Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars….sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There is no escape. I am God’s lonely man. – Travis Bickle.
A trait common to legendary filmmakers is that they (almost) always make movies, which though appearing great on the surface, reveal deeper meanings on closer inspection. This holds no less true for Taxi Driver. On a less concerned viewing it may appear only as an interesting documentation of a few days in the life of Travis Bickle, our Taxi Driver protagonist, with some of his obsessions becoming pivotal points in the story. However, on a closer look, we will discover, everything he does, consciously or subconsciously and every shot involving him, from his perspective or someone else’s, embodies a latent meaning in it. Meanings, which on certain occasions become apparent themselves and on other, demand deductive effort on our part.
If we consider any narrative approach familiar to us, we would definitely be able to recall at least few movies which employed them. For example, a character narrating the story in the form of flashbacks, stories unfolding as it happens without narration, etc. But think of this, how many movies can you recall with the narrative style similar to the one in Taxi Driver? That too, utilized this magnificently. The entire movie is one of the best examples of a first-person narrative that we have ever seen on celluloid.
Brian De Palma introduced Martin Scorsese to Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver . Schrader mentions in a video on the making of Taxi Driver that he was going through a tough time in his life when there came a phase where he realized that he hasn’t spoken to anyone in weeks. It was then that the idea of a man in a Taxi as a symbol of total isolation, occurred to him.
Taxi Driver is the story of a lonely cab driver and his slow descent into insanity. Except for one scene between Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster, the entire film is a materialization of the psychological state of our protagonist. Travis is a social misfit. Throughout the film, we hardly see him behave ‘normally’ whenever he engages himself in any form of social interaction. His incompatibility with other people affects his views of them and sometimes his views of all people. His negative assertions about the world around him are replaced by judgmental viewpoints after he faces rejection from Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful blonde woman working at the storefront office of a presidential candidate. A rejection so painful that the same woman who “appeared to him like an angel out of this filthy mass” is suddenly labeled as “cold and distant just like the others” by Travis himself.
Though we know Travis was in the Marines, he works long hours and can’t sleep at nights, we don’t know what is bothering him or the reason for his problems. Was he in the Vietnam war? Lets dig a little deeper. Long before Taxi Driver came out, Martin Scorsese in 1967 directed a 6 minute short film – The Big Shave. In that, the leading character shaves repeatedly removing his hair as well as his skin as part of the process, making the shave a bloody-messy affair. This was considered a metaphor for the self destructive approach of the US in Vietnam war. In Taxi Driver we find one explicit and few implicit references to the war. For example, a scene in the movie shows Presidential candidate Charles Palantine delivering a speech where Travis plays a mute observer in his cab. Palantine clearly states “We, the people, suffered in Vietnam” thus drawing a clear reference to the war. In Taxi Driver, Travis, much like the character of the man shaving in The Big Shave, takes a self destructive approach and does not back down despite being aware of the consequences.
More surprisingly, the first time we see Travis actually killing a man, the man trying to rob a store, Travis shows no uneasiness whatsoever while pressing the trigger. He shoots the man with total control. Is he accustomed to doing that as part of his job in Vietnam? We don’t know. The only thing we do know is that he has some sort of trauma, something that makes his own actions, a contradiction of his opinions. For example, Travis despises prostitutes, but he does not show any reluctance from entering a porno theater in the morning after 12 straight hours of driving a cab at night. All these actions of his are suggestive of only one thing, that he does not want to confront something in his own mind by keeping it constantly occupied. Be it by driving a cab all night or by watching a porno right after that.
Can a flawed man like Travis be seen as a hero just because his intentions are not bad? even if he takes the law in his own hands. His intentions, as he mentions in his conversation with a fellow cab driver, is to go out there and really ….do something. Consequently, he sets himself on two missions. First, to kill the Presidential candidate Charles Palantine and second, to ‘rescue’ Iris, a 12 and a half year old underage prostitute. Here something needs a mention. I encountered a few people to whom Travis’s motive to kill Palantine was unclear. Well, remember the scene in which a man gets into the cab with a hooker and asks Travis to drive faster? That man was Palantine. Travis cannot see a man like that becoming President, even if he has to kill him for that. Is his intention good here or bad?
His second self-imposed mission, as mentioned before, is to get Iris to her home, thereby rescuing her from a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). The obsession begins when one night Iris gets into his cab and asks him to drive away. Sport pulls Iris out of the cab and throws a crumpled note to Travis and asks him to forget the incident. Later after he gets a chance to talk to Iris, Travis gives the same note to the man timing them. In a way, returning the money into the same ‘filth’ it came from. Subtle actions like these emphasize Travis’s intentions. Intentions to do something good, maybe to make up for something bad he did?
It’s the brilliance of Scorsese that brings out the psychological state of Travis Bickle to life. Roger Ebert, in his book ‘Scorsese’, writes about a conversation that happened between him and Martin Scorsese. Ebert asks Scorsese about the shot where Betsy is rejecting Travis. To find out why the camera showing Travis calling Betsy from a pay phone dollies out to look at a long and empty corridor. Scorsese says, because it is too painful to look at Travis getting rejected. Ebert in his wonderful review of Taxi Driver in the book, finds the fact interesting that Scorsese finds rejection of Travis painful, but he does not sway away from vividly depicting the bloodbath in the final scenes involving Travis. So, does emotional pain hurts more than physical pain? Hurts Travis? or Scorsese?
Bernard Hermann, who composed the score for Taxi Driver, died the day right after he finished composing the score. The score plays an immense role in conveying the mood of the central character and it sounded somewhat similar to some of the Hitchcock movies where Hermann contributed to the score. The score when Iris stumbles upon Travis’s cab and the effect it produces, suddenly reminds us of an almost exactly similar scene in Psycho by Hitchcock, where Marion’s Boss stumbles upon Marion’s car where again the score was composed by Bernard Hermann.
Despite the highly debatable ending where Travis becomes a hero, Taxi Driver is still a masterpiece as rarely a Director has been able to bring out the psychological portrait of a character this beautifully on film without relying much on words. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece not only by Scorsese, but also by Robert De Niro, as he truly owned the character of Travis. When success comes early to someone it has the potential to make the person complacent. Watch, enjoy and learn from this movie by a Director who did not get complacent to this date and who is familiar with Travis Bickle, probably more than anyone else.