When I went to college, there was this unspoken idea that if you were serious about being a film biff, the film to see was 1976’s Taxi Driver. Well, I saw it, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. It’s number five on my Top 25 All-Time list, and there was a period when I ran it for my students at the end of the school year to get them a little experience with film criticism and analysis. My students for years enjoyed the film until one year when a group just HATED it for some reason, complaining about everything from the ridiculous Mohawk Robert De Niro wears at one point (probably intentionally ridiculous at that), to Bernard Hermann’s iconic score (it was repeated too often), to the climactic shoot-out, something I’ve always considered one of the most realistic in film history.
These kids thought the opposite. They seemed to expect everyone to fall over dead the instant they were hit…
What went wrong there? Why does that scene hit me differently than it did for these people half my age? That had never happened before. It’s a stark, powerful scene. The colors are saturated, the soundtrack cuts out, and what sounds that are heard have a weird echo. De Niro’s Travis Bickle takes multiple bullets and dispenses some more to the three men he kills, one of whom just won’t stay down since he hasn’t been hit with anything close to a kill-shot. Travis’ actions are supposedly to rescue Iris (a very young Jodie Foster) from a life of child prostitution, but his actions clearly are causing more trauma than relieving it. Then again, this may also be Travis’ attempts to kill himself in the most elaborate, attention-seeking way possible, and if he does it while playing White Knight to a Damsel in Distress, so much the better.
It’s only when the cops show up from wherever they were that the soundtrack cuts back in, and director Martin Scorsese has that series of overhead tracking shots showing the utter devastation that Travis dispensed on his “rescue” mission.
Of course, it took time for Travis to get to this point, and as powerful as that shoot-out is, it was the build-up to it that made it so powerful. We watch as Travis slowly disintegrates before our eyes. A lonely man to begin with, we know he’s a former Marine, and though he never mentions Vietnam, it does seem likely he was over there. He can’t sleep, he doesn’t get out, so he might as well drive a taxi. Unlike many drivers, he’s willing to pick up anyone and go anywhere within the crime-infested confines of New York City. Even from the beginning, we see Travis as a deeply judgmental man, one willing to condemn all the corruption he sees around him. This was cinematic New York in the 70s: of course its a cesspool. As such, the audience at home sees what Travis sees: ranting crazies, prostitutes, fights, and since Travis seems to be a little racist and homophobic on top of everything else, he comments on that too. And it isn’t always outside his cab. Sometimes it’s the customers.
With a complete lack of human contact, no wonder he starts stockpiling weapons and talking to himself.
Travis just doesn’t know how to deal with people. He sees some salvation in the form of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for a presidential campaign for one Senator Charles Palantine. Her interests are pretty much limited to getting the Senator elected president, and though she opens up a little to her strange suitor, a second date becomes the last when he takes her to a porno theater. He had no idea that was unacceptable. Watching De Niro’s Travis get shot down over the phone afterwards, where even the camera is too ashamed to linger on him for long as he sheepishly tries and fails to get back in her good graces, is one of the most affecting moments in the film. As it is, his interest in Palantine (who gets in Travis’ cab at one point) changes from liking the man for no clear reason to attempting to kill him. Had Travis succeeded there, he wouldn’t be the hero the end of the film suggests he’s seen as, or something. More on that below.
By the by, Palantine’s campaign makes no sense. I expect a movie politician to keep his political ideas vague, so that isn’t a problem, but why the heck was that guy only campaigning in one place? He never seemed to leave New York…
Seeing as how he can’t find salvation from a relationship with the “pure” Betsy, Travis then settles for rescuing child prostitute Iris, and we all know how that turned out.
The story moves brilliantly. Travis’ disintegration is a gradual thing as he goes from just complaining about the filth in the streets to getting his heart broken to deciding to hypocritically buy some illegal firearms. His apartment gets more cluttered with stuff that mirrors his various obsessions, he exercises nonstop, writes letters full of lies to his parents, and finally shaves most of his head. His descent is so gradual, even if he did have anything resembling a close friend or companion, it would be easy to see until he shaved his head just how slowly his psychosis seeps into his everyday life.
There has been debate about the film’s end. Some believe Travis did die, and the last few minutes are a dream state he’s in as he dies. The suggested evidence includes the idea that Iris’ parents wrote a letter to Travis thanking him but the handwriting matches Travis’ own. At the least, he isn’t hailed as a hero. I prefer to think the opposite: Travis lived through that, and since no one really knew anything about him, it was easy to assume he was this heroic figure saving Iris and not some suicidal guy with a really bad case of PTSD crying out for attention and recognition while doing what he thinks needs to be done to the human trash on the city’s streets. As his actions were misunderstood, that meant he wouldn’t get the help he’d really need. Of course, the last we see of Travis, he turns suddenly after seeing…something?…in his rear view mirror.
Whether Travis is a hero or not to the city of New York, one thing I’d say for certain is this: he’s going to do that again, and his next target might not be so deserving as some child pimps.
NEXT UP: Watson commented to me that my Top 25 list was 1970s heavy. I don’t know how true that is, but it is heavily oriented towards the 70s in the top ten. I suspect this is in part because studios were more willing to take artistic chances back then than they are now. What’s the point of this? Taxi Driver in my #5 and is directed by one of my all-time favorite directors. The next film is in my #6 slot and comes from another of my all-time favorite directors. This time it’s Stanley Kubrick and the film is 1971’s A Clockwork Orange.