MARTIN SCORSESE’S TAXI DRIVER: AN ANALYSIS AND REVIEW
By Thomas Menna
COPYRIGHTED 2010 THOMAS MENNA ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
“Suck on this”. A line which most would not and could not take serious belongs to a film which fascinates me, Taxi Driver (1976). Ever since I first watched this film when I was probably fifteen it has intrigued me on so many levels. As grew up I like to think that the film has grown up with me as well. In other words I am constantly looking at this film in new light, at all angles, in search of its true nature. I guess the thing that grips me most about the film is how it grips you; it’s real. Now as I’ve come to realize this film adapts to mostly everyone, one reason why it so good. The film gets in you and dwells. A testament to this is how it is received in culture. In fact John Hinckley III, who was stalking one of the films actresses, Jodie Foster, had shot the U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981 under the impression that he was actually the films protagonist Travis Bickle. Hinckley would later be declared insane, and is allowed monitored releases form a mental institution. His well endowed defense team played Taxi Driver for the jury. Also there is other numerous occasions were others took the film literally in such a manner. It is amazing that a film could pin point such a universal sense of loneliness and be so influential in that degree. Such a film should be looked into.
Jim Sangster summarizes Taxi Driver in his book Scorsese as Follows: “Having been granted an honorable discharge from the [U.S.] Marines, Travis Bickle takes a job as a taxi driver in New York [City]. Travis suffers from insomnia and finds himself working long shifts, unable to rest. As he drives through the City That Never Sleeps, he is witness to the underbelly of society: drunks, thugs, gangs, junkies, and prostitutes. Though he is unable to converse on some superficial level with his fellow drivers, Travis remains a loner and seeks solace in regular visits to a downtown porn cinema… …Maybe as a result of his experiences in Vietnam, maybe something already in his psyche, Travis develops an obsession about cleaning up the streets, like a biblical purging of all that is bad and rotten in the city. His obsession, combined with his loneliness and hypochondria, convinces Travis that he must prepare that he must prepare himself for a tour of duty as ‘God’s Lonely Man’… …From the safety of his cab, Travis spies a beautiful young women, a campaign worker for Senator Palantine’s election bid. Plucking up the courage to approach her, he at first pretends that he wishes to volunteer for the campaign before finally asking her out on a date. The girl, Betsy, is at first reluctant, but then gives in. They meet for coffee later that day, and although Travis fails to notice how awkward and stilted their conversation is, the date goes on without incident. Through persistence, and perhaps because Betsy finds him genuinely intriguing, Travis manages to convince her to go on another date, offering to take her to the movies. But he makes a serious misjudgment when he takes her to a ‘dirty movie’. Disgusted, Betsey storms out of the theatre… …Despite Travis calling her and sending her flowers, Betsey refuses to have any more to do with him. He returns to her office to talk to her and is escorted off the premises. This rejection is the inspiration for Travis to ‘get in shape’. Through a contact at the cab company, Travis meets Andy, a traveling salesman, and purchases an arsenal of guns. He begins a regime of vigorous exercising and practices his shooting at a target range… …when a young and visibly distressed prostitute is pulled form his cab by her pimp, Travis seeks her out and befriends her. The girl, Iris, appears to be little more than twelve years of age her situation troubles Travis greatly. He begs her to give up prostitution and let him ‘save her’ but she refuses… …The pressures of Travis’s loneliness and insomnia finally take their toll on him. [After seeking help from a fellow cabbie named Wizard] He shaves his head and prepares himself for a mission – he aims to assassinate Senator Palantine. When this attempt fails, Travis turns his attentions to the pimps that hold Iris in their grasp. He storms the brothel, gunning down everyone in his way. As the last man falls, and as Iris cowers, terrified in the corner of her room, Travis puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger… but the chamber is empty… …The press hails Travis a hero and soon he returns to his old job as if nothing has happened. Iris’s parents write to thank him for rescuing their daughter, and even Betsy appears impressed by his short-lived celebrity status. But inside the mind of Travis his loneliness continues.” (Sangster 59-60). Lengthy I know, however I feel Sangster best summarized the film the way it was mostly intended to be by its makers.
Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader in 1972, when he was 26 years old, while recovering from a gastric ulcer in the hospital. At the time the news was flush with the story of Arthur Bremer who had recently attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor and presidential hopeful George Wallace. Bremer had only succeeded in paralyzing Wallace. The part of the story that intrigued Schrader was the fact that Bremer kept day by day diaries. “The diary wasn’t published wasn’t published until 1974, but passages from it made their way into the news stories. Schrader, who was already wedded to the first-person, voice over narrative [which is how the film is written], found it fascinating that Bremer, an under educated, lower middle class, Midwestern psychopath, would talk to himself in his diary just like a Sorbonne dropout in a Robert Bresson film [Pickpocket (1959) which directly inspired Taxi Driver)” (Taubin 10). Along with Sartre’s Nausea and other literary works, such as by Dostoevsky and his own personal experience Schrader wrote Taxi Driver in a fabled ten days. The personal experiences that fueled this rapid out pouring of a screenplay by Schrader is do to a serious of events. First with his falling out with his position with the American Film Institute, Schrader went back to LA. His marriage fell apart, and then soon after another relationship he had fallen apart. He had a drinking problem and was living in his car. By the time he went to the hospital for his ulcer Schrader had realized he had been with out real human contact for weeks. It was the low point of his life. He wrote, in an interesting chapter style, the screenplay for Taxi Driver. Amy Taubin writes in her BFI Film Classics book for Taxi Driver, Taxi Driver:
The Seemingly desultory narrative is rigorously divided into three acts. In the first, Travis [played by Robert De Niro]’s rage is diffuse; he rides around in his cab, more a witness than a man of action. In the second, he finds a mission an object for his rage. (‘One day, indistinguishable from the next, a long, continuous chain. And then, suddenly – there is a change,’ he writes in his diary.) In the third, he puts his homicidal fantasies into action, taking aim at one father figure (the presidential candidate) and, when that attempt fails, turning his gun on another (Iris’s Pimp Sport, played by Harvey Keitel). The Carnage that ends Taxi Driver is devastating, but it’s also voluptuous – as voluptuous as anything in American movies – and all the more so because of the sense of repression that pervades the film until this moment. The entire film has been built so that this eruption of violence would seem both inevitable and more horrific than anything we might have imagined (Taubin 11).
In Schrader’s own words form the screenplay “It is a psychopath’s Second Coming.” The final draft was a concise tale of failure and loneliness which above all had an all to but gripping reality.
So after it was written Paul Schrader showed the script to Brian De Palma who the sent it to producers Michael and Julia Phillips who optioned it. The Film was not picked up, the studios didn’t like it. They needed a filmmaker.
Once he read the screenplay, Martin Scorsese, felt he had to make it. He was gripped by the script’s reality all to well. It was “as if I wrote it myself” (Scorsese/Schrader interview Jan. 1982), Scorsese said. However Scorsese had nothing to run on, he was not yet a major player. So time went on. It wasn’t until several factors all came together. First other Schrader scripts (Yakuza) had receive Oscar nominations, then Scorsese had made Mean Streets (1973) which connected him to the Actor Robert De Niro who would later win an Oscar for his role in Godfather Part II, and then Scorsese’s direction of Alice Doesn’t Live here any more. Now the prospect of Taxi Driver was full of talent, and production was off. Other things to boost the talent came along such as the pick-up of then popular model Cybil Shepard to play the role of Betsy and that of popular comic Albert Brooks for another. Another interesting casting choice is that of Jodie Foster, who at the time 12, was chosen (by Scorsese) to play the prostitute Iris. This came with some flak with the Children’s unions etc. but the filmmakers worked it out by have her older sister (who was 20) stand in for the more provocative scenes, and by having a psychiatrist on set to make sure Jodie didn’t get disturbed by the film’s context. Other names attached were Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, and Steven Prince.
