Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Taxi Driver (1976)
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Background

Taxi Driver (1976) is director Martin Scorsese's and screenwriter Paul Schrader's gritty, disturbing, nightmarish modern film classic, that examines alienation in urban society. Scorsese's fourth film, combining elements of film noir, the western, horror and urban melodrama film genres. Historically, the film appeared after a decade of war in Vietnam, and after the disgraceful Watergate crisis and President Nixon's resignation.

It explores the psychological madness within an obsessed, twisted, inarticulate, lonely, anti-hero cab driver and war vet (De Niro), who misdirectedly lashes out with frustrated anger and power like an exploding time bomb at the world that has alienated him. His assaultive unhinging is first paired with a longing to connect with a blonde goddess office worker (Shepherd), and then with an attempt to rescue/liberate a young 12-year old prostitute named Iris (Foster) from her predatory pimp "Sport" (Keitel) and her tawdry, streetwalking life. [The young Foster, who had previously acted for Scorsese in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), was required to undergo psychological tests to see if she would bear up during filming.]

Taxi Driver has been acknowledged as consciously influenced by John Ford's The Searchers (1956) - the story of another angry war veteran and social outcast who becomes obsessed during a search and rescue of his young niece from a long-haired Comanche chief named Scar. Ford's film was about his fanatical quest to liberate the young girl, restore her virtue, and return her to society, in order to purify his own soul, although he remains an outsider.

Taxi Driver re-established the tremendous acting ability of Robert De Niro to totally immerse himself into his characters. (This was his second film for Scorsese following Mean Streets (1973), in which both De Niro and Harvey Keitel gained fame as young New York hoods. It led to their further collaboration in Raging Bull (1980)). De Niro's performance is utterly compelling and fascinating to watch - as the unlikely knight redemptively prepares to "wash all this scum off the streets" after a failed and misguided date with a blonde political worker and his stalking of political candidate Charles Palantine. His target-practice 'You talkin' to me?' monologue before a mirror remains one of the best known sequences in film history. The film also propelled its director, screenwriter, and others of its stars into future careers - Jodie Foster (as actress and director) and Cybill Shepherd (as popular TV star).

Although the film was nominated for four Academy Awards nominations (without recognition for director Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, or cinematographer Michael Chapman): Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Original Score (Bernard Herrmann, nominated posthumously -- Herrmann passed away shortly after completing his work in this film) - all were unrewarded. A memorable lamenting saxophone score by Bernard Herrmann (his last) accompanies the film. [He provided some of cinema's best-known musical accompaniments, for such films as Alfred Hitchcock's well-known Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), and for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).]

In many ways, the film has become prophetic and mirrors the violence of contemporary news headlines. Notoriously, the film is linked to and may have triggered the political assassination (copy-cat) attempt by inconspicuous John Hinckley on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, illuminating his dangerous fixation on actress Jodie Foster, and resulting in the assassin's infamous media-hero status. Other misfits have emerged as lonely and disturbed individuals who act out their killer impulses on high school campuses or in terrorist acts. This film has also influenced other future filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs (1992)), and David Fincher (Se7en (1995)).

The Story

The film opens impressionistically with the credits on top of a night view of the streets of Manhattan - a scene of urban jungle warfare. (The entire film was shot on location in New York City.) There are open sewers and manhole covers with steam vapors rising in cloudy gusts - from Hell itself, and glaring red neon lights are flashed and reflected on the face of a New York cab driver. He is existentially lost. Through a rainy taxicab windshield, we see the rainy, slick streets, an allegorical underworld vision composed of hustlers and derelicts, and a foreshadowing of the future tone of the film.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an enigmatic, 20th century loner enters into the personnel office of a cab company. He applies as a hack in a taxi company to drive the taxi night shift, because he is an insomniac: "I can't sleep nights" and he finds nothing meaningful to do during the days. As a therapeutic solution to his life, Bickle even offers to work Jewish holidays and ride into the city's sleaziest areas - he explains that he might as well get paid for wandering haphazardly:

