Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)
You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here.
Every now and then, I like to check a classic movie that’s lucky enough to get shown on the big screen again. This summer I was lucky enough to catch Taxi Driver shown on the big screen. It’s one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films and it was a delight to see it on the big screen. It reminded me how much I missed the first time. Especially of its purpose at the time it was out.
The film is about Travis Bickle: a Vietnam marine honorably discharged who came to New York City from New Jersey to make a living for himself. He takes a job as a taxi driver and his job involves dealing with a lot of dirty work in the city as he’s often taken to the rubbish areas of the City.
He makes an attempt to win the love of a woman named Betsy who volunteers for presidential candidate Charles Palantine. His attempts are not that successful as he buys her a Kris Kristofferson album she already owns and takes her to a movie theatre showing a Swedish sex education film. She leaves the theatre immediately. Travis tries visiting the Palantine campaign office to win her back but is unsuccessful. Though he senses a hint she may still have feelings for him.
Two moments during his cabbie job change Bickle. One day he’s lucky enough to drive Charles Palantine when he comes to NYC. He tells Palantine he’s a supporter and wants him to clean up this town. Another case is when a child prostitute named Easy enters his car to evade her pimp Sport only to be taken away by him. Despite it being brief, he can’t forget her.
Throughout the time in NYC, Travis is lonely and disheartened to see how trashy of a city NYC has become. He’s completely disgusted and he feels he might snap any minute but his fellow cabbies believe he’ll be alright. However he goes out and purchases illegal guns from a dealer named Easy Andy, sets up some personal gun mechanisms and even rehearses what he’s about to say when confronted. On that day, he goes to a store where a robbery happens and he shoots the robber dead.
He has a chance meeting with Easy. He pays money for her but he’s not interested in sex with her despite Easy coming onto him. Instead he has a frank talk with her in a café during breakfast. He learns Easy is not simply some sleazy young teen girl but a young naïve teen runaway named Iris Steensma. He wants to take her out of the prostitution business but she is disinterest, or maybe afraid of Sport.
The following day, Travis has a letter for Iris with money in the envelope. He believes it will be a death wish. However Sport gets a hold of the letter and gives the money to Iris’ next customer. Travis attends a public rally led by Palantine telling the people of New York what he has planned. Travis appears with a Mohawk haircut and appears to attempt to assassinate Palantine but is able to run away.
Then he goes to the hotel where he knows is Sport’s brothel. He approaches Sport, asks one question, and shoots him. Sport survives but Travis is after the bouncer and Mafioso in Sport’s ring in order to free Iris. Travis shoots all three dead but is unable to shoot himself in the end like he intended to. Travis recovers from his coma of three months returning to his job. Iris is back home with her parents whom they consider Travis a hero. The film ends with Travis giving Betsy a ride, leaving us to question what will happen next.
The film rested mostly on the character of Travis Bickle. We have a Vietnam vet trying to reassimilate himself back into daily life. He possesses a set of values and beliefs but his uncoothed attitude causes a lot of social interference with those around him. On top of it, he’s disgusted with what he sees in New York City. He comes across a man who’s about to snap any minute and he knows it. However you wonder when he will snap. We think it will be an assassination the Palantine speech where he could have died a bad guy. Instead he takes a shot at redemption: one that he felt would cost him his life but didn’t. It almost made you feel like he was about to become a martyr figure but is given a second chance in life. It does seem like when Betsy quotes the lyrics from the Kris Kristofferson song The Pilgrim, she’s setting up for what Travis is about to become.
It’s the prostitute Easy/Iris whom changes him and is able to bring about a positive human side of him few notice, including himself. He knew his duty was to free Easy from Sport or whoever else got in his way and it might mean his life but he was willing to do it. He just needed the right motive to do it. He just asked Sport for Iris and he didn’t know who he was talking about. That was all the motive Bickle needed. You often wonder why he did it. For himself? For Iris? To redeem himself in the eyes of Betsy?
Somehow I think Scorsese is trying to make a certain statement with this film. Throughout the movie we see images of Charles Palantine running for president and promising to clean up New York. However it was Bickle who did a small deed of ending crime involving a teenager in a single act. I believe Scorsese had something to say about politicians which he wanted to say through Bickle but it didn’t entirely make sense. We see Bickle dating Betsy who volunteers for Palantine’s campaign, Bickle having Palantine posters in his bedroom, Bickle driving Palantine and even speaking his support to him but we also see Bickle fake what appears to others as an assassination attempt. It’s obvious the message of politicians being cowards who are all talk was the message of that but it surprised me how Bickle would pull that on a candidate he appears to support. He’s even seen after his recovery with Palantine posters. Hard to understand.