The well picked cast each put forth an acute effort for their characters. Most notably Robert De Niro’s preparation which included actually becoming a Taxi Driver in New York City, his prep and indirect training of the then child actor Jodie Foster, and his research of psychopaths – all this would lead to his absolute amazing performance of Travis Bickle. Also Albert Brooks helped Scorsese by pretty much developing his character who wasn’t really written in the script. Also Schrader and Scorsese found and actually young prostitute who they modeled Iris after (she has a cameo in the film as Iris’s friend). Plus much attention was payed by Scorsese and the actors on all the details
So it was at this time where Scorsese took over the film. It was his turn to create his version of screenplay that gripped him, to show what he felt. Schrader’s vision, which was much more transcendentalist, was matched with Scorsese’s expressionistic vision – resulting in the films beautiful ambiguity. ‘The tension between Scorsese’s and Schrader’s frames of references gives the film and ambiguity of meaning and affect. This ambiguity allows for a variety of readings and makes the film attractive to a wide audience’ (Taubin 18). Scorsese went forth by constructing the shots; having extensively planning them did some interesting things. One thing he did was have shots go away form the character, rather then simply tracking, showing what they see, and then coming back to them. Such a technique at the time baffled the crew who couldn’t realize what he was doing. Or other times Scorsese would simply track away from the character, the ending result being and immense imagery of the film themes (loneliness, isolation etc…). Also Scorsese would stay on shots much longer than is traditionally accepted, the idea behind it being to make the viewer revaluate the shot – making them think. All of these things worked. Another touch was Scorsese’s view of Travis’s environment that he created – that being New York City. Scorsese presented this in a very expressive way, to where it was kind of like a documentary style, giving it reality. This reality being what is exactly what Travis feels and sees. Scorsese presented his version of Travis’s hell of a New York City is a way all his own. Another place we see Scorsese’s touch is in the finale scene of the brothel shootout. Originally written and viewed by Schrader as an extremely surrealistic bloodbath was shot rather realistically. However this resulted in a griminess of reality, which created true horror in this scene. However even with this intention in mind what was created was something else, of its own invention. Lawrence S. Friedman writes in his book The Cinema of Martin Scorsese that “The mind boggles at Scorsese’s suggestion that Schrader favored an even bloodier mise-en-scene. And such effects as the impressionistic lighting and acute camera angles, as well as the sound of trickling blood, the slow motion close-up of fingers blasted off an old man’s hand, the bloody finger Travis presses to his head, and so forth, could hardly be more surrealistic (Friedman 83).” Still though what Scorsese did was compromise these elements along with the ‘tabloid’ news event he was trying to press. Also unseen, but put along with Scorsese’s vision is the score composed by Bernard Herrmann. It was Scorsese who felt Herrmann could fit his vision, so he went to London and convinced the composer to score the film. Herrmann’s haunting music gives the film an almost extraordinary power. The night he finished the score he died; Taxi Driver was his last film.
So then there is Travis. Played by Robert De Niro, this is one of cinema’s most unforgettable roles. Because in the end it is Travis Bickle who is the Taxi Driver. He is the man, the source that must convey all of the screenplay and films message, its bones are him. Already mentioning De Niro’s extensive method of, well, method acting, this was to a degree that most consider, for lack of better words, out there. But it was just that that allowed De Niro to embody the character. This can be seen best in the immensely remarkable mirror scene where he says, which he improved, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ The character that De Niro, Scorsese, and Schrader developed was able to convey who he was a racist, unstable, Midwestern, Vietnam vet psychopath while still being able to feed the film’s feelings completely subconsciously. ‘Taxi Driver’s appeal has something to do with the fact that Travis is largely a cipher that each viewer decodes with her or his own desire, and, also, with the fact that the more reprehensible aspects of Travis’s character are played down by the film. Because of the disconnection between Travis’s implicit racist fantasies and his explicit homicidal action, the effect of the film is the inverse of what Schrader of what Schrader claims [attributed to Scorsese and De Niro]. Travis winds up being more ‘worthy of identification’, precisely because the film deflects the consequences of his racism’ (Taubin 18). De Niro (and Scorsese and Schrader) created such a character that it haunts people today who see it. Amy Taubin Writes “An enigma and a piece of common knowledge, Travis Bickle is lodged in the collective cultural consciousness to a degree that makes an aesthetic evaluation of Taxi Driver almost irrelevant. In its hall of mirrors, perhaps the strangest reflection involves the heroising and fetishisation of Travis both within the film and without (Taubin 75)”. Such a force of character could not be overlooked. It all worked, the script, the vision, the character, it was all there. This is because the filmmakers felt the script, so what they made could be felt by all those who watch it. De Niro says “Paul Schrader, Marty and myself, we all felt that we could relate to the character, the loneliness and so on. I was raised in New York City – I’m in the middle of New York City, but I’m still alone in it. There have been many times in my life I’ve been very alone and felt isolated and we could identify with that…the talking in the mirror scene is something that a lot of people I’m sure do in one form or another and they can relate to that (Interview with James Lipton, Sangster 74)”. Making the film was considered a ‘labor of love’ by all the film makers – Scorsese, Schrader, and De Niro – because it was for them, because it was them, they felt it.
