Forty years after it appeared on cinema screens Taxi Driver still ranks as one of the greatest films of cinema. Brutal and brilliant in its depiction of 1970s New York, the film has become an era-defining piece of work, for its director and for its lead actor. To look back at it over these four decades, is to realise that Taxi Driver still offers much to 21st century society, both as a comment on its time period and as a character study. The definitive 1976 film offers as much to audiences today as it did to audiences back then.
Three years after his first hit Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese reunited with young Robert DeNiro fresh off his Oscar win for The Godfather II. The task this time was to make a film about an isolated, socially inept man who turns to vigilantism in response to a city crawling with crime. Scorsese was returning to themes he had explored earlier in Mean Streets and themes he would explore throughout his career: masculinity in crisis, violence in the streets and Catholic inspired guilt and redemption. Mean Streets, for all of its positives, still feels like a film from a novice heavily inspired by French New Wave. Taxi Driver, however, was the signal of Scorsese coming-of-age. And what a film he made.
The circumstances of the creation of Taxi Driver are themselves incredible. The writer Paul Schrader supposedly kept his inspiration up by keeping a loaded gun next to him on the desk while he wrote. Many of the seedier scenes were themselves inspired by Schrader’s own life, when he was going through a lonely and depressed period. Robert De Niro got himself a cab driver’s licence and spent weeks driving a New York cab to get a feel for the part of Travis Bickle.
Like a dream, Scorsese weaves in film noir inspired neon imagery. For the cinematography alone this film should be appreciated but every part of it is masterful. Scorsese builds on this dreamlike state further through his classic use of narration and subjective, personal experiences of our anti-hero main character. We feel his insomnia too. In one scene Travis stares into a cup of water for so long that the conversation jumps ahead around him. Much of the film feels like the diary of a madman in the making. The music by Bernard Herrmann with its repeating saxophone solo layers the film with a sense of longing and loss. The acting from all quarters is superb, particularly solidifying De Niro as one of his generation’s best, and launching Jodie Foster as more than just another child star. This film is a perfect concoction.
The fact that Taxi Driver lost the Best Picture Oscar to Rocky might seem one of the greatest crimes the Academy has ever committed. Yet, perhaps, it is more understandable when you compare the feel good, life-affirming nature of Rocky against the depressing social realism of Taxi Driver. (You might call it a last laugh that on the AFI list of greatest films, Taxi Driver appears at 52, above Rocky which appears at 57.)
Scorsese examines and condemns, somewhat ironically, media and press obsession with violence and vigilantes. There is a thin line, Scorsese says, between heroes and villains in this world and Travis walks that tightrope. New York itself, Scorsese’s hometown, which is painted with such love in most of his films, is here presented as the ‘open sewer’ that Travis despises. There is an argument to be made that Scorsese is simply drawing us into Travis’ own view of things but his presentation of New York was not out of touch with the times. The city had almost declared bankruptcy the year before Taxi Driver came out and there was a sense that America’s largest city had hit rock bottom.
The aftermath of Vietnam and the general pessimism of the 1970s are clearly seen and heard in the film. Yet the grime covered, gritty, dirty New York that Scorsese captures so well is gone now. Regeneration and drops in crime in the 80s and 90s have made that New York disappear. So for a film so of its time what can Taxi Driver offer us today?
Perhaps the reason the film remains so compelling is that beyond all the social implications, it is one of the best, (if not the best), character studies ever put to film. A Vietnam veteran, Travis is a depressed, socially broken loner with little education and few social or cultural interests. He moulds the character of Betsy, played brilliantly by Cybil Shepherd, into a literal angel among the sinners of the rest of New York. Travis becomes like a dark or fallen angel, standing off against the rest of the world, his reality becoming increasingly unstable. Is he really a Vietnam veteran? If he is never able to sleep where do Travis’ dreams and reality begin and end?
In a scene Travis tells Peter Boyle’s Wizard of his fears and dark fantasies. It’s a cry for help but Wizard dismisses Travis in a similar way to how we imagine he’s been dismissed all of his life, telling him not to worry. As we see him go down the rabbit hole we sympathise with a man that scares us. Yet the most terrifying and enchanting part of the character is that there really were Travises out there. There are Travises today and there probably always will be.
With his immortal, incidentally improvised, line, “You talkin’ to me?”, Robert De Niro sums up the character of Travis perfectly. Nobody is talking to him; he’s talking but nobody is listening. Desperate and alone, it becomes clearer why Travis descends into the mad world that he does. All we can do is sit and watch and as the film ends we are never sure whether we are still in that dreamlike state or not. That is what the film offers us today, an incredible look at a life. We are only with the character for a few weeks but we learn all we need to.
Taxi Driver has lost none of its power to shock or entertain years later. Its comments on media obsession and violence still spark debate. Even more so, they remain relevant and pertinent to us in this new century. Most importantly, however, we are still gripped by the story of Travis Bickle and his dark, lonely world that Scorsese plunges us into.