From the billowing steam emanating from one of New York City’s manhole covers emerges a yellow taxi cab, rolling through another night of ferrying NY citizens around from borough to borough. There are not many other openings in film history that establish the texture and mindset of a film in quite the same way as this shot from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. From this shot, the audience is primed to spend some time in a hellish depiction of New York, one that is crawling with all kinds of life, with the tortured mind of Travis Bickle acting as our guide.
Ever since that shot was first unveiled at the film’s premiere in the February of 1976, which fittingly took place in New York City, before going on to a famously mixed reception at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film has had a legacy coloured by both admiration and controversy. Despite a chorus of boos at its ending from the Cannes audience, Scorsese’s film went on to win the Palme D’or that year, as well as receiving four Oscar nominations. It is a significant film for the careers of all involved, and is a regular presence when it comes to many ‘Greatest Films Of All Time’ lists from numerous renowned publications. But it is also a film that has dealt with as much controversy as it has praise over the last 45 years.
Be it the final act shootout that pushed the envelope for graphic violence at the time, or the very questionable decision to feature a child prostitute Iris as a prominent character, portrayed by the then 12-year-old Jodie Foster, Taxi Driver is a film that has invited controversy from day one. That provocation certainly went to unintended extremes, what with a mohawked John Hinckley’s attempted assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981, with Hinckley stating that the film was a big component of his delusion. It is a dark reputation to carry, and that assassination attempt even made Scorsese question whether or not to continue making films. But it is this provocative nature that has allowed the film to have a longevity in the minds of audiences, critics and filmmakers since its release in 1976, as once it has wormed your way into your brain, it is often hard to shift.
Robert De Niro portrays Bickle, a young veteran who is having trouble sleeping. To keep his mind occupied, he gets a job as a New York taxi driver working the night shift, charting strangers across the city which he looks down upon as a cesspool of filth and debauchery. Becoming increasingly agitated by the society around him, Travis is compelled to act through an act of violent liberation concerning a presidential candidate and an underage prostitute.
Travis Bickle is a cinematic anti-hero who has endured across the 45 years of Taxi Driver’s life. He is also someone who never quite comfortably fits the idea of an anti-hero. When you hear the word anti-hero, your mind might more immediately jump to the likes of John Rambo or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Bickle doesn’t quite fit the mould of the guy who either reluctantly does what is right or uses extreme means to right the wrongs of evil-doers. He does eventually face down an evil that cannot be ignored, but the steps towards that point are much more warped and complex than any other anti hero committed to cinema.
Much of that complicated relationship comes from Travis’ often contradictory behaviour. This is a film about a man who pushes himself into isolation and ends up blaming the evils of the society around him for the frustration that he feels at his level of disconnect. He claims the city has become an unbearable cesspit, filled with the scum of the Earth, but he is also seen participating in aspects of city life that he claims to despise. His idea of a date night with the beautiful Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) is to go and see a strange porno film – an activity he often participates in – and he fails to see why it is his fault that Betsy doesn’t want to see him anymore. Along with giving money to the porn industry, he also gives his hard earned money over to gun and drug peddlers, all the while often seen eating and drinking junk. He cannot help but throw himself deep into the very mud of the cesspit he supposedly hates.
It is the same contradiction that plays with the audience. Scorsese and his screenwriter Paul Schrader are deliberately placing us in the perspective of a man who makes for uneasy company. And yet we can’t help but be entirely captivated by what Travis might say or do next. Every time he tries to be charming, he’s creepy. Every grand gesture is entirely out of whack with social convention. Much of the tension of the film comes from our anxiety from keeping such close company with such a tortured and delusional man, particularly as the film draws to what is an inevitable violent outburst. This contradiction is continually enforced by Bernard Herrmann’s strange and beautiful score. With a breathy saxophone motif that thrives on the irony of painting Bickle as a tragic romantic figure, the score is both from Travis’ perspective but also knowingly removed with disorientating chords that reveal the simmering intensity underneath the whole experience.
That the ending ends up painting Bickle as a hero in the eyes of the media for his actions in saving the young Iris from a world of prostitution (a world, it should be said, she seemingly doesn’t want to leave), is an irony that has also provoked conversation sicne. Travis’ act of violent liberation in killing the pimps who control Iris only comes after the moment where he has had to flee from secret service men as he attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate. He just narrowly escapes a narrative where the media would paint him as a mad man. There is a sense that, if you’re in the camp that reads the ending as reality and not as the fantasy of a dying man, that this moment where Travis is perceived as a hero is only temporary. It won’t be long till this man feels the need to act out against the alienating city again, and next time it might not be in a manner that can be deemed so heroic.
Bickle is born out of a symbiotic relationship between screenwriter Schrader, director Scorsese and star De Niro. Schrader wrote the script when spurred by his own sense of isolation, going through a divorce and living in his car in LA, before suffering a stomach ulcer and writing the script in an intense two week period of isolated recovery. Scorsese was facing anxiety over what position to take in the New Hollywood, trying to settle on the kind of film he wanted to make. He found that unflinching material in Schrader’s script, recognising the project as one that would meet his desire to make important films within the Hollywood system that dealt with uneasy themes and dark truths about disillusionment. But none of it would work at all if it wasn’t for a certain Robert De Niro.
Fresh off of winning an Oscar for The Godfather Part II, De Niro had already made the decision to star as Bickle before that Oscar success. He was still very much an actor on the rise, meaning that when he did go out undercover as a taxi driver in New York, he managed to do so in relative obscurity (he was only recognised once, by an aspiring actor who was distraught to see a recent Oscar winner now working as a cabbie). Ever the method actor, there’s such a clear devotion to get into Travis’ headspace on screen, beyond the physical transformation into a lean and sinewy frame, ‘with every muscle tight’ ready to explode. There’s a clear look of exhaustion across De Niro’s gaze, giving him a sleepless, untamed intensity that feels dangerous, so dangerous that you don’t dare take your eyes off of him.
De Niro is the key that makes the whole thing click together. Put the wrong actor in this role and the audience simply will reject the film and its nihilistic world-view, propelled by the stream of consciousness voice-over as Travis scratches down his thoughts. The iconic improvised moment of “You talkin to me?” may have been parodied to death, but in the context of the film, it still carries a hell of a potent energy. It is an example of how important De Niro’s command of the material truly is to the lasting impact of the film. He is also a big part of why the casting of Foster and the character of Irs goes over as smoothly as it does, as there’s a clear trust between the two actors, with Foster giving a performance that is absolutely far beyond her years, once again making an element of the film so captivating that could otherwise be so easy to reject.
Taxi Driver rolls through the city of New York in a dream like fashion, with Bickle encountering strangers amidst the lashes of neon lights, constant dank dampness of rainy streets, and random hives of activity bustling on dark corners and sidewalks. It has never been my favourite Scorsese, but it is one that cannot be disregarded. It may be easy to dismiss as there have been so many copies and imitators. One might think that the actual artefact itself will have been diluted. But revisiting it to mark its 45th birthday reveals the intoxicating energy the film still has. It is still impressively capable at making you uneasy whilst also being an utterly enrapturing account of disillusionment, toxic male entitlement and a misplaced sense of purpose. This is all up on screen not for us to enjoy or even endure, but to simply experience, and it still stands as one of Scorsese’s and De Niro’s most challenging pieces from their long storied history of collaboration. Still a ride around a dark city that proves hard to deny.