Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Taxi Driver

When I started writing about cinema almost eighteen months ago, there was one film above all others which I was nervous to write about. A year and a half, over five hundred reviews and approximately 470,000 words later, the same film was still looming large over me. That film was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, my favourite of all time. The unease came from two perspectives. On the one hand I didn’t feel as though my writing, limited in experience and knowledge as I am, could do it justice while I was also conscious about penning a review which ran for thousands of words and which no one would have the interest or time to read. It wasn’t until earlier this week when a friend said with some surprise that he couldn’t find Taxi Driver on my A-Z that I thought that time to review it had come. So with the added expectation of an audience waiting, I sat down to watch my favourite film once again.

Within ten seconds of the film starting, a bright, broad smile shone across my face. The entire film came back to me within the first few frames and I began to think ahead to the magnificent scenes which were to follow over the coming hour and fifty minutes. My excitement grew as the quickening snare and saxophone of Bernard Hermann’s score rose to meet the opening shot of a New York taxi appearing from behind a column of steam. The movie creates an off-kilter sensation within these first few seconds and it’s a feeling which continues to ride throughout the movie. The opening titles are a deep shade of blood red and forebode the bloodshed to come. The closeness of the taxi as it brushes past the static camera also creates a sense of excitement and danger and the jumping; out of focus lights as seen from inside the taxi make the viewer try in vain to pinpoint something recognisable. The eye darts across the screen in search of an image to grasp but is left wanting. Wanting that is until Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) walks out of the steam and into a taxi office.

Travis Bickle doesn’t give much away in his opening encounters with the office employee. He’s a man who has trouble sleeping and is looking for a job as a way of filling his sleepless nights. Although Bickle himself doesn’t come across as anything special in this early scene, Martin Scorsese continues the unsettling feeling with his camera work. There is an argument in the back of shot between two drivers, something which distracts the viewer’s and Bickle’s eye. These eyes are of course, one and the same as the entire movie is filmed from Bickle’s perspective. We the viewer are literally inside his head, witnessing what he witnesses. The off-camber feeling is further exemplified in this opening exchange through the positioning of a dispatcher who is sat behind Bickle. He is much too high and this creates an awkward, claustrophobic feeling to the scene. Once Travis has his orders he leaves the office and ventures into the garage where he can survey his world. Here Scorsese does something interesting with his camera once more. As Bickle exits camera right, the camera itself pans left, surveying the taxi driver’s new world. It continues to pan about three hundred degrees until it again finds Bickle, still looking at his new world.

As Travis Bickle we see the only the grime and filth of city of New York. Bickle writes in his diary about his hopes for a rain to come and wash all the filth into the sewer and it is indeed a dirty city. The thing is of course that even in the 1970s, New York had its beauty. Bickle is predisposed to searching for the dirt and grunge the city throws up and as a result he actively goes out in search of it. He admits to being one of the few drivers who’ll work “anytime, anywhere”, including the down and out areas of the city to which few other drivers will venture. Through his eyes we see the darkest reaches of the soot covered, trash littered city, teaming with pimps, pushers and prostitutes, the very people who Bickle despises and the very people he picks up in his taxi. To me New York City is the greatest city on the planet. I’ve done my fair share of travelling and have never been to a city like it. Its vibrancy, the noise, the dirt, all of it excites me. New York is an assault on the senses but to Travis Bickle, it has a somewhat more pungent bouquet. There’s no doubting that the city has changed in the last forty years. When I was in Times Square a couple of months ago I saw in the wake of drug peddlers and porn cinemas, tourists, sailors and a naked cowboy. The city has been sanitised and Bickle’s dream of washing all the dirt away has in fact, on the surface at least, come to fruition.

Despite his residence in a bustling metropolis, Travis Bickle is a lonely man. He is cocooned in his metallic, metered shell and his human interaction is stunted and awkward. On the few occasions when he attempts to take part in conversations he opens himself up as being socially inept, unsure of what is acceptable and often shows no interest in the opinions or concerns of others. He comes across as both forceful but distant. An example of this distance comes when he is talking with some fellow drivers at an all night cafe. He struggles to interact and show interest in the conversation but becomes taken with his drink, bubbling away with an alka-seltzer tablet fizzing at the foot of the glass. Bickle has no difficulty in focussing but it is what he focuses on which is cause for concern. His social awkwardness comes across later on his second date with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). After an initial infatuation, he persuades the light and airy campaign worker to meet him for a date and like his introduction to the movie, shows no signs of the darkness that simmers close to the surface. On the second date though, he takes her to a porn theatre. This decision not only shows his lack of ability to recognise the social norms and his inability to tune into the feelings of others but also to his own self destruction. He is a man who is on a path to destruction and appears to sabotage his own happiness. In a later scene, a scene which marks a significant turning point it should be mentioned; Bickle is alone in his apartment, watching television. The television by this point is the only thing in Bickle’s life capable of distracting him from himself. Travis has his foot on the TV and slowly rocks it backwards and forwards, teasing it, seeing how far he can push the action and get away with it. After a few seconds the TV falls and smashes, breaking his last connection to the real world and his only ‘normal’ home comfort.

