Taxi Driver at 35

In the 1970s, New York (and Martin Scorsese) were a lot sleazier and scarier…

by Philip Matthews

“I spent the summer of 1975 in a top-floor apartment on 107th Street, where at night the windows were lit by the glow of fires along Amsterdam Avenue. A sanitation strike was in progress, and mounds of refuse, reeking in the heat, decorated the curbs of every neighborhood, not excepting those whose houses were manned by doormen. Here, though, instead of being double-bagged in plastic, they were simply set on fire every night. The spectacle achieved the transition from apocalyptic to dully normal in a matter of days.” – Luc Sante, from “My Lost City”, New York Review of Books, 2003.

In that same summer of 1975, Martin Scorsese shot Taxi Driver on the streets of New York – mostly the night city, wet with rain, steaming hot, lit by red lights and the marquees of porno cinemas and peep shows. His taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), complains of headaches from the stench, something I took as a metaphor the first few times I saw the movie – some manifestation of his racism and general moral confusion about the libidinous city – until I read about the garbage strikes. Travis famously goes all over the city, so while we never actually see the glow of garbage fires along Amsterdam Avenue they must be somewhere in Scorsese’s apocalyptic diagnosis.

Thirty five years on, Taxi Driver is as much memorial as movie. Many will have formed their ideas about New York from this film and have probably been disappointed to find that Times Square was cleaned up for the tourists years ago, just as the wider city has been “colonised by prosperity” (as Luc Sante put it) in the decades since. Websites such as this one: ) show that the degraded East 13th Street tenement where the 12-year-old hooker Iris (Jodie Foster) entertained clients in a room that – heartbreakingly – mixed cathouse furnishings with a young girl’s pop-star posters is “a seemingly well-maintained walk-up rental apartment building”. And so on: the taxi garages are gone, the all-night café is gone. The city of sleaze survives only in Michael Chapman’s legendary shooting – Godardian, on the run – of New York night-time exteriors.

Sleazy city? Not 100 per cent. If you peer into the film’s darkness, you see that not every movie showing in New York in the hot summer of 1975 was a porno: across the road from the site of Travis’ failed date with Betsy (“No, no, this is a movie that lots of couples come to, all kinds of couples”) a marquee advertises Clint Eastwood’s freshly-released The Eiger Sanction. Much later, in a city-at-night montage, we catch a glimpse of a marquee for a Charles Bronson film, Mr Majesty.

One a vigilante film, one an assassin film – otherwise a steady diet of porn. Were the Bronson and Eastwood titles deliberate choices by Scorsese, as ways of commenting on Travis’ descent, or did they just happen to be in shot? Either way, they remind us that Taxi Driver wasn’t as sui generis as it seems now, but sat within a group of sometimes overlapping traditions, or low-brow genres: the vigilante film, the assassination film, the Vietnam vet film, even blaxploitation.

One harsh but not entirely unfair summary of Taxi Driver is to see it as a Death Wish or a Magnum Force elevated by Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader’s movie-quoting artistry and, especially, by De Niro’s weird mix of naivete and charisma. One of the film’s great cons is to let a character with thoughts like the ones Travis has come across as a saintly innocent in the unholy city (among the things Travis says he knows nothing about: politics, movies, music). Would Taxi Driver seem quite so desperate and touching if Travis had been played by an ugly, middle-aged man – Charles Bronson, say – with the same racist and misogynist ignorance? Hardly.

Make no mistake, I think this film is a masterpiece – my favourite of the regularly agreed-on five-film pantheon of Scorsese greatness (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Goodfellas). But it is also a deeply uncomfortable and ambivalent one. Both its success and its difficulty come from a never repeated four-way collaboration: Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro worked together on other films; the fourth element was composer Bernard Herrmann, a link that went back to the Hollywood of the 1940s (his scores for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) through eight collaborations with Hitchcock (including Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest and The Wrong Man – the last of those was also one of Scorsese’s models for Taxi Driver’s shooting style).

For critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Herrmann’s last two major scores, for Brian de Palma’s Obsession and Taxi Driver, gave the films “so much formal, emotional and thematic shape that the usual rule of music serving as accompaniment often seems reversed, and the images, dialogue and sound effects seem to accompany the scores” (from Essential Cinema, 2004).

