New York is a living beast. Though a sense of cleanliness prevails over many of the affluent inner city districts these days, in the 1970’s it seems a pulsing, writhing mass of people and dirt. Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) seems contrary to this yet the films that revel in this filthy concoction of crime and murder are some of the most addictive of the era.
This mix is best realised in the work of Martin Scorsese who seemed obsessed with the idea in films like Mean Streets (1973), New York, New York (1977) and The King of Comedy (1983) but the jewel in this gritty crown is no doubt his masterpiece Taxi Driver (1976). Cementing his auteur/actor relationship with De Niro, Taxi Driver solidifies many of Scorsese’s traits that would result in perhaps more popular work by him, yet there’s more to Taxi Driver than just style experimentation.
De Niro plays Travis Bickle, an ex Vietnam serviceman who takes the unenviable job as a late night taxi driver, offering services to even the most grim of areas in the city. The film may be set in one of the biggest cities in the world but its most alarming aspect is the distinct sense of claustrophobia engulfing Travis who can sense the walls of the city starting swallow him up. Calling Bickle the hero of the film is extremely uncomfortable. He’s a dangerous, neurotic bigot who, in his own words states that “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”. Yet he effectively rescues our apparent heroin and, in simplistic terms, he does save the day.
In his daily travels, Travis becomes obsessed by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a worker at the local presidential campaign office. He gets to know her before messing up his chances completely with his lack of social skills making him believe it alright to take her on a date to a pornography cinema. Betsy seems to be the last straw for Travis and it here where his breakdown and anger at society manifests itself into something more dangerous.
Taxi Driver works as a character piece, not just through script and acting, but through sheer direction. The film is littered with experimental, visual ideas that speak volumes about Travis’ mental state. When begging Betsy to forgive him on the phone, the camera seems to get bored of watching his pathetic pleading and instead wanders down the corridor and watches the people passing by instead as if we’re actually there and have got bored of waiting for him.
In another scene, Bickle’s breakdown is hinted at by an obsessed stare at a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. The sound of the fizzing overwhelms the soundscape and Travis zones out of what he’s doing, making him seem dangerous and disturbed. Scorsese adds to the pressure on Travis further by guest starring as a vile character who takes Travis’ cab to the flat where his wife is cheating on him so he can murder her. The dialogue spoken is unprintable but is a gripping and violent reflection on the desperate side of New York.
Travis does have some positive points. After Betsy has disowned him, he embarks on saving the life of an underage prostitute (Jodie Foster) from her pimp (Harvey Keitel), seeing this as a way to expel his anger at the cesspool he sees New York to have become. This starts the training that Travis undertakes and leads to the famous “are you talking to me?” line yet there are many better moments than the aforementioned monologue.
His choosing of which guns to buy is a stunning moment not just for the wonderful first person shot of him aiming the gun, but also for a wonderfully, slimy guest performance from Steven Prince as the gun and drug merchant. Travis trains himself to become lethal again, working out and making makeshift devices to attain his guns more quickly. The workmanship and craft he takes to these tasks is in itself provocative due to how seriously believable it is, added to further by his practicing of what he’s going to say to the criminals when he finds them.
Taxi Driver is famed for its violence though this seems extremely odd. There are only two instances of violent imagery throughout the whole film, though the finale is bloody and somewhat extreme. The thematic material around the narrative is no doubt highly radical yet with such an attention detail and a wealth of inventive shots, the violence in particular seems justified. With the final shootout, Scorsese took up the roof of a whole floor just so he could do an aerial shot of the crime scene, giving us a dizzying view of the chaos the police find in the brothel.
Like so many films of this ilk, Taxi Driver feels like a dream. The slow drives around New York illuminated by the reflections of neon lights make a perfect dreamscape but sound-tracked by Bernard Herrmann’s moody, jazzy score, this is lifted to something utterly beautiful. The ending is in itself a surprise with Travis somehow having grown out the Mohican haircut he had within two weeks and a reverse shot of Travis seeing something in his rear view mirror suggesting that this may not be the last time he turns into a murderous vigilante.
Scorsese has many quality films to his name, yet none are more imaginative or experimental than Taxi Driver. A gritty neo-noir seen through the eyes of an artist, it is one of the great American films and is one of the few that catches that sense of pressure and unease that lies at the heart of all the nation’s cinematic masterpieces.
Images from Ugo and Wikipedia.