Travis’ attempts to clean up New York appear via his endeavours to dispose of the father figures of two of the city’s daughters. As the film progresses towards its messy conclusion, the central character becomes more and more dishevelled. His actions become more spontaneous and unpredictable and his outward appearance matches his interior, becoming noticeably more sweaty and with bags under his eyes. The Betsy character is introduced to the dark movie almost as an angel. Her flowing white dress and pearl white smile is captured in slow motion as she enters the movie for the first time. This is of course how Bickle sees her and it is his wish to save her from the hell in which he believes she finds herself. When it becomes clear that she doesn’t want saving and his attempts fail, he moves onto a more obvious victim of the devilish city, the underage prostitute Iris (Jody Foster). Iris displays a street-smart and adult sensibility which is far beyond her years but to Bickle, is a girl trapped by the dirty claws of the city. He takes it upon himself to be the one to free her from its grasp and return her to normality, something which he himself doesn’t experience. His interactions with Iris capture Travis at his most normal and most honest. His attempts to save her appear honest and his intentions are true. These intentions though eventually manifest in turning the anti-hero into a murderer.

The character’s unease and paranoia eventually lead him to arm himself. Rather than carrying a single gun or a knife like some of the other drivers, Bickle buys an arsenal of guns which he straps to himself and admires in the film’s most iconic scene. The “Are you talkin’ to me?” scene was originally written as “Travis talks to himself in the mirror” in the script but fleshed out by De Niro to produce one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Fame aside, it captures the character following a change. Still lonely and alienated, he now feels powerful and brave. His puffed out chest and arrogant expression mark a noticeable alteration in his character and start him down the path towards the film’s climax. It’s shortly after this scene that another change in the character is first revealed. This change is more striking and is revealed wonderfully by the director. At a rally for Presidential nominee Charles Palatine, the camera tracks across the crowd at waist level before stopping at a familiar looking jacket; Travis Bickle’s jacket. Bickle’s hands fumble in his pockets and he takes out a bottle of pills. Having taken one in his hand, he quickly brings it up to his face as the camera follows sharply. It is then revealed that his hair has been shaved into a drastically ominous Mohawk. The cleverness and surprise behind this reveal is as effective as the haircut itself and is further proof of the character’s spiral towards something big and something bloody.

The film’s ending is an incredible barrage of sound, colour and movement, hemmed into a claustrophobic space. Bickle takes it upon himself to save Iris and becomes a one man army, assaulting the tenement building which is home to a brothel. The scene was unfortunately de-saturated in post production in order to get past the censors and as a result the colours don’t quite look right. Despite this the sequence is still full of impact and the rampage is quick, realistic and exciting. It’s obvious from the outset that this is a kamikaze mission and the resignation in the character’s face when it doesn’t turn out as he planned is obvious. The scene features some clever special effects which look good for the era and budget and De Niro’s performance is magnificent. The scene ends with a beautiful tracking shot from the ceiling, detailing the destruction that has come before it. The shot from above is something that is repeated several times in the film and is often associated with desks. Whenever a desk is in shot, Scorsese turns the mundane into something interesting with the use of the top-down tracking shot. In the final scene he reverses this as if to suggest the carnage below is somehow mundane in the same way as the paperwork from earlier scenes. This comment on and normality of violence is something which would present itself in many of Scorsese’s later films. The newspaper clippings on the wall of the very final shot also speak to the media’s fascination with the macabre and their celebritising of criminality, a trend which has only quickened in the years since the film’s release.

Throughout the movie Scorsese surprises the audience with beautiful shots. He is able to differentiate between Travis’ world and Betsy’s through the use of lighting and the editing was ahead of its time. His influence on the film cannot be ignored, despite occasionally playing bridesmaid to the double-brided wedding of Paul Schrader’s script and Robert De Niro’s performance. One of my favourite shots in the entire movie takes place in a corridor when Travis is on the phone to Betsy. As he pleads for another chance with his angel incarnate, the camera tracks to the left, leaving the conversation and focussing down the empty corridor towards the street. To me this personifies Betsy’s leaving of the relationship and also shows where Bickle is heading – outside, alone again. Aside from the subtext though, it’s a beautiful and bold shot which creates a sense of anticipation as you aren’t sure why the director has done it to begin with. You are meant to expect something to be coming down the corridor but in the end are left with Travis leaving. It’s so simple but at the same time so clever. To compliment Scorsese’s visuals, Bernard Herrmann provided his final score. Although Taxi Driver contains the cinematic behemoths of Scorsese and De Niro, it could be argued that neither have contributed as much to cinema as Herrmann. His score for Psycho is instantly recognisable and his work on Vertigo has rarely been surpassed. He composed the scores for every Hitchcock film between 1955-64, a period which captured Hitchcock at his height. In addition to this he worked extensively with Orson Welles and composed the score for Citizen Kane. My study of the greatest films ever made finds five Herrmann scored films in the top twenty-five of all time, that’s more than any actor or director. His Taxi Driver score is at the same time beautiful and ominous. Betsy’s theme is one of the most romantic sounding in film history but the thumping drums and long noted brass in other scenes create a sense of violence and dread. It’s an incredible score and one the composer could be proud to finish his career with. Unfortunately Bernard Herrmann died the very same night that he finished working on the movie.

