It’s the fortieth anniversary of Taxi Driver. Well, February 8th was the date it was released, but a few days ago the film’s anniversary was celebrated at the Tribeca Film Festival, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss it.
This is at least my third time viewing the film, and it gets better every time. It is one of the best American films ever made, and push comes to shove, I would select it as Martin Scorsese’s best film. It is still striking and relevant, even if New York City is far cleaner than it was 40 years ago.
From the opening shot of the yellow cab emerging out of the steam, Taxi Driver is like a fever dream, a hallucination. Our hero, or antihero, Travis Bickle, has problems with fantasy and reality. We don’t know where he comes from–probably the plains or southwest, given his penchant for cowboy boots–but he is an ex-Marine, looking for a job that will take up the hours that he can’t sleep.
“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” says Robert De Niro as Bickle, a man who fancies himself a white knight. But, as another character will say of him, he is a “walking contradiction.” He has old-fashioned ideas about morality, but spends his time in the porno theaters of Times Square, as if he didn’t know there were other kinds of movies. He is lonely, which is a spine of the film–the characters are driven by a kind of loneliness, whether it’s Bickle or Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, the beautiful girl who takes a chance by going out on a date with him only to be taken to a Swedish sex film.
Amazingly, Taxi Driver was originally going to be set in Los Angeles, but New York has far more cabs, and the city at that time was a nightmare of crime and debauchery. Just a few years later I remember walking down 42nd Street between 7th and 8th and it felt like you were taking your life in your hands. Prostitution and drugs were everywhere. Bickle was absolutely right.
But Bickle is driven by something deeper than a citizen’s outrage. He is probably schizophrenic–the script was in part based on the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace–and show a mind ravaged by a lack of intimacy and simple human connection.
The script has Bickle in parallel situations–his pursuit of Shepherd (who had already played a shiksa goddess in The Heartbreak Kid a few years earlier) and his attempt at being the savior of Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year old prostitute. His rage at being spurned by Shepherd is transferable–when his attempt at assassinating the candidate she works for fails, he turns his attention at Foster’s pimp (Harvey Keitel) and other scumbags associated with her degradation. I was just talking to a friend who was at the Beacon Theater for the anniversary and she reminded me how there two diner scenes–one with De Niro and Shepherd, one with De Niro and Foster. In a certain way, his wooing of Shepherd doesn’t turn out, but his “wooing” of Foster does, if we are to believe the epilogue of the film.
The ending–brilliantly shot. De Niro, his hair cut into a mohawk, engaging in the mocking small talk he uses in his mirror scene (“you talking to me?”), only now it’s “Do I know you?” with Keitel. The carnage of three dead and De Niro wounded, out of bullets for a suicide. The cops come in, De Niro raises a bloody finger to his head to mime shooting himself, and then the breathtaking pan, shot from above, out of the room, down the bloody hallway, out into the street.
The comes the epilogue. Bickle is a hero for taking out a Mafioso and a couple of street thugs. Foster’s father writes his thanks. De Niro is friendly with the other cabbies (who call him “Killer”), and then he takes Shepherd, now interested again, as a fare. She is photographed as an angel with billowing hair as he views her form the rearview mirror, congratulates her on the candidate’s success, and dismisses her as he drops her off.
Many have interpreted this as a fantasy of Bickle’s, or his dying thoughts. It’s easy to interpret it that way, although Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, say it’s not. Schrader says take a look at the last shot, with De Niro looking into the camera, from the rear view mirror (we see a lot De Niro’s eyes, looking, judging. He tells a Secret Service agent he’d be a good agent, because he’s very observant) and you can see he’s a ticking time bomb–he’s not done.
The acting in the film is great, starting with De Niro, who captures the contradictions, and improvised the memorable “Are you talkin’ to me?” (De Niro, at the screening, says for forty years people are still saying that line to him). We can never be sure if he’s some kind of autistic savant or a genuine dummy. He says he doesn’t know what “moonlighting” means, but uses the word “venal.” He acts like a country bumpkin with the Secret Service agent and the presidential candidate, but I’m sure that’s an act. Does he really think that taking a woman to a porn movie is appropriate? We can’t be sure.
He was nominated for an Oscar, and so was Jodie Foster. I found it interesting to read the other actresses who were auditioned–Mariel Hemingway, Linda Blair, Carrie Fisher, Melanie Griffith, Bo Derek (!), all of whom refused. Foster, who was already a seasoned pro, was deemed psychologically fit enough and found the experience fun and interesting. I imagine that Keitel, who had to perform a scene with her of romance and tenderness, probably found that more difficult than Foster did.
Also terrific is Albert Brooks, who as Shepherd’s co-worker gave the film comic relief. He clearly has a boner for Shepherd, and can’t believe that a weirdo like De Niro could walk in off the street and get a date. It’s very funny how Brooks spies on their conversation, his head poking around a column.
I also want to mention Scorsese’s cameo, where he plays a Satanic-looking passenger spying on his wife in another man’s apartment, and telling De Niro how he’s going to kill her with a .44 magnum. This is the first gun that Bickle will buy.
If that weren’t enough, the score by Bernard Hermann, his last, is magnificent. It’s full of brass, including the romantic saxophone riff to represent Bickle. It runs counter to what we are seeing–a lonely man going mad in a small, dingy room, but accompanied by the kind of sax solo that we’re using to hearing in love scenes.
Taxi Driver is an example of the perfect combination of script, director, cast, and social anxiety. It taps into our fears, both of immorality and decay and of loneliness. It is a masterpiece and an American classic.