled viewpoint to be something other — the compulsion to ape, under the illusion of righteous vengeance, the very animalism he professes to deplore.

Avowed influences are Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), doubtless on account of the ‘loner’ engaged in a secret endeavour, and Malle’s Le feu follet (1963), presumably because of the disillusionment and also the mesmerising potential of a city by night. But to me it also smacks of other fine precedents: Malle’s earlier nocturnal essay in suspense with attendant neon delusions of grace Elevator to the Gallows (1957); the more sensational and remarkable use of New York locations by Milton Katselas in Operation Undercover (1974: US title, Report to the Commissioner); Michael Winner’s contentious study of the self-appointed vigilante in Death Wish (1974); and even, when the taxi driver is on his own in that exceedingly solitary room of his, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samourai (1967).

While I wouldn’t regard Taxi Driver as a film to match any of these in quality, it does stand up to such formidable comparisons very well, and it is surely the best thing Scorsese has given us to date. Robert De Niro plays the lead with empathy: Travis is not as showy a role, nor as difficult a one I should think, as his famous portrayal of Vito-Brando when younger in The Godfather, Part Two; but De Niro’s ability to identify, and to act inside the head, goes beautifully with the admirable mix of reined reality and modified hallucination that Scorsese and his cinematographer Michael Chapman have blended so well.

Travis, driving by night, has a dreamer’s eyes, liquid in close-up, sometimes turning the coloured lights into a seductive blur which never compensates for long as the muggers and the hookers cross his path. ‘This city is like an open sewer,’ he tells the presidential candidate who perchance is his passenger of the moment; yet occasionally in cheerful vein, Travis can move on foot through the anonymous denizens of the sidewalk and suddenly break into a lolloping dance. His moods are as hazy as his ideas of seizing an opportunity for release: warily befriended by a blonde who works in the presidential candidate’s campaign office (Cybill Shepherd, nicely matching practicality to the ‘angel’ charm that Travis sees in her), he takes her to the kind of porno movie house he automatically frequents, and is genuinely surprised when she walks out (the prolongement of this relationship is somewhat heavy-handedly employed for contrast to all the rest, but it is so truly played that it only really rings false at the very end, and even then it is not permitted to go right overboard into a guarantee that ‘love will find a way’).

The particular cleverness of Schrader’s screenplay is its implication of events taking place as haphazardly as in life (and more so than usual, I guess, in a taxi driver’s life) while at the same time unostentatiously building up the provocation of that latent violence which is strong in the nature of Travis. We find him, for example, disturbed yet fascinated when a bearded passenger (a sinister-cum-diverting performance, sensibly understated, by Scorsese himself) asks for the cab to be parked where a view can be had of a high window: there looms the silhouette of the passenger’s unfaithful wife, evidently having a good time with a Negro, and eliciting thoughts of erotically lethal vengeance from the husband, who gives Travis a succinct earful of his intentions. Thus — turned on by a vision of murder that might well rival the uncomfortable demise of Edward II — Travis is next seen in conversation with a fellow cabbie, declaring that he has some ‘bad ideas’ fermenting. The listener (Peter Boyle) is ever a fund of sex-ridden anecdotes gleaned from the back seat of his vehicle, and he serves usefully as a rather boneheaded and ‘adjusted’ contrast to the increasingly sensitive Travis.

That specific encounter between De Niro and Boyle is bathed in reflected pink light, a device used more than once and evidently favoured by Scorsese. It is apt: it carries something of the sadly ersatz glamour of the bar in Mean Streets as well as an echo of those ‘mean reds’ that contributed to the torment of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), In such fashion we are attuned to expect the extravagant in Travis. His heightening of the militant puritan state of mind is perhaps too strenuously emphasised when he is momentarily ensconced with a 12-year-old hooker (Jodie Foster), who is marvellously surprised to learn that he has paid fifteen dollars for a quarter-hour of her time, not to be a client but hopefully a saviour. This fragment, too, leads shrewdly on towards the wry conclusion of the film.

But the very best of it is the lone preparatory stuff: Travis aiming at ‘total organisation’ of himself as a physical instrument of social justice; performing jumpy push-ups; chinning the bar he has wedged at the top of a doorway; submitting his wrist to the gas flame to strengthen his powers of endurance; methodically building his body and losing his mind. Here De Niro’s solo turn is of the most discreet order. There is conviction, not flamboyance, as he practises in front of a mirror to be quick on the draw, and as he balances a gun gently in his hand and caresses his temple with the barrel, or aims at anybody who happens to occupy the television screen at which he stares until, almost inevitably, he kicks the set over and lets it explode in a mild and miserable puff of smoke.

Meanwhile there is the Death Wish style of killing: the sudden gunning down of a hold-up man in a delicatessen, where the violence-breeds-violence theme is underlined by the shop owner who follows the example set by Travis and belts into the already dead body of the unsuccessful hood. And eventually we are regaled with a blood and bullet packed climax, out to top the toughest of its kind and doing pretty well at that. But what reinforces my new-found appreciation of Scorsese is a casual-seeming yet superlatively well organised overhead shot, sweeping and swirling as figures dead and alive are geometrically subservient to an objective gaze at the aftermath of mayhem. And then comes the anti-climax of ripe irony, and the even more ironic apotheosis of night-taxi-drifting in the melting artificial lights, to the accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann’s music which has been a vital adjunct to the entire bold enterprise.
– Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, September 1976.

This is the next best thing to seeing an actual print of the film. The filth of New York’s underbelly practically leaps off the screen, and though the transfer maintains the grainy rawness of Michael Chapman’s cinematography with agonizing precision, the near-perfect quality of the image suggests nothing less than a freshly minted reel. Sound is similarly pristine; you may feel as if you’re listening to Bernard Herrmann’s swan song for the first time all over again.
– Rob Humanick, Slant Magazine, 10 April 2011.

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