Rosenbaum saw the Herrmann score for Taxi Driver as dominated by two themes – one he dubbed “heaven” and one he dubbed “hell”. The “heaven” theme is the romantic alto sax melody that sounds like it could have come from a much older, more upbeat New York movie; the “hell” theme is percussive and menacing. To me, the second theme sounds like the headaches Travis says he experiences, which are also his feelings of frustration, intimidation and rage (“I’ve got some bad ideas in my head”). Its repetition in the film’s very last moments is the surest expression of Schrader’s idea that Travis is by no means “cured”; indeed, the cycle will repeat.

Travis’ first line of dialogue is “I can’t sleep nights”. He’s awake so he might as well drive a cab. He is 26. He got an honourable discharge from the Marines, after his tour in Vietnam. He says nothing about his education or where he comes from. He writes home – but where is home? De Niro studied midwestern accents. The hunch is that Travis came from the same kind of middle-America as Schrader, the intellectual movie nut who had a strict Calvinist upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a boy, movies were part of the fallen world (he told interviewer Kevin Jackson that he saw Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld in Wild in the Country and “realised why my mother didn’t want me to see movies”).

Schrader moved to Los Angeles, began reviewing movies and then writing them. Taxi Driver was written in 10 days in 1972 – the first draft in seven days, then three days for the rewrite – and its autobiographical basis is well-known:

“At the time I wrote it I was very enamoured of guns, I was very suicidal, I was drinking heavily, I was obsessed with pornography in the way a lonely person is, and all those elements are upfront in the script. Obviously, some aspects are heightened – the racism of the character, the sexism.” (from Schrader on Schrader by Kevin Jackson, 1990)

In fact, the racism was even more heightened in the original screenplay than the finished film – the character of Sport (played by Harvey Keitel) was to be black as were Travis’ other victims. Schrader: “Everyone said, no, we just can’t do this, it’s an incitement to riot; but it was true to the character.” Another key change: amazingly, this most New York of stories was originally written for Los Angeles and only shifted east because Manhattan has more cab drivers (Schrader went on to make LA sin city in Hardcore and American Gigolo).

For Schrader, Taxi Driver was just one of a series of “man in a room” films that continued with American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and The Walker, a series that is indebted to Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket (he was also reading Sartre’s Nausea). Schrader’s rational, schematic take on loneliness and morality is at odds with the vibrant, violent expressionism of the Scorsese style (after seeing Taxi Driver, a Catholic father said to Scorsese, “I’ve always told you, ‘Too much Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday’”, according to Richard Schickel’s just-published book Conversations with Scorsese).

Besides the long days in a dark room with Dostoevsky, there was another, more topical influence. In the summer of 1972, the 21-year-old Arthur Bremer shot and paralysed US presidential aspirant George Wallace. Travis Bickle’s tracking of fictional senator Charles Palantine is closely modeled on the Bremer story; Bremer’s loner diaries – “to do something bold and dramatic, forceful and dynamic” – even sound like Travis’ voice-overs (whereas lines like “I’m God’s lonely man” are much more Paul Schrader than Travis Bickle). But two plot points in Taxi Driver soften the edges of the Bremer parallel, or at least offer murky versions of motivation: Travis’ decision to go after Palantine follows his rejection by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a Palantine campaign worker; Travis is initiated into gun lore and extreme misogyny by Scorsese himself, when the director cameos as the passenger with the horrific speech about .44 Magnums.

By linking his descent with romantic rejection, Scorsese and Schrader made Taxi Driver the ultimate film of young male exclusion (to paraphrase: she was cold and distant – like the rest of them). To a core of the audience, what follows has its own logic. In Conversations with Scorsese, the director talks about films that get young men at an impressionable age, films of unexamined antisocial impulses – for his generation, John Ford’s The Searchers, for Leonard DiCaprio’s generation, Fight Club. A Clockwork Orange would be another. Scorsese could have added Taxi Driver.

Understanding that sense of exclusion is crucial, as Scorsese says in Conversations with Scorsese: “With Taxi Driver, we really tapped into the idea of not being one of the group, not being part of anything. I remember Bob De Niro giving a speech at the first Tribeca Film Festival a few years ago, in which at the end he said, I’ve always wanted to belong, and now I feel I do … In Taxi Driver, we didn’t have to say what it was about, why we were connected with it, why we felt we had to make this picture.”

At which point, Richard Schickel says, “Wait a minute, this guy’s a psycho. Or isn’t he?” You can almost detect his alarm on the page.

If the antisocial impulses of Taxi Driver were softened by De Niro’s humour and charisma, they were elevated by Schrader and Scorsese’s cinephilia. The Searchers was key, as were films by Hitchcock, Welles, Godard, Bresson, Antonioni (that corridor telephone shot) and others. John Thurman’s essay “Citizen Bickle” is an excellent resource on this point.

Marlon Brando’s scene with a mirror in Reflections in a Golden Eye was an influence on De Niro’s famous “you talkin’ to me” improvisation. This is the other way in which Taxi Driver is now a memorial: it marks a high point of the new Hollywood, when film-literate directors were both rehabilitating old Hollywood and picking up inspiration from Europe.

As his detailed film history documentaries have showed, everything is movies in Scorsese-world. The Taxi Driver chapter of Conversations with Scorsese opens with a discussion of his immigrant family, in movie terms – his mother’s side was just like the Visconti film La Terra Trema whereas his dad’s was more like Rocco and His Brothers.

Just as Humbert Humbert in Lolita expresses himself through purloined literature, the film quotes in Taxi Driver might “work as a commentary on the depth of Travis’ madness,” Thurman writes. “For Travis, even if he does so unconsciously, can only relate to his own life by making reference to films.” The most troubling of all would be his identification with Ethan Edwards, the anti-hero and Civil War veteran played by John Wayne in The Searchers.

There is some history. Scorsese’s first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), includes a scene in which Harvey Keitel tries to seduce a girl he meets on the Staten Island ferry with a speech about The Searchers. Scorsese in Conversations with Scorsese:

“I think that what happened was that somehow I related to the John Wayne character in The Searchers because of the darkness of his character – how he was exposing his racism, exposing his own inner conflicts, and yet he was a hero … There are elements in Harvey’s character that I’d say line up directly with Ethan in The Searchers. There’s no doubt about it. And the guilt, whatever the hell Ethan is hiding in himself, whatever he did in that war – he can’t stand himself anymore.”

So in the last third of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle more or less re-enacts The Searchers: his plan to rescue Iris from Sport is a version of Ethan Edwards’ quest to find his niece, kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Hence the moment when Sport – in long hair and Indian headband – mocks Travis as “cowboy”.

If you thought that the famous Travis Bickle Mohawk that follows was also a nod to these Indian references you wouldn’t be alone, but in Conversations with Scorsese, the director names a different source: “He [Travis] comes from a Special Forces Unit, in Vietnam. I had a friend, who went to school at NYU with me, who was in Special Forces … Their haircuts looked to me like Mohawks. That’s how we came up with the idea of that haircut.”

Interestingly, there are no references to Vietnam in Schrader’s 1990 discussion of the film in Schrader on Schrader. I noticed just one dialogue reference in the film itself (although a couple of Travis’ fellow cabbies call him “killer” – before we have seen him kill anyone). It’s all visual: as Travis descends into madness, he reverts back to looking like a soldier. But given the overtness of the war-damage films that followed in the late 70s and 1980s – The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, First Blood, Born on the Fourth of July – the theme is underplayed (war damage was also the subject of the startling 1972 documentary Winter Soldier but that was suppressed for years). You can understand Taxi Driver without any sense that Travis has been in Vietnam.

It’s even possible that the war backstory has grown for Scorsese over the years, far beyond what actually appears on screen. Again from Conversations with Scorsese, in response to Richard Schickel’s question about whether Travis is a psycho:
“He comes out of Vietnam. We don’t know what happens to people in a war. Give a 17-year-old kid a gun, get him into a battle situation, God knows what happens to him. You know, what makes a hero? Is there such a thing as a hero? I don’t know. I never went to war, never had that kind of experience.”

Schrader is probably an even better analyst of films than Scorsese although neither of these guys has exactly led an unexamined life (cue that darkly funny Taxi Driver voice-over line, “I don’t believe one should devote his life to morbid self-reflection”). It might be that war and atrocity was very much on Scorsese’s mind when Schickel talked to him, as he was then in pre-production on Shutter Island.

Opening shots aside – the taxi coming out of the steam like a ghost carriage; the ferry emerging from the Boston Harbour fog – Taxi Driver and Shutter Island are very different films. Based on a Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island is more generic. It presents itself as a puzzle in the manner of Inception, Memento or a M Night Shyamalan film – one of those “when did you click?” movies. It lays its gothic and noir references on thick – instead of screening Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man for cast and crew, Scorsese ran Out of the Past and talked about Jacques Tourneur – and it uses an asylum setting and 1950s representations of mental illness for a phantasmagoric wild goose chase.

Everyone that Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets offers him a fresh chunk of exposition, culminating in an unquestionably ludicrous scene in which a doctor played by Ben Kingsley arranges meaningful anagrams on a whiteboard. Watch it after Taxi Driver and you’ll be pleased that Scorsese didn’t put war flashbacks or dream sequences in the earlier film.

And yet Shutter Island has had its defenders, Richard Brody (The New Yorker’s Front Row column) and Graham Fuller (Sight and Sound) among them. Set in 1954, it makes a serious attempt to come to grips with that era’s atmosphere, even if just through movies: nuclear fear, communist brainwashing scares, drugs and lobotomies, World War II’s aftermath, Nazi atrocities. All of this sloshes around in the head of Teddy Daniels and up and down the gloomy, claustrophobic shock corridors of the war-haunted asylum (built during the Civil War and now housing some WWII veterans).

One of the chief fears to circulate on the island is that the US military is working on consciousness-altering techniques to create “ghost” soldiers. As one of the phantasms explains to Teddy, “Fifty years from now, people will look back and say, here, this place is where it all began.” Fifty years from then, of course, is 2004. In Conversations with Scorsese, there is an elaboration of another dimension to the story. As Scorsese says: “From what I understand he [Dennis Lehane] did it based on his anger at the time of the Iraq war … Basically he said, What was the worst period for paranoia? He looked back and everything seemed to converge in McCarthyism.” And then – spoiler alert, by the way – “How do we expect men to live like this, when they come back from war? How many men have come back from Iraq and killed their wives?”

In Conversations with Scorsese, a film called Silence is the great unmade, personal project, much as The Last Temptation of Christ was in the 1980s. It concerns two Jesuit priests in feudal Japan. There is a sense that the four Di Caprio films have not fully satisfied Scorsese even if they have satisfied the box office (Shutter Island) and the Oscar voters (The Departed). Indeed, he says that the only film he has made in recent years that has satisfied him completely is the Bob Dylan doco No Direction Home.

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a Scorsese feature from the past decade or so as much as I’ve enjoyed the documentaries – besides No Direction Home, there was My Voyage to Italy. There are fewer commercial compromises, a greater sense of personal obsession. The 2008 Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light is somewhere between the two – he was commissioned by the band and the documentary aspect was limited. But there is a funny way in which the Stones film shines a new light on Scorsese now and Scorsese then.

Oddly, this was the first Scorsese film since Bringing Out the Dead to be set in contemporary New York – the Stones performed at the Beacon Theatre before a crowd that included not just Bill Clinton but Hilary Clinton’s mum (have you seen your mother-in-law, baby … ). Sure, that’s an easy symbol of the taming and gentrification of rock’s ancient rebellious impulses and the Stones show is slick, energetic, nostalgic, well-shot and largely predictable. But in odd ways, the concert is another memorial to the old New York of Taxi Driver. The two albums the Stones draw on the most – and I don’t know if this is typical of them now – are Exile On Main St and Some Girls. The first is the record that the critical group-mind anointed as the best years ago; the second is their New York album, or their album of New York sleaze and danger. The key song is “Shattered” – the crime rate’s going up and up, the town’s in tatters. It was apparently written in the back of a New York taxi cab in 1977: you get the power blackouts, the Son of Sam, the tenements and garbage fires. The sleazoid metropolis is a museum exhibit now, safe to sing about in the same city that inspired it, but it is still devastatingly present any time you watch Taxi Driver.

The 2011 New Zealand International Film Festival includes a new print of Taxi Driver: Auckland from July 14, Wellington from July 29, Dunedin from August 4, Christchurch from August 11. See : www.nzff.co.nz