Without a doubt, this is one of Scorsese’s best films. It still tells a story that captures people’s intrigue and lets people interpret their own version of the story. It still causes a lot of debate on what certain scenes mean and what the film is all about. One film expert claims the film is about the decline of New York coinciding with the decline of the male hero at the time. Good points. One person even stated how Bickle goes from human trash to almost like a saint-like figure.
No doubt the film was controversial in its time. It would still make people uncomfortable today. The violence however got a lot of people talking. However it’s nothing compared to the violence of movies throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Those movies went all out. Nevertheless the violence here does resonate with you. Even the theme of an act of vigilantism being made heroic in people’s eyes makes one question Scorsese’s feelings of vigilantes. Also that scene where Easy comes onto Bickle after he pays her the money would definitely anger people today. People have less of a tolerance to scenes like that today than they did back in the 70’s.
The film has you asking a lot of questions as you leave the theatre. You wonder was such a shootout necessary to free Iris from Sport? Or was it a case where Bickle was a person bound to explode any minute and it turns out this was the right minute? Also was the incident with Palatine a case where it almost happened instead of ‘faking it’ like I thought it was? Still gets you questioning once you leave the theatre.
One thing a lot of young people would not understand is how Travis Bickle would be disgusted by what he sees out in New York City. Most of us under the age of 50 have grown up accepting the trashy side of our cities as a fact of life and we’ve even seen it turned into a culture via hip-hop music and shown on videos on MTV. However this was the mid-70’s and this trashiness wasn’t as accepted. In fact, it was disheartening. I’m sure Travis represented the disgust seen by many people of how a great city can turn into a trashbin and how buildings that used to be lovely and elegant could turn into dirty places of sleaze. I’m sure that was a common feeling of many from the city. The thing is Bickle is a character who had just moved to the city. Often when I hear Bickle’s disgust of what happened to the city, I think I’m actually hearing Scorsese’s disgust. Scorsese was born and raised in the NYC area and I’m sure what Travis Bickle was seeing was stuff that was breaking Martin’s heart about the city he had always known and loved, until then.
The film is Martin’s. He does a good job of creating a melodrama that’s bound to reach a big climax any moment and you know it will come with a bang. He does an excellent job in capturing the dirt of New York and try to make a redeeming figure of a misfit like Travis Bickle. Days ago, I heard some young people talk about film. They talked how there are no longer any good directors that do film making for the love of it. All for top of the box office. And they talked about directors like Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese who did it for the love it. I do agree with them. However I also believe that the 70’s was the heyday for visionary directors. Hollywood always was a case of top-of-the-box-office. Back in the 70’s, the counterculture crowd welcomed films that defied the rules of the Hays code and took new directions. That’s why Kubrick and Scorsese are considered legends. It’s not to say their spirit has been abandoned. I remember with the increase of film festivals in the 90’s, that spurned about directors of Quentin Tarantino and Lars von Trier who wanted to do their part in film making. Nowadays it doesn’t seem as present as most of the movie going public are more demanding in what they want. They don’t want to feel guilty about ignoring a unique talent or even liking a flavor-of-the month. We’ll see in time if more visionary directors come about.
The film’s excellence is also the result of scriptwriter Paul Schrader. He himself delivers a story that keeps us intrigued as well as allowing us to make our own assumptions of what the story is even after we leave the theatre. Also adding to the excellence of the film is Robert de Niro. He’s the one who has the best sense of who Travis Bickle is both inside and out and keeps us guessing. Also adding to the excellence is Jodie Foster. She plays a prostitute whom you know doesn’t belong on the streets and neither does Travis. Her role was an excellent performance for someone so young. Cybill Shepherd was also good as Betsy but her role was rather lightweight. Nevertheless she did give more to it. Finally a very fitting score from Bernard Herrmann. He already had an excellent resume in film compositions including Citizen Kane, The Day The Earth Stood Still and North By Northwest. Taxi Driver would be his last one before he died months later in 1975. The score is not the John Williams type of score you’d expect in a drama but it does capture the unhappy feeling of the film.
I’m sure Taxi Driver stands the test of time as one of the best thrillers ever. However I feel younger people may not get it. I do believe it’s a movie that still has a loyal following all these years and still maintains its original charm.