Thanks to the awesome folks at Destroy the Brain, I had an opportunity to see one of the most critically acclaimed films- Taxi Driver (1976)– from one of my very favorite directors, Martin Scorsese, on the big screen over the weekend. I had only seen Taxi Driver once before, about six years ago, although a great deal of it had stuck with me. All the same, the gap between viewings made a spectacular film seem extraordinarily fresh to me. I picked up on a great deal more the second time around.
I’ve read a great deal about Scorsese and seen probably 10 to 15 of his films that I hadn’t seen prior to the initial viewing of Taxi Driver. Thus, I was much more prepared to pick up on the Scorsese trademarks. One of the first things that I think of when I think of Scorsese is the Madonna-whore complex, and it’s on display here in full force. In this case, it’s Madonna and a literal whore, although I suppose that breaks a bit with the usual way it plays out. Rather than sexual possession of the Madonna (Betsy) leading Travis to view her as a whore, it’s a rejection of possession of the Madonna that leads Travis Bickle to spend his time with Iris (Jodie Foster), the prostitute.
Speaking of the two women, they’re a wonderful vehicle to illustrate the symmetry to Paul Schrader’s fantastic screenplay. The first half of the film is dominated by Travis and his obsession with the immaculate Betsy (Cybill Shepherd)- “they… cannot… touch… her”. The second half of the film sees Travis’ obsession shift from Betsy to the debased Iris. Both women function as the anchor to their respective halves of the film. There’s a scene early on with Betsy and Travis at the diner, with Betsy eating a simple fruit salad. In the second half of the film, we see Travis again at the diner, this time with Iris, who’s consuming a ridiculous grape jelly and salt (or was it sugar?) sandwich. In the first half of the film, Travis’ introduction to Iris happens when she jumps into his cab, only to be yanked away by Sport. He rewards him with a rumpled, demolished $20 bill, and Travis grudgingly accepts it. At the end of the film, Travis receives closure with Betsy when she hops in his cab and congratulates him on his “heroism”. But in this case, he doesn’t accept payment.
There’s an almost perfect rhythm to it all, with Scorsese’s constantly-moving camera pulling away to indicate Travis’ very painful social awkwardness and eventual psychopathic behavior. On the other hand, in the rare cases that outsiders reach out to Travis, the camera pulls in. The whole dance of the camera is like a heartbeat and it paces the film brilliantly. At other times, Scorsese’s camera usage is evocative of Godard (tightly cropped shots of the back of people’s heads); Robert Bresson (camera focus placed away from where the dialogue is occurring, occasionally to show Travis’ reactions to what he’s hearing); and Hitchcock and Truffaut (tremendous long shots and tracking shots, most notably the tracking shot at the end of the bloodbath in the final act). And yet, it has a uniquely American feel. While Scorsese’s work is slightly derivative of many other foreign film movements, his films are a melting pot and feature stories that could only come from America. That fact is one of many reasons that I consider the man a national treasure.
Scorsese also uses the camera to invoke a feeling of claustrophobia, particularly in the cab scenes. As a viewer, you’re trapped in the cab with Bickle. You’re trapped in his ratty apartment. You’re all alone with him and his very painful social awkwardness, which of course leads to his sociopathic behavior. Being trapped with Bickle serves to make the film that much more effective. I’d love to watch it again and just count the number of times his behavior makes you want to wince–buying the Kris Kristofferson record, taking Betsy to the adult movie theatre, barging in to the campaign office to ask her out, erupting a bit at the stately Senator Palantine while describing that the scum of the earth should be eradicated, etc…
The angry discussion with Palantine was just one of several cases of foreshadowing in the film, pointed at Travis’ pending violence. On at least two or three occasions (possibly more), other characters shape their hands into guns, pointing with their fingers at Travis, before “shooting”. Another example is the infamous scene with Scorsese as a cab patron, forcing Travis to watch infidelity. The dialogue is so tense, so raw, so disgusting and vile as to be perfect in heightening the sense of pending bloodshed. Again, this is a testament to how fantastic Paul Schrader’s screenplay really was.
The whole thing plays out like a very twisted film noir, punctuated by Bernard Herrmann’s score. The barrage of night scenes, the rainy streets, the long shadows, the blondes, the neon signs, and the voiceover narration are all right out of 1940s and 50s American detective films. But it’s so uniquely warped. The hero isn’t a detective or a cop. He’s a volatile time bomb, a vigilante with a broken compass. The violence shown isn’t heroic by any stretch, even if it’s presented ironically as heroic in the newspapers at the end of the film. The journalists in the film’s fictional universe may feel differently, but Scorsese leaves no doubt for the viewers of the film. We know that it was bloody and gory and violent. It’s very real, and completely unromantic. That stands in stark contrast to classic noir.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about a tremendous movie, one of the best American films ever made. It also happens to be the film that introduced Scorsese to wider audiences after mild success with his previous films. I like to think that what makes a film truly great is when it has layers upon layers that audiences can peel back and discover more. Taxi Driver passes that test with flying colors.