Taxi Driver

US | 1976 | directed by Martin Scorsese

Logline: A Vietnam vet, working as a cab driver in NYC, struggles to cope with his surrounds, and deal with his inner demons bearing down.

“The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” --- Thomas Wolfe, “God’s Lonely Man”

Five features into his distinguished career, but only his third major release, director Martin Scorsese delivered Taxi Driver (1976), the first of three masterpieces; the other two being Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990). At once a searing portrait of emotional alienation and psychological deterioration with a realm of urban decay, and also a blistering study of humankind’s innate loneliness and man’s propensity for extreme violence, Taxi Driver is still as powerful and dangerous now, as it was 40 years ago. 

Screenwriter (and filmmaker) Paul Schrader penned the potent tale of Travis Bickle’s pathological despair in five days following his own nervous breakdown, being rejected by his girlfriend and in the midst of a divorce. He didn’t talk to anyone for weeks, frequented porn cinemas, and an obsession with firearms meant he kept a loaded gun on his desk for inspiration and motivation. Brian De Palma was slated to direct, but was fired. With the gritty realism of Mean Streets (1973) and the emotional depth of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) on his resume, Martin Scorsese entered the picture and brought with him Robert De Niro (who’d just won an Oscar for The Godfather Part II), and the rest is history.

Travis Bickle (De Niro) is a Vietnam veteran who takes a job as a cab driver in New York City, working long hours and driving to all the boroughs. His only acquaintances are a handful of other cabbies working for the same company. Bickle attempts a romance with uptown Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who is working on the political campaign for Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a Presidential candidate, but he screws that up royally. Twelve-year-old streetwalker Iris (Jodie Foster) crosses his path on several occasions, and as the weight of the city’s filth bears down on him and his psyche begins to crack Bickle decides to save Iris and free her from the pimp shackles (Harvey Keitel as Sport) of her pathetic prostituted existence.

From the opening image of the subway steam filling the screen and Bernard Herrmann’s jazz-wounded score soaked in melancholy, the ominous strings scraping, the sad alto saxophone singing a song of desperation, a yellow checkered cab pushes through the white subterranean mist of the city and begins its long drawl in and out of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx, uptown, downtown, midtown and the lower East side. Taxi Driver is Scorsese’s dark ode to the city that never sleeps, capturing the quintessential grime and low-life glamour of 70s NYC that perpetually feeds its moral and physical corruption.

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is … a man who stood up.”

Building steadily towards its frightening, shattering denouement Taxi Driver is a tour-de-force of direction and performance. Robert De Niro is mesmerising in his method brilliance, Cybil Shephard exudes a wonderful coquettish charm, while a very young Jodie Foster exhibits amazing subtlety and vulnerability, and Harvey Keitel provides the perfect sleazy foil to De Niro’s deadly coiled spring. A nod also to Steven Prince, in just one scene, as Easy Andy, a cocky gun salesman with style and merchandise to burn (Scorsese would later make a short doco called American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince).

It’s curious to note the extraordinary who’s who of actors who were offered, auditioned for, and in some cases cast - but withdrew, in the role of Betsy; Farrah Fawcett, Jane Seymour, Glenn Close, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Ornella Muti, Isabelle Adjani, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Hershey, and Sigourney Weaver, and in the role of Iris; Melanie Griffith, Ellen Barkin, Kim Basinger, Geena Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brooke Shields, Dabra Winger, Carrie Fisher, Mariel Hemingway, Bo Derek, Kim Cattrall, Rosanna Arquette, Kristy McNichol, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Linda Blair. 

Martin Scorsese himself appears in two scenes; the first as a background extra (seated on a ledge outside Palantine’s campaign office), but the second is as one of Travis’s more unhinged fares, spouting a disturbing, misogynist monologue which undoubtedly contributes to Bickle’s already heavily affected and troubled persona. Scorsese stepped into the role after the intended actor sustained injuries prior to filming.

Whilst Bickle’s psychotic slow burn toward the inevitable brain-snap is the movie’s tightening screw, it is the ultra-violent bloodbath at movie’s end that provides Taxi Driver with its piece-de-résistance (although Robert De Niro’s improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scene commands its own cult adoration). Dick Smith, special effects make-up legend, was hired to provide shocking authenticity to the brothel carnage, but ironically Scorsese was forced to de-saturate the blood’s hue (making it look an odd pinky brown) in order to avoid an X-rating. It still packs a punch, especially the shocking .44 Magnum impact to the hand. Smith also made the famous Mohawk wig for De Niro (which I always thought was real!)

Taxi Driver continues to impress and fascinate; superficially as a date stamp of mid-70s New York City (Scorsese shot entirely on location), but more importantly Scorsese’s effortlessly fluid, but controlled and deliberate visual narrative that never once feels contrived, yet sustains the tension of a crouching tiger, a sleeping cobra, a lost soul at the end of his tether. Schrader’s story wraps up with a curious epilogue that has Iris’s father’s voice-over praise on Travis Bickle’s rescue efforts while the camera drifts over newspaper clippings describing the gun-battle with the gangsters and his subsequent pedestal as urban hero.

But has this twist of fate actually happened, or is it just a figment of Bickle’s distorted imagination, a wish-fulfillment fantasy he’s projecting in the moments before his death as he sits on the sofa mortally wounded …?

Scorsese adds a coda to suggest otherwise: Travis Bickle back behind the wheel of his safety net, his trusty checkered cab, on the dark crowded streets of the big rotten apple, and low and behold, into the back seat climbs Betsy. The vibe is awkward; she acts aloof, “Travis I’m … How much was it?” Travis replies, “So long”, as he clears the meter. She gets out, he drives off, but something catches his eye in the rear-view mirror and Travis does a double-take …

We’ll always wonder just what was it that caught the eye of God’s lonely man, but, perhaps it’s best we never found out.