Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Albert Brooks, Cybil Shepherd, Jodie Foster
"I got some bad ideas in my head."
What is there to be said about “Taxi Driver” that hasn’t been said already? Not much. So pretend you’ve never heard of the film before. “Taxi Driver” is one of a half dozen pure masterpieces in Scorsese’s collection. It’s unlike any other film, it doesn’t fit into a genre, it’s difficult to summarize, and moves with an awkward pace. It’s part social commentary, part character study, part violent thriller, part comedy, partly personal filmmaking, part noir and on, and on, and on.
The film opens with shots of New York from various points of view from a taxi cab. Its a hallucinagenic sequence intercut with a closeup of a pair of wandering eyes. The taxi is a character, the street is a character, and so is it’s driver – Travis Bickle, one of the most unique and analyzed characters in film. As Bickle describes to his employer in his job interview, he can’t sleep nights. He’s a glutton for punishment though and will work ‘any time, anywhere’. He’s also a Vietnam vet – but more on that later. Bickle gets the job and drives the streets of New York encountering all sorts of people – high class, low class, politicians, prostitutes, pimps, maniacs etc.
He’s a lonely person with no direction, just looking to fit in with society. Finding a girlfriend or some sort of companion seems the right thing to do. His attempt to ask out the concession stand girl in a porno theatre fails. Then he tries to court one of the most beautiful people on the planet – Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), a political campaign representative for a Presidential candidate. Needless to say, she’s way out of his league, but he actually has enough charm to get a date with her. He dresses the part, says all the right words, but makes one ghastly mistake. He takes her to a porno theatre. Oh Travis, no! As the audience we’re rooting for Bickle to succeed, but the moment the camera reveals the X-rated marquee, our hearts collectively sink. It’s only the second act, but it’s downhill all the way from here.
Bickle tries to compensate by taking in a twelve-and-a-half-year-old street prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster). They develop a unique friendship, but Bickle is still hurting from Betsy’s rejection of him. He abandons all hope of traditional social interaction and plots a violent course of action which will make him a martyr for society.
As mentioned, the film is many things. It shows the chaotic world through Bickle’s eyes. Like Mark Lewis, in my previous entry, “Peeping Tom” , Bickle is a voyeur and Scorsese is careful to show Bickle’s reactions to the most mundane and irrelevant people, places and things. Watch the scene in the coffee shop when he asks the Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Bickle fixates on the foaming tablet in his water, Charlie T as he exits the store, and the limping street hustler walking past him on the street. It’s as if he’s a computer, or an alien, taking in information and calculating an answer.
Bickle is a stunted human being, and likely mentally ill. We don’t know if it was Vietnam that caused his malfunction, but the fact that it’s hinted at only at the beginning, but never referenced again, is an interesting decision for writer Paul Schrader. Since it was made in 1975 (and released in 76) Vietnam films had yet to be made, and the war had only finished a year before. I suspect Schrader and Scorsese didn’t want to provide a clear answer to Bickle’s actions because it would become an entirely different film.
By staying ambiguous and vague, the film remains personal for both filmmakers. Schrader put his heart and soul and some of his own experiences as a lonely writer into the screenplay, and Scorsese shows the ‘warts and all’ of his beloved city like only he can. Without Vietnam, “Taxi Driver” remains a personal view of New York.
There’s a new 2-Disc Special Edition of “Taxi Driver” out on DVD this week. At the very least it improves the cover art, which now is artistic enough to represent the great film that it is. But Sony gets everything right on this one – the packaging, presentation, extras et al. There’s two audio commentaries and a host of other essays, interviews and interactive features. Don’t be fooled by the submenu, “Featurettes” where the documentaries and interviews are placed, these aren’t lame EPKs, they’re informative and individually-worthy mini-films. It’s interesting listening to DOP Michael Chapman and Scorsese discuss their influences on “Taxi Driver”. I never thought of Godard when watching the film, but in hindsight I completely agree with Chapman when he says, “there’s Godard all over this film.”
My favourite moment in “Taxi Driver” is a quintessential Scorsese scene. After shooting the corner store thief, the owner says he’ll take care of it. He grabs Bickle’s gun, then proceeds to beat the man with an iron bar even though he’s 100% dead. Then the film cuts to a brilliantly ironic song, “Late For the Sky” by Jackson Browne. Bickle is sitting with a gun in hand watching American Bandstand. It’s another voyeur moment. Bickle watching on the TV the life he so desperately wants to have, and which he will soon abandon and reject. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Taxi Driver (Two-Disc Collector's Edition)