Bickle: I can't sleep nights.
Personnel Officer: There's porno theatres for that.
Bickle: I know. I tried that.
Personnel Officer: So whaddaya do now?
Bickle: I ride around nights mostly. Subways, buses. Figure you know, I'm gonna do that, I might as well get paid for it.
Personnel Officer: Wanna work uptown nights - South Bronx, Harlem?
Bickle: I'll work any time, anywhere.
Personnel Officer: Will ya work Jewish holidays?
Bickle: Any time, anywhere.

He offers only a few biographical facts about his background - he is a twenty-six year old ex-Marine [Travis is possibly a battle-scarred Vietnam Vet, but not specifically identified as such. His Marine battle jacket has "King Kong Brigade" patches on it, and his psychological profile approximates those of war-zone combatants. But the film doesn't clearly make that distinction]:

Personnel Officer: All right. Let me see your chauffeur's license. How's your driving record?
Bickle (grinning to himself): It's clean, it's real clean like my conscience...
Personnel Officer: Physical?
Bickle: Clean.
Personnel Officer: Age?
Bickle: Twenty-six.
Personnel Officer: Education?
Bickle (replying vaguely and sheepishly): Some, here and there you know.
Personnel Officer: Military record?
Bickle: Honorable discharge, May 1973.
Personnel Officer: Were you in the Army?
Bickle: Marines.
Personnel Officer: I was in the Marines, too. So what is it? You need an extra job? Are you moonlighting?
Bickle: Well I, I just want to work long hours. What's 'moonlighting'?
Personnel Officer: Look. Just fill out these forms and check back tomorrow when the shift breaks.

As Travis leaves, the camera pans past the interior of a Manhattan cab garage. Following a daily (and nightly) monotonous routine, Travis writes in his diary as the camera pans across the interior of his squalid, welfare-style, studio apartment. He has just finished a meal of a Coke and a McDonald's Quarter Pounder. (There are old newspapers and magazines scattered over his cot/bed, and protective bars on one of the few windows.) His one-dimensional life, one totally alienated from others, is pathetically built on fear and self-loathing. In a droning voice-over, he narrates cynically from the tattered journal he keeps in a school composition book purchased at a dimestore. [At the film's ending, the viewer wonders if his diary's composed thoughts are a dream state - after his almost certain death.]

Always off-kilter, he hallucinates about his vision of an allegorical rain that will cleanse the dirty, mean streets:

May 10th. Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks. I'm workin' long hours now. 6:00 in the afternoon to 6:00 in the morning, sometimes even 8:00 in the morning. Six days a week, sometimes seven days a week. It's a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in 300, 350 a week, sometimes even more when I do it off the meter.

The camera cuts to a front fender view of his Checker cab cruising the seedy, slick, wet, night streets past a movie theatre marquee advertising The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and Return of the Dragon - also a view of Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction). Delis, arcades, and streets filled with drifters, pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes hypnotically pass by as he transports lost souls from place to place. [The bright lights marquees and the plentiful sidewalk sex symbolically show the delicate balance between violence and promiscuous sex that he must drive through.]

He is disgusted by the world of urban decay and sleaziness that needs to be raged against and washed away:

All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain'll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take 'em to Harlem. I don't care. Don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me.

One of his late-night passengers/fares he ferries to 48th and 6th Street is an executive-type businessman [who looks remarkably identical to presidential candidate Palantine (Leonard Harris) in the first of two rides in Travis' cab] accompanied by a black hooker (Copper Cunningham) in a long blond wig. The john "can't afford to get stopped anywhere." He promises his lady of the evening: "There'll be a big tip in it for ya if you do the right things." The passengers make out during the ride, ignoring him as if he were part of the inanimate machine. Travis checks them out in the rear-view mirror. After the ride, he drives his cab through a geyser stream from a broken, erupting fire hydrant, washing the filth off his windshield.

