WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘Taxi Driver.’
The year is 1976, and there are around 7.8 million people living in New York City. Travis Bickle – an embittered, lonely Veteran of the Vietnam War – regards them all through the filthy windows of his cab.
Everywhere he looks, from Times Square to East 13th Street by way of Park Avenue South, there are people, but to Travis, they may as well be characters in a movie. He is an outsider, alienated and angry, who views the world from the inside of a car. This is the taxi driver of Martin Scorsese’s movie, who drifts through the city in a clammy fever dream.
Taxi Driver is a dirty movie, not in the same way as the porn movies that Travis likes to watch in the run-down theaters of 42nd Street, but in its depiction of the grimy city. Scorsese shot the movie in the summer heat wave of 1975, during a trash-collection strike that left Manhattan mountainous with rotting garbage. “Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk,” says Travis. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”
In Travis’s world, the only clean things are his conscience and his driving licence. To him, everything else is disgusting, including his fellow New Yorkers. He finds them degenerate, railing against prostitution, homosexuality, and drug taking. When Travis talks about a cleansing rain, he means it biblically, apocalyptically. But he is not a religious fanatic—he just wants a purpose. His God exists only to give him the order to kill, just as his commanding officer did when Travis served as a marine in the Vietnam War.
God’s Lonely Man
Travis is lost in so many ways: he fought on the losing side in the war in Southeast Asia, and now he has lost his faith in the country that he was fighting for. Even his ability to sleep has deserted him. Most crucially, he has lost his way in life. “All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go,” he murmurs in his half-awake, half-dreaming narration, as he glides endlessly through the night in his taxi, taking others to their destinations. Travis’s eyes are glimpsed on-screen in the rear-view mirror, as though the audience are his passengers—but, like him, they have no idea where they are heading.
Travis determines to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute, from her pimp, Sport, whether she wants him to or not. By saving her, Travis can be the cleansing rain.
Ride through hell
From the opening moments of Taxi Driver, Scorsese invites the viewer into the tormented mind of this antihero, suggesting his character’s instability through chaotically arranged images and camera angles.
The first shot of the movie is a cloud of steam venting from the sewers, tinged by red neon light. It looks like brimstone rising from hell, and Travis’s cab appears suddenly in its midst, as if it is on a journey through the underworld. The car rolls across the screen, slowly, as though pulling up and asking the audience to step inside. On the sound track, the music swells and crashes. It’s a moment of dread that tells the audience- as-passenger exactly where it’s heading.
Finding A Cause
Betsy, a beautiful and self-assured young blonde, rejects Travis after he takes her to a porn movie on their first date. Travis reacts badly, sending Betsy flowers afterward and harassing her at work, but then he turns his attention to another cause: a 12-year-old prostitute called Iris (Jodie Foster), who is every bit as confident as Betsy—and equally uninterested in being saved by Travis. But Travis gives her no choice in the matter.
Travis happens upon a hold up in a store and shoots the robber dead. The store owner covers for Travis, advising him to leave the scene because he does not have a gun licence. Travis sees that this killing, his first act of “cleansing,” is gratefully received. Now he dons the combat gear, shaves his head into a mohawk, and sets out to enact vengeance on Iris’s pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), in what turns out to be a horrific bloodbath. Inside Travis’s head, the storm breaks—the real rain has come at last.
You Talkin’ to Me?
The cinematography of Travis’s rampage is hallucinogenic in its contrasting colors and unnerving angles, as though the movie is now descending fully into unreality. Like the opening shot of the steam, with the cab emerging through it, and Travis’s mumbled narration, the climax of the movie appears to take place in a nightmare world. Scorsese has often talked about movies existing at the intersection of dreams and reality, and this is where he takes the audience.
A dreamy coda to the slaughter, in which Travis survives and becomes a tabloid hero, has been interpreted as his dying fantasy. Whether real or imagined, it is Travis’s longed-for moment in the spotlight. Writer Paul Schrader sees the end as taking the audience back to the beginning, and so Travis drives away, but neither he nor the world has been cured.
MARTIN SCORSESE: Director
“My whole life has been movies and religion,” Martin Scorsese once said. “That’s it. Nothing else.” He was born a Catholic in Queens, New York, in 1942, and movies have become for him a religion in themselves, an art form to revere and treasure.
Scorsese studied film at New York University. He directed his first feature, I Call First, in 1967. Since then, his output has been diverse, from gritty urban thrillers to grand historical dramas, paying homage to screen classics.
Religion finds its way into most of his movies, most notably The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997). He also has another great passion: New York City, the subject of so much of his work, from his first major success, Mean Streets, to Gangs of New York.
His next film is The Irishman, starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci and is planned for release in October 2019.
ROBERT DE NIRO: Actor
Robert De Niro has starred in more than 90 movies, eight of them directed by Martin Scorsese. He rose to fame playing the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II, and soon won a reputation for his dedicated approach to researching his roles. His preparation for Scorsese’s Raging Bull became legendary after he gained 60 lb (27 kg) to play the boxer Jake LaMotta.
For the first three decades of his career, De Niro specialized in the portrayal of misfits, outsiders, and violent, unpredictable personalities, from Corleone and Travis Bickle to Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987) and Max Cady, the stalker in Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991). More recently he has played gentler, less volcanic roles, and has diversified into comedy.