Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

22Mar10

When presidential candidate Senator Palantine steps into the yellow cab of Travis Bickle in New York, he asks him what the one issue is that he would want to be solved. Travis’ reply is that the streets of his city are like an open sewer; they have an awful stench to them, and someone should come and clean them up. We know from Travis’ private monologues in the form of voiceovers, however, that he’s not referring to a problem with New York’s domestic waste management. The bad smell and pollution comes from the people themselves, or as he puts it, ‘the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit.’ Travis is an angry man. He’s a madman. Taxi Driver tries to give us an insight into why he thinks as he does, and consequently becomes a powerful documentation of isolation and its resulting angst.

It can arguably be seen as an amalgamation of various pieces of literature projected onto the big screen: Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye and Wolfe’s essay titled God’s Lonely Man all seem to play a part. Travis is an ex-Marine Vietnam-vet turned insomniac. He figures 6 till 6 shifts taking people all over the five boroughs is the best way to spend his nights, and thus gets a job as a driver, cleaning up the come and blood off his back seats as he goes. Travis’ cab becomes a vehicle through which we see and explore the city, and in the same way that James Stewart’s reaction to his observations is so well photographed in Hithcock’s Rear Window, Scorsese also makes it his job to show us what Travis sees, and then his reaction to it.

What he sees is rarely anything other than the prostitutes and pimps hanging around midtown and Times Square, for however inquisitive and despising his looks towards these ‘lowlifes and degenerates’ are, he’s clearly fascinated by them, and returns time after time to refuel his fire of hatred. It thus becomes somewhat self-fulfilling, and almost paradoxical, too, for Travis spends his time off work watching cheap pornos in trashy cinemas. It’s hard to reconcile this with his disgust towards what he sees on the streets.

His frustration reaches its tipping point when he fails to interact well with a beautiful woman (whom he describes as an ‘angel’) on a date he managed to secure after a brief conversation with her. He clumsily takes her to the pornos. The subsequent call as he attempts to salvage the potential relationship is so tragic for Travis that we’re not allowed to see it: rather, we only listen, and instead watch the corridor next to the phone box, as his isolation deepens.

This failed interaction reinforces Travis’ loneliness and furthers the irony of his living: he is surrounded by people 24/7, and yet fails to connect with anyone. His blood boils. He stands up and refuses to take it anymore. He resorts to vigilantism.

Thus, after getting back into the physical shape he was in during the war, and after kitting himself out with an entire arsenal of weapons, he plans their concealment through the use of the mechanism that allows clothes drawers to move backwards and forwards. This is somehow attached to his arm, so he can slide a gun down in a second. He practices in front of a mirror, playing out how the scenes with the scum bags will go. The most quoted of these is Robert De Niro’s improvisation, ‘you talkin’ to me?’ which was apparently inspired by the shout outs in Springsteen’s early concerts. He leaves his dump of an apartment and shoots a Negro shoplifter dead, before moving on to a bigger project: the saving of a 13 year old prostitute from her misogynistic pimp; the former played by the 13 year old Jodie Foster, the latter by Harvey Keitel.

Travis’ decline into insanity is stunningly well shown, especially when he attends a political rally with assassination in mind and the camera pans up from his folded arms to reveal a new mohawk hairstyle. It’s horrifying, as his rampage continues. And Taxi Driver ends with what might be hallucinatory on Travis’ part (we do see everything from his perspective), or what might be reality: news clippings on his wall are scanned across to reveal public support for his vigilantism, which is viewed as heroic bravery. Even the angel-woman he failed to relate to earlier on reappears and is accepting of him. I think this ending makes much more sense as a sort of psychological redemption and resolution on Travis’ part. He is a tortured soul, who we sympathise with for a long time. Taxi Driver is an insight into a man’s mind, and its portrayal of his frustration and battle to violently clean up the streets. It is widely hailed as a masterpiece now of classical status. Rightly so, for it is simply incredible.

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