When we talk about films that have reached “classic” status, it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always a sure thing. Taxi Driver was a product of a particular time in U.S. history, and it was Paul Schrader’s script with Martin Scorsese at the helm that tapped into the cultural climate and brought it to the screen. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is an outsider, a loner, disgusted with the world he sees around him. He is also a veteran of the Vietnam War, and has returned from his experiences of combat with a disturbed mind and an incomplete journey. There was a kind of national trauma felt after the unpopular war crawled to its close, an unsettled atmosphere that fitted well with Bickle’s paranoid psychosis.
Early in the film, Travis’ narration confides that, “The days go on and on… they don’t end,” and that all he needs is, “a sense of someplace to go.” This war wasn’t one that ended with certainty, and the troops didn’t return home to celebration. For Travis there was no end, he didn’t reach its cathartic destination, and so for him the war still rages on. He needs somebody to fight against, to attain some kind of victory over, and so blames the city’s problems on the “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies.” There’s also a racial aspect to his hatred, as he shares many uncomfortably long stares with the black men he passes on his travels. Although he may eventually direct his anger at those who ‘deserve it,’ it could have been any establishment, any perceived injustice, anything to attack in the absence of a clear enemy.
Taxi Driver was nominated for four Academy Awards, and Jodie Foster won both Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Newcomer at the BAFTAs that year. It received the Palme d’Or at Cannes, though both its screening and awards ceremony was met with heckling and booing. Playwright Tennessee Williams, head of Cannes jury at the time, gave the award with reservations about the risk of film taking, “A voluptuous pleasure in spilling blood and in lingering on terrible cruelties.” There is shock to the violence in the film, but it is fairly rare, and even toned down in post-production by the director. The then 13-year-old Foster was even given psychological testing to determine whether she would be scarred by her role.
Rather, what I think was so challenging to audiences was its thematic and philosophical focus on violence – it’s in Travis’ past and his future, with everything in between suggesting that his ‘whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me’. The popular fan theory of the ending being Travis’ death dream following the events in the brothel robs the movie of its bold social criticism. It may seem overly optimistic for Travis to succeed in his goals, and even win the respect of the woman who previously spurned him, but it’s actually the worst possible outcome. His alarming psychosis is embraced by society, and as critic James Berardinelli wrote:
“Steeped in irony, the five-minute epilogue underscores the vagaries of fate. The media builds Bickle into a hero, when, had he been a little quicker drawing his gun against Senator Palantine, he would have been reviled as an assassin. As the film closes, the misanthrope has been embraced as the model citizen, someone who takes on pimps, drug dealers, and mobsters to save one little girl.“
It is notable that the other key act of violence Travis commits is against a black man robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. The killing of the man is met with little surprise from the shopkeeper, who takes responsibility for the gun with mild displeasure, proceeding to beat the man’s lifeless body. Travis encounters opposition in his botched assassination of Palantine, so instead turns his hatred to those who are easier targets: the poor and vulnerable. The final glance to his mirror, a break in the romantic tone of his final scene with Betsy, shows that the catharsis is short-lived.
The introduction of the character of Travis Bickle and his story to audiences had a significant cultural impact, for better and for worse. John Hinckley Jr attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and despite his failure, still shot and paralysed White House Press Secretary James Brady. The accused claimed his actions were intended to impress Jodie Foster, and so he mimicked Travis’ mohawked appearance at the Palantine rally. He was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity, but the film was the focus of his case; his attorney concluding his defense by playing the movie for the jury. Scorsese was supposedly informed of the events at the 1981 Oscars, moments after he lost Best Director to Robert Redford. He was so troubled by what had happened he decided to quit filmmaking, something he thankfully changed his mind on.
The most famous scene of Taxi Driver is the one in which De Niro asks his own reflection “Are you talkin’ to me?,” practising drawing his gun and rehearsing his threatening behaviour. The truth of the scene contrasts with its much-quoted cult status, as it comes across as futile and deeply sad. It is a deluded display of machismo, and reads as a man performing the role of the anti-hero, the “man who stood up”, without any coherent philosophy or morality behind him. For all its controversy, there is no doubt that Travis is not the hero of the film, in any sense of the word. In 1982, a Chicago TV Station aired the film one evening with this unexplained disclaimer:
“To Our Audience: In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. Taxi Driver suggests that tragic errors can be made. -The Filmmakers“
For all its shock and awe, Taxi Driver touches on race and gender with subtlety, and an excellent discernment that allows for it to present the perspective of the disturbed white male psyche without abetting it in any way. In the original script, Schrader had written the role of Sport – Iris’ pimp, eventually played by Harvey Keitel – as a black man. Scorsese changed this role, along with a few other minor characters, as he believed it would otherwise give the film a racist subtext. Knowing the balance required to portray racism without supporting it in any respect is another example of the director’s mastery over the craft. In what should have been a disaster, the director even stars as one of Travis’ passengers, launching into racist and misogynist rant. It’s repulsive, but written into the narrative with such intelligence and tonal awareness that it prevails. Travis Bickle, along with many of Scorsese’s male characters, is often cited as one of the most definitive cases of the Madonna-Whore Complex on film.
When Travis first meets Betsy, he sees her as the pure, virginal figure, “Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They… cannot… touch… her.” After she rejects him he sees her as dirty and impure, ignorant of the fact that women aren’t to be separated into such distinct categories. He wants to save Iris from her life as a prostitute, and return her to something more ‘pure,’ even if it means subjecting her to witness a massacre. He becomes frustrated by these two women refusing to align with his strict ideas of femininity, and is driven to acts of violence by his interactions with the both of them. While not always resulting in physical violence, a lot of present day sexism takes on a similar form. Bickle’s resentment over Betsy’s rejection of him speaks to a lot of the ugly behaviour that is enabled by anonymous posting on the internet. If this was set in 2016, Travis would likely be at the public library, sending abusive messages to women on Twitter.
The film’s score was the final thing Bernard Herrmann wrote before his death, and it fits perfectly with Travis’ odyssey through the depths of the city. The camera follows De Niro as he drifts through the streets, with Herrmann’s romantic score and the voice-over hitting a melancholy note. This tale of loneliness and isolation is interrupted by abrupt cuts or slips in the music – violence and mental breaks always just around the corner. The tale of one man against the system is disrupted, and Scorsese holds a mirror to its audience. The reflection we are faced with is just as incendiary today as it was In 1976.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures