Taxi Driver! The one movie that became a benchmark and is still looked upon as the first reference for any filmmaker who wants to do a crime thriller or a vigilante movie and this was the movie which was predominantly responsible for the genre of neo-noir to grow leaps and bounds, and even make its foray into the movies of different nations and different languages. This movies stands as a classic example of a great screenplay, in the hands of a superb director, getting converted into one of the greatest movies ever made. So, let us explore all the aspects that made ‘Taxi Driver’ what it is now.
‘The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, that far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.
God’s lonely man’
-Excerpt from the screenplay of Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader.
The movie opens with the smoke billowing over from the sidewalk as the title of the movie rolls on. And we see a taxi whiz through the smoke. Right from these vignettes, the director makes sure that we are able to feel that we are in for a gripping tale. Then, we are introduced to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro. If you are able to find any superlative degree to name that performance, please let me know) , a 26-year-old man, who is suffering from insomnia. He is lean, hard, lonely, depressed and is desperate to do something that can make him feel useful. He seems to have wandered from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. He’s an honourably discharged U. S. Marine, and is loving in New York. To cope up with his chronic insomnia, he becomes a taxi driver. He drives passengers through the boroughs of New York every night. He is silent and doesn’t brag about what the customers do in the car, as long as he is safe and he earns. On the surface he appears good-looking, and carries a disarming smile that flashes from nowhere. Yet, there is something burning on the inside of Travis, that we are able to see through his intense, dark eyes. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing every space. During his days off, he ends up spending time in porn theatres because of his insomnia. He also keeps a diary with him and pens everything that he feels is necessary, so that he can spend his time wisely. This introverted nature of the lead makes us wonder what he is really up to. The intrigue factor only increases immensely because of Robert De Niro’s effective screen presence.
April 10, 1972. Thank God for the rain which has helped wash the garbage and trash of the sidewalk.
I’m working a single now, which means stretch-shifts, six to six, sometimes six to eight in the a. m., six days a week. It’s a hustle, but it keeps me busy.
-Travis’ monologue on what’s burning inside his head and how things are going for him.
I work the whole city, up, down, don’t make no difference to me- does to some.
Some won’t take spooks – Hell, don’t take no difference to me.
-Another monologue of Travis
Travis keeps thinking about how the world, New York in particular (since it is the place he’s been living in and it is the only place that he’s been seeing, as he states he doesn’t follow any politics related thing or any news in particular. This post heavily favours the fact that how he’s been living in a world of his own, and in his own little place.) is full of dirt and trash. He also has strong opinions about the rights and wrongs with the mankind in general. We are then introduced to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd, delivering a neat performance of a woman who’s unabashedly attracted to Travis, and at the same time is cold and conservative like others) , “who is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” , as put forth by Travis, who is a campaign volunteer for Senator and Presidential candidate Charles Palantine. He watches her regularly, and the infatuation slowly turns into an obsession. After a few days, he sees her interact with her fellow worker Tom through her window and enters to volunteer as a pretext to talk to her. He impresses her at the first sight and takes her out for a coffee. Both of them find out immediately that there’s some kind of spark between them. She agrees to go to a movie with him on some other day. Travis is revolted by what he considers the moral decay around him. One night while on shift, Iris (Jodie Foster, giving a bold, brilliant performance which was jaw dropping since she was just 13 while shooting for the movie) , a 12-year-old child prostitute, gets in his cab, attempting to escape her pimp. Shocked by the occurrence, Travis fails to drive off quickly enough, and her pimp Matthew “Sport” Higgins (Harvey Keitel) reaches the cab. Sport forcibly grabs Iris away with him and bribes Travis a crumpled 20 dollar bill to not say anything. This against Travis with the memory of his failure to help the girl. During one of his shifts, Travis picks up Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) himself. He tells the senator that he plans to view for him, and the senator, acting like a real politician, tells Travis he learns a lot more from the cab drivers than from the limo drivers. The senator asks Travis “what’s the one thing that bugs you the most?” and Travis responds by saying he wants the next President “to clean the scum off New York city”. The day for his date with Betsy arrives and Travis takes her to a Swedish sex education movie. She’s reluctant to enter at first. But she agrees to watch the movie on his compliance and she gets offended by it. She storms out of the theatre and goes away, leaving Travis alone in a dejected state. Travis, though taken aback, badly wants to reconcile with her and he even tries sending flowers, which she sends him back. Because of this, he berates her at the campaign office, only to be kicked out by Tom.
All my life needed was a sense of direction, a sense of someplace to go. I do not believe one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, but should become a person like other people.
-Yet another monologue of Travis.
The aforementioned scene, while seen in the movie, transcends itself to a superior level because of the directorial brilliance of Martin Scorsese. Giving the extra meaning and adding the embellishment is what a great director can do, and that’s what has made Martin a special director. After Betsy dumps him, he calls her. So we get to the point of the script where Travis is speaking “intensely into a wall pay phone.” The way Schrader wrote the scene, Travis holds the receiver, Betsy as now hung up, and now we’re inside Travis’s apartment. The script reads (taken from the screenplay which is available online) : ” Against a stark wall, there is a row of wilted and dying floral arrangements. Each one of the four or five bouquets is progressively more wilted than the one closer to the door. They have been returned.” Travis says, in a voiceover, “I also sent flowers with no luck. I should not dwell on such things, but set them behind me. The smell of the flowers only made me sicker.” While we are reading this, we imagine a sad, dumbstruck, lovelorn man, sitting sad in his apartment, surrounded by his flowers which are even more sad. But the way Scorsese transforms it on-screen is pure magic. We still get Travis, the dumped man at the wall payphone, with the camera watching him from behind. We still have the sense that he’s still holding the receiver, even after Betsy has hung up. The script says that we cut to Travis’s room. But, instead of cutting back to Travis’s room, the camera shifts to the right and cuts Travis off the frame. We now see a corridor that leans forward, and we see the road far ahead, with vehicles whizzing by. This is the point where Scorsese strikes gold. Our mind comes up with numerous interpretations. Maybe this is where Travis loses it all. Maybe this is the point where the Travis we knew earlier “has left the building” (purely in the contextual sense) , so to speak out and be himself – be unique. Maybe the desolate, silent corridor is a reflection of Travis’s contention that “loneliness has followed me all my life” . Maybe the director wants us not to see Travis getting dejected and humiliated. Or maybe the pan to the right was symbolic of Travis giving up on Betsy as a way of giving meaning to his life. He has moved on. It kind of fits in with the ‘Travis is a war veteran, who doesn’t know what to do with his life anymore’ reading of the movie. He needs someone to validate his existence, and he realizes that Betsy isn’t going to be that person. Well, the exact meaning will never be deciphered by us as it was let to an open interpretation, the scene still gives us a chill down the spine, and that is what a director can do, when he is on form.
Travis later picks up a man (director Martin Scorsese, in a surprising, yet chilling avatar), who looks as mentally unbalanced as he is. The man tells Travis to park outside an apartment building while letting the meter run. He tells Travis to look at the woman in the window and tells him that’s his wife in her boyfriend’s apartment. He tells Travis he plans to kill them both with a .44 Magnum. One evening at the dinner, Travis confides in fellow driver Wizard about his thoughts, which are beginning to turn violent, but Wizard phones in a response with the teen prostitute and others, which makes Travis angrily respond: ” that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” This leaves Travis to his own, destructive path. He is disgusted by the sleaze, dysfunction and prostitution (teenage prostitution especially) throughout the city of New York, and thus finds an outlet for his frustration by starting a program of intense physical training at his home.
A fellow taxi driver refers Travis to an illegal gun dealer Easy Andy, and they meet on that colleague’s car. They go to a hotel room later, where he shows Travis a number of guns (even a professional salesman will lose out to Steven Prince, who gets in the groove of the character perfectly and that non-stop sales pitch of his voice stands testament to it) , from which Travis picks up what he wants and leaves. This is what the screenplay presented to the director. But the way it’s been converted on-screen is another example of Martin Scorsese’s genius. The screenplay reads, “Travis hefts the nickel-plated .38, points it out the window.” , which is what exactly happens in that scene. Andy says, “That’s a beautiful little gun. It’ll stop anything that moves…” , and as he goes on w his explanation, Travis takes the gun and “points it out the window.” This is where the script stops itself. But Scorsese doesn’t stop there. Travis moves closer to the window. Now we see just the part of the hand holding the gun, and we see what’s there outside (actually outside) the window. There is a slew of parked cars, moving cars, two women with umbrellas who’ve been chatting. The scene is no longer just about Travis pointing the gun out the window. The scene is also about the things and the people it could be pointed at, which implies that the call world outside the window is unaware that an agitated, unhinged man with a gun is framing out a plan. If anyone is able to notice this, it can leave one in astonishment.
Travis develops an ominously intense interest in Senator Palantine’s public appearances and it seems that he somehow blames the presidential hopeful for his own failure at wooing Betsy and maybe hopes to include her boss in his growing list of targets. Back at his apartment with his newly purchased guns, he begins a program of intense physical training, practices drawing his weapons and constructs a sleeve gun to hide and then quickly deploy a gun from his sleeve and prepares a menacing speech in the mirror, while pulling out a pistol that he’s attached to the home-made, sliding action holster on his right arm (“You talkin’ to me?” – The all time famous dialogue, which has become a tagline of sorts for this movie.). This scene, once again shows the skill of Martin Scorsese as a director. This scene, as per Schrader’s script, stops with a note showing “Here is…” But, Martin Scorsese impresses us yet again. The scene cuts to Travis showing a gun against the poster of Palantine, yelling “You’re dead.” Scorsese wants us to get a feel of what’s going to happen next, and he does that with this scene. Later, he hangs around a Palantine rally and asks a suspicious secret service man about joining the service before disappearing into the crowd.
