Approaching Menace: The American Pathology of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’

Many rightly attribute Taxi Driver’s success to screenwriter Paul Schrader, director Martin Scorsese, and method leading man Robert De Niro—together they forge a Holy Trinity to convey the tale of a damaged Saint’s drive towards redemption, or damnation. But just as important are the troika skillset of composer, editor(s) and cinematographer, together conveying cabbie Travis Bickle’s fractious sense of self as ferryman through the stygian morass of New York’s hellish ’70’s nightscape. Succinctly so in the brief opening titles. The editing (Marcia Lucas, Tom Rolf, Melvin Shapiro and Scorsese himself) conveys his very subjective and skewed view of the city. Bernard Herrmann’s music, together with the sickly colors, and the restless, floating camera, capture the garish illicit exchanges along Times Square, perceived by us through Travis’s eyes. We settle on a close-up of his face, right after we have seen the taxi emerge through the steam rising from the street’s grates, accompanied by the jarring score. This switches between jazzy, bluesy sax and dissonant, unsettling ominous tones, like a rapidly spinning coin, percussively about to determine the fates of those whose paths Travis crosses. The slowly approaching menace of the cab is akin to the shark’s fin from Jaws—appropriately enough, DoP Michael Chapman worked as a camera operator on Spielberg’s beachfront horror. The city we see through Travis’ eyes is not the city of bright lights and endless possibilities, instead it glides past in slow motion, dreamlike, rain-slicked and disturbing. It is not the real city, rather it reflects Travis’ paranoid, pathological experience. He insists he will work “anytime, anywhere,” but is drawn to Times Square and 42nd Street again and again, waist-deep in depravity and lowlife. Paul Schrader’s script lays his character out from the start: “He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell… The clock spring cannot be wound continually tighter. As the Earth moves towards the Sun, Travis Bickle moves towards violence.”

Schrader’s script reflected upheaval in his own life after a previous script deal fell through. “I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at that time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.” He’d taken to wandering around L.A. at night, visiting porno theatres, drinking, in a very destructive manner. “That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.” He cranked the script out in fifteen days.

Travis has what psychologists call a “lack of object constancy.” He is unable to connect with others, his halting words at odds with the deliberate phrasing of his journal, where he records his disgust at the city around him. Scorsese films him in odd places in the frame, to emphasize how he is not operating on the same level or speed as normal society. After Travis applies to be a taxi driver, he walks out of the dispatcher garage, and as he does so, the camera pans from right to left across the screen as the cabs drive right, whilst Travis walks in the opposite direction, out of frame, the camera catching him up. Michael Chapman: “Marty has an enormous visual sense and had strong ideas and strong images in his head. He did outrageous things. The shot where Robert De Niro goes this way and the camera goes that way and shows all his world that he experiences and then comes back and finds him. The crew were sort of shocked by it. Crews are very conservative in a curious way, and they’ve made hundreds of shots following somebody, but the idea of letting him go that way and the camera go that way almost offended their sensibilities. After a while they got used to that, because they realized that it was Marty but none of them had worked with Marty before… That’s the biggest thing I remember about it, was how shocking it was to the crew, and how it made them nervous. The movie is full of that, of Marty thinking of something that nobody had ever done.”

 
Travis never turns fully around in his cab to speak to others. He always observes, but never fully engages. When he tries to, it just comes out wrong. Witness Senator Palantine’s backseat discomfort at Travis’ ramblings that the President should just flush the city down the toilet. Palantine’s election slogan, “We Are the People” is ambiguous in where the emphasis should fall in the phrasing. WE are the people? Or we ARE the people? The former suggests a group “other” from Travis with which he seeks to connect, a homogeneous order of edifying, moral behavior. “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 one should become a person like other people.” The latter a more virulent rallying cry to the disaffected, like him—akin to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” As he reads aloud the more poisonous ramblings from his journal the scene cuts and repeats abruptly, as if he is scrubbing perceived mistakes in delivery and intent, rather than just practicing repetitively, reflecting his deteriorating mental state. His famous “You talkin’ to me?” almost one-line monologue to the mirror (lifted by De Niro from a Bruce Springsteen shaggy dog story mid-concert), an immature outward reflection of self-loathing and alienation. Schrader again: “Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere: and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself.”

