What can be said about the greatest film of the 1970s American independent film movement and quite possibly of all time? More importantly, what can be said that hasn’t already been said better in countless pieces by the late, great Pauline Kael. To try and explain the cultural importance, tenacity and cinematic panache of Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece would only serve in a free form rambling, stream of consciousness rant that could carry on until sometime in the middle of next week. Instead, what I can offer is what Marty’s masterwork has always meant to me.
Now growing up I watched all sorts of movies. As every child of my generation did (or should) I loved Star Wars, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Dick Tracy, The Naked Gun, Mel Brooks, everything that Spielberg touched. As a kid my parents rented movies from Blockbuster all the time and would always take the family out to see the major box office hits, i.e. Jurassic Park, Last Action Hero, Super Mario Bros. Of course, everything I had seen was probably released between the early 80s and the present day 90s.
Two things helped cause my evolution from movie goer to film buff. First off I began reading MAD magazine at age 11. The back issues included an entire history of films I had never seen nor heard of before, parodied to the highest order and delivered scene by scene in 4 to 7 pages of amazing caricatures. At that time I had heard of The Godfather but knew very little about its three acts until I read “The Oddfather” over and over again. Also at age 11 my computer teacher and editor of the school newspaper that I began writing movie reviews for gave me a CD-ROM (remember those?) called Cinemania 95. This was like an encyclopedia of all movies from the silent era to 95, complete with plot synopsis, biographies on actors and clips from the most important of films. This would be my first introduction to movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The 39 Steps and Chinatown.
Now here is where my education really kicks in. Freshman year of high school my dad would drive me to school every morning. After dropping the younger sibling and cousins off at elementary school my dad and I would have a solid 15 minutes of bonding time. We usually spent this time discussing movies. I would ask him about the films I had not seen and was sometimes deemed “too young” to see. I asked him about Scarface and he described moment for moment the chainsaw scene. He told me about Once Upon a Time in America and Donnie Brasco. He told me about The Night Porter and Russ Meyer’s Supervixens. I remember asking endless questions about Taxi Driver. He told me of its premise and I’d say “So is it a revenge movie?” He’d be like, “No not exactly”. I’m then all “is it a horror movie?” “Well, no…but he is a psychopath.” “Dad, then what the fuck is this movie?” “You just have to see it.”
I first saw Taxi Driver the night that I purchased my first three DVDs. They were Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and I believe Airplane!. I had never seen the first two but by the next day they would be among my top 3 favorites of all time. The first thing that drew me into Taxi Driver was the score. Bernard Herrmann’s mellifluously disenchanted score (eerily recorded right before his death) pushes the atmosphere of the film to the highest level. The use of saxophone is instantly heartbreaking and will forever be synonymous with long, lonely nights. The gritty harp figures over the first images of a taxi cab emerging through the fog is breathtaking.
The film is, in a nutshell, the story of a taxicab driver who’s sick in the head and goes on a killing rampage. The catch is, it may be the only first person narrative of a psycho killer in which you ARE the psycho killer. Anyone who has ever grown up in the ghetto can relate to Travis Bickle. Anyone who has ever felt lonely can relate to Travis Bickle. Anyone who has ever been outcast by a group of friends or a society can relate to Travis Bickle. If the cruel hand of fate has ever touched you then you have certainly edged the mentality of Travis Bickle. Whether you liked it or not. You may have not been on the verge of killing someone but you may have had “some bad ideas”.
Whats more, the film has you see through the eyes of a racist. The images of young black teens harassing the whores on the street. The image of two black pimps sitting at a table looking stoic. These moments are shot in a way that’s intimidating because Travis Bickle himself is also intimidated. Then the moment comes when we see Travis’ co-worker, a cabbie who is also black, and we instantly get a weird vibe. Even though there is nothing to prove anything sinister is going on! By this scene, midway through the movie, the audience have become perhaps unconsciously a little racist. Now the racism issue would almost become a crippling factor in the film if it wasn’t for the emergence of the pimp Sport (played by Harvey Keitel) in the film’s third act. In fact everyone that meets their end in the final bloody shoot-out is white.
Another genius move to Paul Schrader’s script is the conflict of motivations for Travis. When we first see Travis and he does his rant about “the whores, skunk pussies, dopers, junkies” this could almost be like a monologue in a cop movie or a noir piece. Scenes like the older man and the young black prostitute climbing into the back of Bickle’s cab for a quickie or the angry husband (played by Martin Scorsese) who plans to kill his wife and her lover with a .44 Magnum gives us enough of a view of Travis’s world to realize Travis Bickle has every reason to hate. Even his first moments with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) are sympathetic. Sure he’s a little forward and a bit socially awkward but you can tell he means well.
But then the date comes and Travis tries taking Betsy to a porno movie and you know there is something more than off with this man. The following confrontation at her work place reveals that Travis has made Betsy his last attempt at a normal life. From then on out he begins planning. Planning to kill. Kill whom? At first the motivation is Charles Palentine the Presidential candidate. But then he shoots a young black man robbing a convenience store. Then his focus shifts back to Palentine. Then its to young Iris (played by Jodie Foster) and her pimp Sport. By the third act, when Bickle emerges in the city streets with a newly shaved Mohawk, your not sure just whom he’s gonna kill. The security around Palentine’s campaign is too great and Bickle chooses to go trigger happy on the unsuspecting Sport and his fellow pushers. The act is seen as heroic in the newspapers, young Iris is reunited with her family, and even Betsy has given Bickle a second chance. But audiences who have been on the journey know the truth. Travis Bickle just wanted to kill. Period.
Despite the intensity of the subject matter the film is also quite hilarious. In fact I feel if you were taping an audience watching Taxi Driver you would swear they were watching a comedy. They’re are many darkly funny moments: from Bickle hitting on the cashier at the porno theater to Scorsese’s rant on the .44. “Do you know what a .44 magnum would do to a woman’s pussy?” And the dialogue exchanges between fellow cabbies like The Wizard (played by the great Peter Boyle) or between Betsy and her co-worker Tom (played by my idol, Albert Brooks) are comedic gold.
The best way to close this post is with a legendary Hollywood story of Martin Scorsese and Taxi Driver. Its my favorite Hollywood legend ever. It perfectly gives an insight into what makes this film my favorite of all time. And no one tells the tale better than Quentin Tarantino. Enjoy.