Retrospective Feature: Taxi Driver

Written by Rudolph Lambert Fernandez

Among Columbia Pictures’s movies in the 20th century, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is one of the last to bear their classic Lady and her torch logo. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a real-life lady transformed it, bringing a mere image to life. If you’re interested, the story behind the model and the portrait photographer behind that iconic photoshoot is here

As far as the studio was concerned, the Lady was meant to personify America and all she stood for, including – and especially – freedom. But her appearance in Scorsese’s classic is a curiously faltering farewell to a troubled and troubling America, that had just shaken clear of another war, in Vietnam. For as we gaze wistfully at her, fading into darkness in those first moments as Taxi Driver begins, we are overwhelmed by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and his taxi, representing our collective anxiety about our future, not just America’s. 

That first close-up is Travis’s taxi. At night. 

The second close-up is his creased brow. His eyes, scouring the streets. 

The third is his windshield. In driving rain. 

In under 60 seconds, cinematographer Michael Chapman’s ingenious shots and Bernard Herrmann’s inspired score sum up our foreboding, from not seeing, from not knowing, what’s right in front of us. Torch or not, headlights or no, utter aloneness, even in that most crowded of cities, New York. 

Michael Chapman and Martin Scorsese setting up a shot for Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won none. That it lost Best Picture to Rocky is no consolation to Scorsese die-hards, that it lost alongside All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory and Network is small consolation, that it won Best Picture at BAFTA and Palme d’Or at Cannes is some. Because Paul Schrader’s story is timeless. And Scorsese’s brooding film from 45 years ago speaks so lucidly to us today, about alienation, prejudice, identity and a lot more.

Scorsese leaves us alone with Travis as he steps out of his taxi. And, increasingly, into it. His taxi, a metaphor for himself, an increasingly weaponized identity, his way of looking at the world, at events, at people. His vision, increasingly fractured as the nights roll by. He sees the past (what and who’s behind him) in a tiny rear-view mirror. He sees who’s behind him, almost always, by looking in the opposite direction – in front! He sees all right. But mere fragments. Rarely the whole. He sees the future (what and who’s in front of him) in a slightly wider frame – his windshield. But his neck still strains to see around billboards, around people on sidewalks, around street corners. When he swivels back, hand at the wheel, to get a better look at his customers, he’s cut off. By float glass! He still sees. But hears only partially. He has to almost shout to be heard. And he has to try harder than they do. All protected in his cage of metal, he feels no less vulnerable, no less threatened – by nearly everyone. Like powder in a bullet, like a bullet in a barrel, just waiting, begging to be fired. Feeling all fake and phony, until he’s fired.

Fleetingly, Scorsese partakes in Travis’s obsession – the one in a white dress. You see a mid-thirties Scorsese gawking at her: the one who “appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess.’’ She, of course, is Betsy (a luminous Cybill Shepherd). 

Later, Scorsese reappears as a taxi passenger, estranged from his unfaithful wife, railing about retribution which he, naturally, sees in a Magnum .44. It’s as if a wry Scorsese is musing: Most of us are anxious travelers. Some sit in front and drive around, biding our time to mete out our brand of justice, others hop in the back and won’t hop off. Someone’s going to pay. Usually, someone else.

Martin Scorsese as Man in Cab with Travis (Robert De Niro).

As the movie unfolds Schrader’s searing script explains just how Travis “others’’, a little more each week: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.’’ 

Rain, a mourning motif, falls often. But it doesn’t wash away much.  It doesn’t change anyone. They’re still running around. Going nowhere. In a hurry. 

Travis insists that he doesn’t discriminate: “I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ‘em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me.’’ Except that it does. 

This othering, first in his head and later in conversation, eventually finds its extreme outpouring as he executes his fractured vision of reality, in confused violence. First, to protect (underage prostitute Iris, played by Jodie Foster). Then, to punish (her pimps). He is able to steer his taxi, but unable to steer himself. He careens out of control, colliding. With nearly everyone. That collision, an angry attempt at self-expression. His own little flag, his own little anthem, his own little torch. At once, defense and defiance. 

Taxi Driver is as much about the moral bankruptcy and myopia of big city folk as it is about the insecurity and fragile self-esteem of anxious folk everywhere, even those who snigger at big city folk. As much about the 1970s as about all ages. 

Like Travis, we’re aware of our capacity for social chaos and self-destruction, but dimly: “I got some bad ideas in my head.’’ 

Equally, we’re convinced that we’re crucial – perhaps indispensable – to the grand scheme of things: “One of these days I’m gotta get myself organized…From now on there will be 50 push-ups each morning…Now I see it clearly, my whole life is pointed in one direction, I see that now, there never has been any choice for me.’’

Taxi Driver asks questions of its characters, of you: What’s the name of the “scum’’ that you’re prepared to kill? What does he look like? Is he Black? Jew? An immigrant like you, only more recent? Richer? More educated, more privileged? Is he a drug-peddler? Is he a violent husband or pimp? Is he, actually, a “whorish” she? How far will you go, if the “rains’’ (law, lawmakers, law enforcers) don’t clean up? If someone else fires the gun for you, which crimes will you more readily pardon? 

Travis asks questions too. He wants to know who he’s protecting – he suspects he doesn’t know them well enough. He’s certain that he knows more than enough about those he’s punishing – pimps. Not satisfied with Betsy’s first name, he wants to know her second. Not content with the name Iris palms off to him, he wants to know her real name. Strangely, his neurosis feels natural.

Taxi Driver was released nearly a century after the statue of the other Lady and her torch was dedicated to America. Lady Liberty, surrounded, yet all “alone” in New York Harbor.

Betsy is, in some ways, the ultimate American dream. Too perfect. Ideal. Beyond reach.  “She……..is……….alone. They…….cannot…….touch…….her.’’ 

Iris is, in some ways, what you sometimes end up with. Sullied, but somehow kinder, more empathetic.

Taxi Driver is Schrader’s and Scorsese’s prophetic rebuke to misguided masculinity (toxic or incel or otherwise) long before it earned enough notoriety to be named. Women are not angels. Or whores. They’re women. As perfectly human – and therefore as imperfect – as men are.  

One of Travis’s most endearing exchanges isn’t with Betsy but with Iris. 

Jodie Foster (Iris) and Robert De Niro (Travis) in Taxi Driver.

Iris has just tried, unsuccessfully, to “service” him as a client. He’s just tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue her from prostitution altogether: 

Travis: Can I see you again? 

Iris (smirks): That’s not hard to do! 

Travis (in disgust): No, not like that. I mean regularly. This is nothing for a person to do. 

At one point he touches her cheek tenderly saying, “Sweet Iris!’’ and walks off. 

It’s where Travis breaks his mould of nut-job. We see him as more complex – part victim, even part saint. He appears conscious of a deep purity within him. He’s unprepared to let the filthy “street’’ or “sidewalk’’ tarnish him, beyond a point. The crushed dollar note one pimp throws at him, seems to be the very note he preserves and later hands to another pimp – wanting no part of their trade. When he spies traces of that purity outside himself, he’ll move heaven and earth to protect it. When he fails (with Betsy) he’s willing to try again (with Iris). 

Iris recognizes his effort, even if she can’t reward it. She’s touched by his clumsy attempt to rescue her and reassures him: “I understand………and it means something, really.’’ 

Like every kind of othering we know, Travis ends up othering himself. He tonsures his head, but not entirely. His mohawk-look disowns parts of him that he feels are impotent, weak, cowardly, but reclaims parts that are, at least aspirationally, omnipotent, strong, bold. He is both savior and saved. It is this essential purity that redeems Travis when he’s nearly killed by pimps, yet unable to kill himself. When he should be put away for murder, he’s celebrated as a hero, exonerated for saving the girl. Even with a fresh start later on, with every corner he turns, he seems condemned to search for someone new. To save? To be saved?

Schrader’s and Scorsese’s masterpiece salutes our agency as individuals, whether it’s fulfilled in activism or stillborn in apathy. They also gently warn about our relative ineptitude. After all, isn’t there such a thin line between messianic and muddling?

In 2016, at the 40th anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, cast and crew reunited to look back at the fun they’d had making the movie and the transformative impact everyone believes it had – on them, on filmmaking, on us. That night, Shepherd said, “The story and the film are very fresh. Nothing has aged about the film. The fact that we got this extraordinary cast and really unusual story. I don’t think any story has been told like that.”

Taxi Driver Trailer

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz | https://www.rudolphfernandez.com/

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