In an accidental warm-up, Travis randomly walks into a robbery in a run-down grocery store and shoots the would-be thief (Nat Grant) in the face, adding to the bizarre violence, the sympathetic grocery owner (Victor Argo) encourages Travis (who has no permit for his guns) to flee the scene and then proceeds to club the near-dead, stick up man to death with a steel pole. Later, seeing Iris on the street, he follows her. Another day later, Travis asks to pay for her time, and is sent to Sport. A tense conversation ensues but Sport sends Travis up to a room, so he can make out with Iris. Once they go up to the room, Travis does not have sex with her and instead tries to convince her to leave this way of life behind. The next day, Travis and Iris meet for breakfast at a local coffee shop and Travis becomes obsessed with saving this naïve child-woman who thinks hanging out with hookers, pimps and drug dealers is more “hip” than dating young boys and going to school. Iris considers Travis’s offer but then Sport seduces and convinces her to stay, while (seemingly) Travis spies into the window from his cab. Travis writes a note to Iris including all his money and stating that he doesn’t intend to survive. Any lingering doubt in one’s mind about Travis Bickle’s sanity is obliterated, when he is suddenly and shockingly shown to be sporting a crude Mohawk haircut at a public rally. He creeps through the crowd and prepares to assassinate Senator Palantine but is spotted by the Secret Service agents when he starts unbuttoning his overcoat, and thus flees out of the place.
Travis returns to his apartment, collects all his guns, then drives to the “Alphabet City” (an area of New York’s Lower East side consisting of Avenues A through E). He walks up to Sport and confronts him. When Sport flicks a lit cigarette at him, Travis says “suck on this” and shoots Sport in the belly. Storming into the brothel, Travis blows the bouncer’s hand off. Sport, who has followed Travis, grazes Travis on his neck with a bullet (causing an arterial gush from his neck) , but Travis unloads one of his guns into Sport, killing him. Travis again shoots the screaming bouncer who follows him up the stairs, slapping him. Iris’ mafioso customer shoots Travis in the arm and Travis shoots his face off. The bouncer tackles Travis but Travis stabs him through the hand and finally kills the bouncer with a bullet to the brain. He then calmly tries to repeatedly fire a bullet into his own head under his chin, but he finds all the weapons of his to be deprived of bullets. Hence, he resigns himself to resting on a convenient sofa until the police arrive. When they do, the blood-soaked Travis mimes shooting himself in the head and then blissfully thinks of the mayhem and carnage in his wake. This scene, which was full of bloodshed, was shot with the lights surrounding it giving us a darker, drearier tone (which tried reducing the extremely violent tone of the scene) , which Scorsese intentionally did to make the audience not to feel the actual gore of the scene.
A brief epilogue shows Travis recuperating from the incident. He has received a handwritten letter from Iris’s parents, who thank him for saving their daughter, and the media (in newspaper clipping that is shown in his room) hails him as a hero for saving her as well. Travis blithely returns to his job and suddenly seems on more friendly terms with the other cabbies. One night, one of his fares happens to be Betsy. She comments about his saving of Iris and Travis’s own media fame, yet Travis denies being any sort of hero. He drops her off without charging her. As he is driving off, he gets a strange look on his face and adjusts his cab’s rear view mirror, giving the impression that his irrationality is about to break through again. This scene is once again left to an open interpretation. We can say this scene to be a dying man’s dream, as Travis dreams of all this while he’s dying there because of all the gunshots. This can also be interpreted in many other ways. The same can be applied to a lot other scenes, too. This, yet again stands as a testament to Martin Scorsese’s quality. It has been 40 years, and the Taxi driver is still talking to us. Travis is exactly the person who is still the person inside us, dwelling in agony because of what’s happening around, yet unable to fight against the society. A movie as polarizing and independent in its thought as Taxi Driver will not even find a proper producer or get a wider release. But, this can be a success even if it gets released now, which shows the magnificence of the product.
Robert De Niro probably gave one of the greatest performances ever seen on big screen in this movie. There is no denying the fact that the screenplay and direction was outstanding, but to bring it on-screen was always a difficult job, and De Niro pulled it off with extreme ease. Every other actor fulfilled the role that they were given to do, which elevated the movie’s level. Huge part of appreciation has to go to the late Bernard Herrmann, whose music made our adrenaline levels go up a notch in each and every scene. The score infuses the tension when the dialogues are absent, which is sure to induce goosebumps in every person who watches the movie. Paul Schrader gave us a great screenplay, and Martin Scorsese (enough praise has already been directed towards him, and if anyone is able to find any word in the dictionary to praise him, please let me know) even made a greater movie out of it. Taxi Driver will live long, probably forever, and there is no denying that.
Watch Taxi Driver, just for the sheer audacity by which each and every aspect of the movie has been brought to the screen, along with Robert De Niro’s performance, Herrmann’s score, and Scorsese’s direction.
Taxi Driver- The person who is eternally present inside everyone of us!