So when it was all said and done Taxi Driver said a lot of things from the phenomenon of loneliness to the current human condition in America. So what does it say? Leighton Grist summarizes this well in his book The Films of Martin Scorsese, he says: “…Taxi Driver presents a trenchant vision of a culture that could produce a Travis Bickle, In terms of Scorsese’s authorial discourse, the film’s critique of misogynistic precepts has a surety lacking in his earlier work, Following Alice Doesn’t Live here Anymore, this might be attributed to his moving away from the closely biographical and his direction of others’ scripts enabling a more consistent critical distance. Nevertheless, the representation of American society in Taxi Driver is depressive. Individual action is demonized. Politics, in the shape of Palatine, is ‘exposed’ as a sham. The ending suggests an unchanged, and seemingly unchangeable, situation. The one alternative mentioned in the film, the commune in Vermont is ‘given no concrete realization’ (Wood 1980: 28). Despite Travis’s money, Iris is returned to her parents. This would appear to bear out Kolker [a critic]’s contention that although New Hollywood Cinema at times carries on ‘an ideological debate with culture’, it never confronts ‘that culture with another ideology, with other ways of seeing itself’ (1988: 10). The films hence ‘speak to a continual impotence in the world, an inability to change and to create change’ (ibid.). This, however, is once more a function of a broader lack of available or acceptable ideological alternatives within American culture. Indeed, Taxi Driver has been seen to hold an intimate mirror to its historical moment. Made during the period of national uncertainty and impotence that affected the USA following, inter alia, Watergate, defeat in Vietnam and ‘ the failure and collapse of the New Left and counterculture’ (Quart and Auster 1984: 103), the film powerfully conveys what Kolker himself describes as the time’s ‘mixture of anger, guilt, and frustrated aggressiveness’ (1988: 240) Schrader admits: ‘Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else ….Marty was fully ready to make the film; De Niro was ready to make it. And the nation was ready to see it’ (Kelly 1992: 90) (.Leighton 156-157). So in the end of the film everything is the same, some may disagree with this, however this simple thing is one reason that makes Taxi Driver timeless. ‘The Answer to critics who find the open ending dubious on both moral and logical grounds is what has happened in the [thirty] years since the film’s release’ (Taubin 75).
Taxi Driver opened in February 1976 to much success. It was the 12th highest grossing film of the year. It would be nominated for four academy awards, and win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (putting Scorsese on the international map). The American Film Institute would later add it to the top 100 list of all time films of the century. Still harrowing today, Taxi Driver, is a true cinema masterpiece.
Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepard, Harvey Keitel, Steven Prince, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle, Leonard Harris. 35 mm. Columbia Pictures, 1976.
Friedman, Lawerence S. The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. First. New York, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1997.
Grist, Leighton. The Films of Martin Scorsese. First. New York, NY: St, Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000.
Nyce, Ben. Scorses Up Close, A Study Guide of the Films. First. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2004.
Sangster, Jim. Scorsese. First. London: Virgin Books, 2002.
Schrader, Paul. Taxi Driver. first. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990.
Taubin, Amy. Taxi Driver. First. London: British Film Institute, 2000.
Film Poster by Moscati-Vision