Back inside the cab company's garage in his stall at the end of his stretch shift (six to six), he pops pills to keep calm. He narrates with self-loathing how he must clean the interior of his cab after each shift, building up more ammunition in his own arsenal of repressed sexuality:

Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.

Alone during the early morning hours, he walks through the porno district and spends his free time in a triple-X rated porno film house - a clue that his personality is schizoid and hypocritical. Although disgusted by his sleazy environment, Bickle is attracted to the low life during the day, and - by choice - rides through the same scenes of degradation at night in his self-loathing occupation.

After transporting late-night passengers who subscribe to the pleasure principle, Travis models his own behavior after theirs. In the Show and Tell XXX-rated movie theatre, he is coldly rebuffed in an attempted pickup of the sleazy porn theatre's female concession counter clerk (Diahnne Abbott). After failing to engage the woman in conversation (and when she threatens to summon the manager), he purchases a Chuckles, two candy bars, two Goobers boxes, popcorn, and a Royal Crown cola. (Everything he purchases is placed on a magazine page that the clerk is reading - an expose about "How Your Money Affects Your Sexual Life!") In the small theatre auditorium, he slumps low in his chair and stares with glazed eyes fixed on the screen (of pornographic sex):

Twelve hours of work and I still can't sleep. Damn. Days go on and on. They don't end.

He is tormented and pent-up, lying awake on his bed watching daytime soap operas on television in his littered hovel, and full of agony trying to find his own identity:

All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person like other people.

A faceless person in a crowded city, Travis is unconnected and de-socialized from conventional patterns of reality. Born of his desire to be "like other people" and make emotional contact with someone, Travis is attracted and drawn first to a tall, blonde woman dressed in white. Suddenly, she appears (suspended in slow-motion) from a mass of Manhattanites on the street, walking all alone into the posh campaign headquarters of presidential candidate Charles Palantine where she works as a political volunteer. He observes her from afar, worships her and develops a crush on her, viewing her as an untouchable dream-girl ideal (she is a WASP-ish, angelic beauty in his fantasies):

I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. (Narrated from his diary in a cadence - the words are written in large capitals in a close-up) They...cannot...touch...her.

The outside of the campaign headquarters building is decorated with large red, white, and blue posters/signs: "Vote for Palantine," "We are the People," and "New Yorkers for Palantine for President." Inside the building where activity is bustling and phones ring, young campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) is an aide working for Palantine's election with a modishly long-haired co-worker named Tom (future director Albert Brooks in his feature film debut). They talk about strategies and issues in the campaign:

Tom: Now look, you have to emphasize the mandatory welfare program. That's the issue that should be pushed.
Betsy: First push the man, then the issue. Senator Palantine is a dynamic man, an intelligent, interesting, fresh, fascinating...
Tom: Forgot sexy.
Betsy: ...man. I did not forget sexy.
Tom: Listen to what you're saying. You sound like you're selling mouthwash.
Betsy: We are selling mouthwash.
Tom: Are we authorized to do that?

As Tom routinely flirts with Betsy, she notices that a taxicab driver in his car at the curb outside stares at them - with cold, piercing eyes. Asked how long he has been there, Betsy responds: "I don't know but it feels like a long time." Bickle squeals off when Tom goes out to tell him to stop blocking the curb in front of the offices.

A Bernard Herrmann jazzy and seductive saxophone riff accompanies an impressionistic montage of images on one of Bickle's typical night drives - red and green stoplights, garish neon lights and porno houses, pedestrians walking the streets, the clicking of the numbers on the taxi farebox, and other taxi traffic cruising the streets.