The film’s woozy visual aesthetic, with emphasis on slow dissolves with occasional jarring cuts and subjective POV are deliberate choices on Scorsese’s part. “Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope,” he recalled. “And the shock of walking out of the theatre into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me—that state of being almost awake.” When Travis joins the other cabbies in the night cafe, as he sits down the camera tilts slightly, following his downward trajectory, focused on him, then zooming in via his POV, zoning out from the conversation, on the Alka-Seltzer glass, one of many Scorsese homages to other movies within the film. In his conversation with them, and also later with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Palantine’s campaign worker, he is cut-off visually, by alternately a window frame, or shot separately. She is seen in an over-the-shoulder shot past him, whilst when the camera focuses on him face-on, he is alone. After talking haltingly at cross purposes to his cabbie mentor Wizard (Peter Boyle) for some advice, Wizard finishes, “What do I know, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” When Travis speaks to Wizard outside and a black man walks past, staring at Travis, who stares back, the whole exchange is in slow-motion, cut between two cameras, another example of the viewer inside Travis’ disturbed headspace. Is the hostility and suspicion of the other man even real?

Travis espies Betsy, again in slow motion, a vision of beauty in a white dress. He describes her in his journal voiceover: “She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They… cannot… touch… her.” He takes to spying on her, until he is removed by a fellow campaign worker. The next shot cuts to him in his cab, at a red light. His life has hit a barrier. Later, he drives around, seeing loving couples and thinks, “I want some of that.” Now all the lights are green. Symbolically, we see him visualize (vizualize?) a way ahead, becoming one of the people, charming her. He turns up at the campaign HQ and boldly asks her out.

 
His idea of a night out, however, is greatly at odds with civilized norms. After a disastrous porno theatre double bill date with Betsy, he pleads with her for another chance. This was the first shot Scorsese planned, and cuts to the heart of Travis’ sick soul. As he continues talking, the camera slowly tracks away to focus on an empty corridor stretching straight ahead to the street outside, to normality, neither party visible, as if to emphasize the lack of communication going on. It is as if Travis can’t focus on the conversation, or the viewer cannot continue to intrude, embarrassed and disgusted. The possibility also exists that he is not even speaking to her at all, or at least making much sense. He refers to all the flowers he sent her, then the scene cuts to his grotty apartment, with many bunches of dead flowers. Does he even have her address? He only contacted her before through the campaign office.

It is never actually clear that anything he is experiencing outside of his routine is real. Betrayed by the White Queen, or Madonna figure, Travis turns his attention to Iris (an astonishing Jodie Foster). She is the twelve-year-old hooker who once tried to get away in his cab from her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). Travis offers him the same crumpled $20 note he was tossed by Sport at the time, a gesture only Travis understands. When his offer to help her leave him is rebuffed by Iris, he flips back to Betsy. He resolves to get “organizized,” and kill Palantine, the perceived obstacle between them. But Travis is the world’s worst assassin, turning up at the rally with a mohawk haircut, and looking obviously jumpy. Plan foiled, he runs for it, and drives across town for a bloody reckoning with Iris’ subjugators. Ironically, he becomes the hero he set out to be, or does he?

There is no concrete evidence that Travis served with the Marines in Vietnam. Anybody could obtain military paraphernalia. He fires wildly at close quarters, blowing a man’s fingers off. The newspaper clippings he puts up on his wall have no photographs of him as he appeared at the scene, mohawked. Surely photojournalists on the scene would have seized on that sensational look? To avoid an X certificate Scorsese dialed down the color in the shootout scene. If anything, the final look heightens the impact, as if we are privy to Travis’ fever dream. The camera glides from a high overhead shot (with him at the center, naturally), down the bloody stairwell, but the details are held in a frozen tableau, forever etched either in his imagination or memory.

 
“When I first was writing the script I thought it was about loneliness,” Schrader recalled later. “What I learned while writing the script is that this was about a man who suffered from the pathology of loneliness. He wasn’t lonely by nature, he was lonely as a defense mechanism. And he reinforced his own loneliness by his own behavior. And the pathology grew until it became malignant and violent.”

When Travis later sees Betsy sitting in his cab and he drives her home, is it actually her? Is he transposing an imaginary conversation onto another passenger? As he pulls away he catches sight of his eyes in the mirror, and is repulsed, angry. He snaps the rearview mirror away. Whatever did or did not happen, Travis is a walking time bomb.