Taxi Driver is famous for many things but one of the most obvious is Robert De Niro’s performance. A friend said yesterday that he considers it the best of all time and you’d be hard pressed to think of any better. De Niro doesn’t play Travis Bickle, he is Travis Bickle. He was spotted by producers Julie and Michael Phillips in Scorsese’s MeanStreets and the couple decided that they wanted the pair for Taxi Driver. De Niro began the movie on the back of his Oscar winning performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II but threw himself into the role with gusto. Having spent time on an American military base in Italy he picked up the non distinct Mid-West accent which he would adopt as Travis Bickle and began working as a cab driver in New York for research. His performance is so intense and believable that he scared his co-stars. Cybill Shepherd has spoken that she found De Niro difficult to work with because he wasn’t Robert De Niro, he was the character and Albert Brooks has stated that the two wouldn’t talk on set because their characters wouldn’t talk in the movie. The attention to detail in the performance is mesmerising and you occasionally forget that you are actually watching an actor, let alone one as recognisable as De Niro. He doesn’t hide behind makeup or excess muscle or fat as in Raging Bull but is on display at all times and yet he is still hidden, hidden inside Travis Bickle.

Aside from the star, the movie is like an acting master class with awe-inspiring performances coming from every quarter. Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel puts in a memorable, natural and deeply researched performance as Iris’ pimp ‘Sport’. Like De Niro, his attention to detail and understanding of the character’s motivation create a mesmerising performance for a character than has only three scenes. Despite his five minutes of screen time, he is more memorable than 95% of movie characters I’ve seen before or since. Jodie Foster was just thirteen when called upon to play the preteen prostitute Iris. Despite her gangly, tom boy looks she creates a believable character and obviously had an adult head on her child’s body. Her ability to play against the likes of Keitel and De Niro should not be overlooked as many of the adult cast were put off by the two method actors. Cybill Shepherd had a difficult role, playing innocence in a film full of guilt. Her reactions to the developments though are spot on. Perhaps it was her natural uncomforted feeling that came through but the look on her face as she gazes at the porn cinema screen is one of the acting highlights in a film full of world-class performances. Even the director gets in on the action with two cameos. His second, a speaking part, was intended for another actor but he had to pull out due to an injury on another film. Scorsese’s dark, troubled performance of a character not unlike Bickle sends chills down the spine. It’s a shame that Scorsese didn’t act more in his younger days.

Though not an actor, the city of New York is most definitely a vital character. Early talk of filming the movie in another city was fought by Scorsese and Schrader who recognised that New York was as much a part of the film as the taxi or as Travis Bickle. Bickle’s New York has an almost otherworldly look to it. Its filth filled streets reminded me of a cinematic post apocalyptic wasteland, the sort of city that could feature in a sci-fi movie about a distant future in which society has been lost. I was reminded a little of Blade Runner in that the city has a dystopian look to it, a never ending, dirt filled, pornographer’s paradise in which anything goes and nothing is policed. Like Ridley Scott’s sci-fi, there is also a noir quality to the movie. It’s hard to imagine that the same city became, just thirty years later, the New York of Will and Grace, Sex and the City and Friends. In a way I wish I’d had a chance to see Bickle’s New York. I love the look of decaying beauty and New York after the decline of industry and before the regeneration of the 1990s had that look. We’re fortunate that it was captured on film by the likes of Scorsese, Allen and Lumet.

As I’ve wittered on for the last 3,000 words I’ve left little more to be said about Taxi Driver. What started as a review has, as I feared, turned into a written lecture and I need to stop before I start thinking of turning my review into a book. For me Taxi Driver is the best film ever made. The script, direction, score, cinematography, acting, lighting, everything are perfect. I cannot think of a single camera angle, nose twitch or music cue that I’d alter and urge anyone and everyone to watch the film. If you’ve seen it, watch it again. If you own it, lend it to a friend who has yet to watch it. Taxi Driver is a high watermark in the careers of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and that statement alone should speak to its excellence.



  1. Great review! I have only seen the film once, but it was strange when I did because despite the depressing feel of the movie I felt much better after I watched it.
    I never realized the thing with the desks though, that's brilliant! I remember marveling at that shot from above looking down on all the carnage but I didn't realize it in other parts of the movie.... I must look for that next time I watch the film!

    1. Thanks. There's little things about the film that I only picked up on after my second, third or even forth viewing.

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