During a night-time coffee break at an all-night restaurant (the Belmore Cafeteria), Travis appears through the glass window behind other cabbies who are seated at a table. One of the cabbies has seen it all - the philosophic Wizard (Peter Boyle) relates a exaggerated anecdote about one of his odd fare-paying passengers, a seductive lady who changed her pantyhose in the middle of a ride:

...eye-shadow, mascara, lipstick, rouge...and then perfume, the spray kind. And then get this. In the middle of the Triboro Bridge - and this woman is beautiful - she changes her pantyhose!...I jump in the back seat and I whip it out and I said, you know what this is?...If she says, 'It's love,' you know, I'm gonna f--- her brains out. She goes wild, you know. And she said, 'It's the greatest single experience of my life.' And she gave me a two hundred dollar tip and her phone number in Acapulco.

While the other cabbies are talking, Travis becomes lost in his own world, and then describes their dangerous work environment with "pretty rough customers" and the latest threat - a knife-wielding crazy madman who cut up another cabbie at 122nd Street:

Travis: I turned on the radio, some fleet driver from Bell just got all cut up...He got cut up by some crazy f--ker. Cut half his ear off. It was at 122nd Street.
Wizard: F---in' Mau-Mau land.

The two stories bring together the related connection between sex and violence in the routine world of the cabbie.

As Travis' name is called, it takes two or three times before he responds. One of his colleagues named Dough-Boy (Harry Northrup) suggests that Travis carry a "piece" to protect himself. And if Travis wishes to purchase a weapon, he has a source. Off-handedly, Wizard mentions that he has a gun but never uses it: "I never use mine. I'm conservative, you know. It's a good thing to have just as a threat." An anxiety-ridden Travis dumps an Alka-Seltzer tablet in a glass of water - the camera zooms in and lingers on the exploding, fizzing action [a symbolic, precipitous descent into the effervescent disturbances in Travis' inner world].

Gathering up his courage and wearing a dark maroon jacket, an attractively-groomed Travis walks confidently into the campaign headquarters, attempting to meet the woman he has long admired and fastened onto from a distance. In front of her co-worker, he volunteers to work for her, flattering her ego:

Betsy: And why do you feel that you have to volunteer to me?
Travis: (smiling slightly) Because I think that you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
Betsy: (after a momentary pause, she responds with a pleasing look) Thanks. But what do you think of Palantine? (Travis is distracted and cannot answer)...Charles Palantine, the man you're volunteering to help elect President.
Travis: Well, I'm sure he'd make a good President. I don't know exactly what his policies are, but I'm sure he'd make a good one.
Betsy: Do you want to canvass?
Travis: Yeah, I'll canvass.

Explaining that he drives a taxi at night, Travis clarifies that he really wants to invite her to have coffee and pie with him. Although amused, intrigued, flattered, and curiously attracted to him, she wants to know why, not knowing what to make of him. Charming her, he uses one of the oldest pick-up lines he knows. During the scene, Tom - pretending to be standoff-ish (but actually jealous) - lurks around in the background. Appearing cool, beautiful and pure, she is taken aback by his feverish interest in her, but nonetheless accepts to meet him later in the afternoon:

Travis: I'll tell you why. I think you're a lonely person. I drive by this place a lot and I see you here. I see a lot of people around you. And I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk. It means nothing. Then when I came inside and I met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you're not a happy person. And I think you need something. And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.
Betsy: Are you gonna be my friend?
Travis: Yeah. What do ya say? It's a little hard standing here and asking...Five minutes, that's all, just outside. Right around here. I'm there to protect ya. (He quickly flexes both arms, causing her to laugh.) Come on, just take a little break.
Betsy: I have a break at four o'clock and if you're here...
Travis: Four o'clock today?
Betsy: Yes.
Travis: I'll be here.
Betsy: I'm sure you will.
Travis: All right, four p.m.
Betsy: Right.
Travis: Outside in front?
Betsy: Yeah.
Travis: OK. Oh my name is Travis. (He extends his hand to her.) Betsy?
Betsy: Travis.
Travis: Appreciate this, Betsy.


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