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 

THE MAKING OF ‘TAXI DRIVER’: LESSONS ON FILMMAKING

“With a clear emphasis on style and carrying the philosophical in its dark and gritty movement of visual-audio language, Taxi Driver is an undeniable classic and timeless film, one that most certainly places director Martin Scorsese among the unforgettable filmmakers in cinema’s short history. Thus, The Making of Taxi Driver is an exceptional documentary on filmmaking. In these 70+ minutes, we are given a unique glimpse into the workings of a film from one of the most creative eras in U.S. cinema. Beginning with the origins of the project and moving into a behind the scenes overview of the actors, shooting, editing, and more, The Making of Taxi Driver offers a detailed look into Taxi Driver. The documentary reveals how Martin Scorsese’s approach to filmmaking is meticulous and yet openminded, and fortunately, interviews with Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader, director of photography Michael Chapman, editor Tom Rolf, actors Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, and other collaborators add to the rich examination of the film. Explore Martin Scorsese’s haunting Taxi Driver with this in-depth documentary!” —Edwin Adrian Nieves, A-BitterSweet-Life

 
Paul Schrader clarified the screenwriting development process in an interview with Richard Thompson from 1976 when Taxi Driver had just opened, Film Comment, 1976. You can download the PDF version: Paul Schrader/Richard Thompson Interview.

Taxi Driver is a very special case: it’s a film that was made because the people involved all made large financial sacrifices and stuck to them for a long time. The entire above-the-line cost for Scorsese, De Niro, Michael and Julia Phillips and Tony Bill, Peter Boyle, Jodie Foster, and myself was probably around $150,000; people were doing it for next to nothing. We were all young enough to want to do something that will last. De Niro told me, when we were talking about whether the film would make any money, that he felt it was a film people would be watching fifty years from now, and that whether everybody watched it next year wasn’t important. That’s how we came to it, and that’s why we didn’t make any compromises; we figured if we’re going to compromise on money, we’re certainly not going to compromise on anything else. There’s nothing in the film that was put there at the studio’s insistence. There are things we disagree about, things I would have done differently. —Paul Schrader

 
Robert De Niro’s copy of the Taxi Driver script includes his handwritten notes and provides insight into how he constructed his performance and how improvisation is incorporated into the filmmaking process. This page shows Travis Bickle, the film’s main character, alone in his apartment, rehearsing for an impending violent confrontation. “You talkin’ to me?” is recorded only as a note—“Mirror thing here?”—at the bottom of the page. —The Harry Ransom Center Magazine

 
Screenwriter must-read: Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver [two different drafts: PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“For instance, the tracking shot over the murder scene at the end, which was shot in a real apartment building: We had to go through the ceiling to get it. It took three months to cut through the ceiling, and 20 minutes to shoot the shot.” —Martin Scorsese remembers shooting Taxi Driver

“(laughs) We cut through the ceiling. Marty wanted to do it, and it was an old beat-up building on the West Side that was kind of falling apart, so we took a chance. I drew a line where it should be, the grips took chainsaws and they cut it! And it worked. They had to brace the outsides of the building so the structure wouldn’t collapse, but it worked.” —Michael Chapman: Cinematographers, in the Traditional Sense, Are a Dying Breed

 
Legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman discusses his work on Taxi Driver.

 
“Actor Robert De Niro (as Travis Bickle) practicing with his guns in front of the mirror are the most famous shots/scenes from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece, Taxi Driver. What most people don’t know is that the interiors of Travis’s apartment and Iris’s room/apartment hallways were actually shot in the very same building, 586 Columbus Avenue. The building was condemned and it has long since been demolished. I own a couple of original contact sheets from the film, this one features some great poses of De Niro in front of the mirror in his apartment.” —Unseen photos from Taxi Driver

 
“There’s a ‘something big is fucking happening here’ vibe to Steve Schapiro’s photos. Kind of like those of Elvis backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show or the Beatles at Shea stadium, hell even FDR and Stalin and Churchill all huddled there together at Yalta. Something you catch in the eyes of the subjects that confirms that they know that you know there’s a game changing moment happening.” Steve Schapiro was the special photographer on the set of Taxi Driver, capturing the film’s most intense and violent moments from behind the scenes. This book—more than a film still book but a pure photo book on its own—features hundreds of unseen images selected from Schapiro’s archives, painting a chilling portrait of a deranged gunman in the angry climate of the post-Vietnam era. —Taschen Books

 
Although mostly forgotten nowadays, Neon was a short-lived and, in our opinion, perhaps the best UK film magazine there has ever been.

 
Behind the camera on the set of Taxi Driver. A great collection of photos by still photographers Josh Weiner & Paul Kimatian. Special photography by Steve Shapiro © Columbia Pictures, Bill/Phillips, Italo/Judeo Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations:

Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in

Spread the love