Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle

Among the most commonly misinterpreted films I’ve come across over the years, one of the best all-around has to be Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” Between the critics who denounce it for being too violent and the casual viewers who mistake the pretty straightforward ending for an imagined scenario that takes place only in the mind of the main character, they all seem to miss what’s truly at the center of this picture. The greatest movie of Martin Scorsese’s career does have its moments of violence, yes, but they are few and far between. Nor is it a story that is strictly about 1970’s New York. What happens here could happen anywhere in any time period. The story presented here is of one man’s feelings of isolation brought about by his complete lack of social skills. In order to alleviate the pain caused by his loneliness, our main character (note that I’m not using the word “hero”) sets out on a mission to save someone else from their own miserable situation. In this way, he believes that his life might finally count for something.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is that sad individual. A twenty-six year old former Marine, Travis has taken a job as a New York taxi cab driver because he suffers from insomnia. We are meant to assume this condition has been brought about by his experiences in Vietnam, although if you’re looking for specifics beyond that, don’t bother. One day, while driving past the Presidential campaign headquarters for candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), Travis spots a beautiful blonde in the window named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and is instantly smitten. He walks in under the pretense that he wants to volunteer for Palantine, but really all he wants is to take her out for coffee and pie. He observes that she doesn’t seem happy at her job. He’s offering to rescue her from the confines of that boring office with all of those equally boring people who can’t possibly respect her. Out of curiosity more than anything, she agrees.

The first date goes well enough that Travis pushes for a second, this time at the movies. What Betsy doesn’t realize is just what kind of movie theater Travis has in mind. You see, before meeting this woman with whom he has become hopelessly infatuated, Travis would routinely visit the local porno theater. Not that he goes there to relieve any sort of tension, mind you. It’s because he’s been so immersed in the ugly parts of this world for so long that he mistakes this as being a completely normal place for couples to go out on a date. (For the record, the film playing at the XXX theater is the 1969 Swedish sex education film “Language of Love.”) Disgusted, Betsy storms out and hails a taxi cab to take her back home. It’s immediately after this that the movie’s best scene takes place.

Everyone, including people who’ve never seen “Taxi Driver” before, knows about the scene where Travis stands in front of a mirror and poses the iconic question, “You talkin’ to me?” But that happens much later. The scene which I am “talkin'” about sees Travis sometime after the aborted date on a pay phone calling Betsy in an attempt to apologize for his mistake. He tries to set up possibilities for future dates, asks if she received flowers sent by him, and offers other cringeworthy questions and comments. As though the movie itself agrees with us that this scene is getting too painful to watch, the camera moves over to the adjacent hallway to give Travis a little privacy. This scene establishes better than any other just what kind of feelings this movie is trying to pry out of its audience. Above all else, Travis is a man to be pitied.

Having failed so completely with Betsy, Travis’s last chance at relevancy comes in the form of a twelve-year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). He pays for her as any regular customer would, but he doesn’t want to make it with Iris. He wants to rescue her. The question that is never definitively answered is whether or not Iris actually wants to be rescued. She points to a bad relationship with her parents, although as with Travis’s time spent in Vietnam we never hear anything about it beyond that, never any hint as to why she ran away from home and began a life of selling her body for money. Just as he did with Besty’s co-workers, Travis takes an immediate disliking towards Iris’s pimp Matthew, a.k.a. Sport (Harvey Keitel). Armed to the teeth with illegally-purchased firearms, Travis has become obsessed with the idea of killing the Presidential candidate, but narrowly escapes arrest or worse when the Secret Service foil his attempt. Instead, Travis heads back to the brothel to rescue Iris. It is here that the most intense piece of violence occurs. The camera, which had been squeamish in that earlier scene, does not shy away once during this entire sequence, eventually giving us an aerial view of the situation.

Apart from the aforementioned phone call scene, the other moment which I patiently wait for ever time I watch “Taxi Driver” is the breakfast scene where Travis first tries to convince Iris to leave the streets of New York behind and go home to her family. In a manner of speaking, the two are polar opposites. Iris is a young girl whose circumstances have caused her to grow up faster than she was meant to at her age, while Travis is a man whose mental and social hang-ups have stunted his personal growth. Up until this moment, Robert De Niro has been the most dominant force driving this movie, but then suddenly here comes young Jodie Foster, already displaying the immense talent that would eventually win her not one but two Oscars for Best Actress more than a decade later. Foster and De Niro were both nominated for “Taxi Driver” but, criminally so, their work, especially for the scene at the diner, went unrecognized. I would also be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the score by Bernarnd Hermann (the last of the brilliant composer’s distinguished career), a beautiful jazzy composition that becomes its own character.

Finally, I want to address something that’s been eating at me since I finished my latest viewing of “Taxi Driver.” The film has been frequently compared to the John Ford western “The Searchers,” citing similar plotlines. I hadn’t paid any attention to the comparison until now. In “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s character goes on a personal mission to rescue Natalie Wood from a tribe of Indians who took her captive years earlier. But the catch is that the girl, who has since gone native, may not actually want to be rescued. Hell, in “Taxi Driver,” Sport even refers to Travis as “Cowboy.” Although I am admittedly not a fan of either John Wayne or “The Searchers,” this revelation has changed the way I look at “Taxi Driver,” a movie I already considered to be among my favorites, for the better.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Yes, I have to also say that passing up Foster and DeNiro for Oscars was and is downright criminal.
    Can you comment for me on why Travis originally thought it was justifiable to assassinate Palatine?
    Other than to get Betsy’s attention and eliminate the candidate from her life… how do you think he rationalizes his plans? Murdering Sport, on the other hand, I can totally understand him thinking is a Don Quixote thing to do.

    • It all goes back to Travis’s inability to connect with other people. Having failed with Betsy, he has chosen to lash out at the man for whom she works. The fact that Palantine is a Senator looking to become President means that Travis would attract a hell of a lot of attention in gunning him down. He confides in Peter Boyle… who is no help to him at all… that he really wants to go out and do something that no one can ignore. As it happens, taking out his rage on the pimps and mobsters inside the brothel wound up achieving a similar goal. The difference being that no one mourns their passing, and the freeing of a child from a life of prostitution is something worth celebrating.

      • Sylvia Williams says:

        Right. I suppose the same is true of almost all of those who kill people they don’t even know. But what makes this movie and this story different is that Travis ended up being hailed a hero and not a murderer because of his forced shift in target. My question about how Travis could justify shooting Palantine has to remain somewhat rhetorical, though, because he would not have been able to convince a jury or anyone else that it made any sense. The end result for Travis would have been complete self-destruction
        . But the ending we see leaves us to speculate what he might get himself talked into in the future. Glad, though, that M. S. didn’t propose a sequel. Some movies are really meant to stand alone in their near cinematic perfection. This movie is one of them.

      • One thing that really would have painted the movie in a different light is if Scorsese had cast Sport as a black man, which was how screenwriter Paul Schrader had written him in the original draft of “Taxi Driver.” Criticism over the film’s content has been mixed enough as it is over the last 40 years. Whether Travis could have been hailed as a hero in any context would have been further complicated once you include racism.

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