Deconstructing Taxi Driver (1976)

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.

They... cannot... touch... her.

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.

A date at a porn theatre is about as socially awkward as it gets.

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…

Bang bang, cowboy.

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.


Filed under Movies

21 responses to “Deconstructing Taxi Driver (1976)

  1. Raging Bull, Goodfellas and this film are the three Scorsese movies that I simply love and place on a level of high admiration and reverence. I’ve seen Taxi Driver three times now and everything that you’ve talked about here – the Godard and Bresson influenced direction, the ridiculously brilliant screenplay, etc. – is evidently so much of what makes it original, powerful and effective. The more I think about this film, the more I admire it, and I’ll definitely have to see it again. And again.

    • One of a million great things about Scorsese is that all of his movies have a high watchability factor. There’s not one I wouldn’t want to see multiple times.

  2. Craig

    Hated it when I first saw it which was surprising as I was a fan of Scorese and I’v never gotten around to watching it again. I think I will today.

    • Craig

      Just rewatched. It is a piece of art. Stunning.

      • Haha… that was fast. I’m glad you liked it so much this time around.

        • Craig

          I think the difference is that this time I knew what to expect.

          When I first sat down to watch this film about an insomniac loner raging against society I was expecting a proto-Fight Club, which this most definitely is not. Now with a bit of distance I can appreciate it for what it is and how it operates on a completely different level.

          It’s interesting to see the influence of Godard (with whom I’m not overly familiar) once it has been explicitly stated. The camera focusing on the bubbles in the glass is a direct lift from 2 or 3 things I know about her (which I have seen) thought I would never have made the connection had it not been pointed out (by complete coincidence) in a documentary I watched the other day.

          If you can get a copy you should really check out The Story of Film: An Odyssey. There are 15, 1 hour long episodes so it’s a proper marathon but is well worth it.

    • It wasn’t one of my favorites the first time I saw it. But a lot of it stayed with me.

  3. This is my favorite film of all-time. I like your deconstruction of the film! Very good reading. This is a treat this morning.

  4. Just a thing it was released in 1976 not 1978…

  5. Phil

    Great write up. ’76 was one of the greatest years in American cinema with All The President’s Men and Network. Of course, they lost the Best Picture to the Titanic of its day, Rocky.

    • Haha… “the Titanic of its day”- hilarious. It seems like every year of the 70s was booming. I don’t know if I could pick a “best” or even “favorite” decade for movies because lots can make a claim, but the 70s would be a finalist. If you could squish the indie spirit of the 90s, the arthouse films of the 50s, and the amazing 70s work all together into one decade, civilization might reach its apex.

  6. Well done John! Taxi Driver is one of my all time favorites. Are they any flaws? I think not! Brilliant script, acting, score, cinematography, etc..

    • It’s one of those movies that really separates itself as one of the truly great films. Seeing the talent involved, it’s no surprise. Paul Schrader screenplay, Scorsese directed, Deniro, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd… That’s a ton of talent for one film.

  7. Amazing piece. Although my favorite Scorsese picture changes all the time, I think I’ll always consider this one his best. This is probably the most flawless movie he’s ever made.

    • I’m stuck with Goodfellas, but I’m also a huge sucker for a mob movie. For overall quality between those two, I could see great arguments made for both.

  8. Craig

    For those who have seen it a whole bunch of times, would you say the ending is a dream sequence or what really happened?

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