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“The serendipity of this particular film was that the three of us were in the same spot at the same time. We were in sync and we didn’t really need to communicate that much to each other. We understood exactly what this story was about.” — screenwriter Paul Schrader in the Taxi Driver DVD documentary.
35 years ago, on February 8, 1976, Martin Scorsese’s seminal film Taxi Driver was released. With Paul Schrader’s writing and Scorsese’s direction, Robert De Niro creates one of ’70s cinema’s most memorable characters in Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet who refers to himself as “God’s lonely man.” He takes on a job as a cab driver, working as many shifts as he possibly can because of his insufferable insomnia.
He becomes infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works on a campaign for a New York Senator running for president. “She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone,” says Bickle in voice-over, describing the first time he laid eyes upon her. “They … cannot … touch … her.”
As Betsy points out (though she doesn’t really know why at the time she says it), Travis Bickle is a “walking contradiction.” He complains in voice-over about the filth and scum in the city, yet he frequently spends his off hours in porno theaters.
Bickle’s frustration with the seediness of the city and the growing rage that he feels leads him to have doubts of his own sanity. When he begins to worry that his thoughts are becoming violent, he attempts to confide in a fellow cab driver known only as “Wizard” (Peter Boyle), but to no avail. In a great exchange, after Wizard assures Bickle that he’ll be fine, Wizard ultimately says “What do you want? I’m a cabbie, you know. What do I know?” Meanwhile, Bickle’s infatuation with Betsy is rapidly turning to obsession.
Also playing an important role are the streets of New York City. In his old commentary track that he recorded for the 1990 Criterion laserdisc, Scorsese pointed out that in the film there are no continuity mistakes or cinematic cheats regarding the layout of New York City that you often see in movies — a famous example of this being The Graduate (1967) when Ben is seen driving to San Francisco to Berkeley on the top deck of the Bay Bridge, when traffic in that direction is always on the lower deck.
Of course you’d only recognize this geographic continuity if you’re familiar with the layout of New York City (which I am not), but still, this coupled with the inclusion of real street people only adds to the film’s overall realism.
Another standout moment in the film is the director’s own cameo. The actor originally cast for this scene had an accident on the set of another movie and couldn’t show up. So Martin Scorsese filled in for one of the film’s most memorable and disturbing scenes, in which he plays a man in Bickle’s cab contemplating killing his wife for committing adultery.
One of my absolute favorite jump cuts in cinema occurs during Travis Bickle’s “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads, here is a man who would not take it anymore,” voice-over. He begins a few lines of the monologue, then starts over from the beginning, and the image suddenly jumps to where he was when the voice-over began — thus illustrating his gradual descent into madness.
One night, Bickle comes across Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster) who climbs into his cab, desperately trying to escape her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). Another day, he finds Iris on the streets and pays for her time, not to have sex but to talk. The following day, in a beautifully acted scene, he meets her for breakfast and tries to convince her to leave prostitution.
Jodie Foster was just 13 years old when Taxi Driver was released. In the documentary for the DVD, Jodie Foster recalls being fascinated by all of the special effects and cinematic trickery used in the film’s climactic violent confrontation. “When you’re in a scene like that, you don’t ever think of the blood and guts. I think you look at it technically. You look at it and say, ‘Oh I see the wire there,’ or ‘That could’ve been better here,’ or ‘There’s a little shadow over there.’ So whenever I see that scene, I never see any of the violence. I only see the technique that went behind it.”
Taxi Driver was the final film score for Bernard Herrmann, whose film career had begun in 1941 with Citizen Kane. Herrmann had been noted throughout his professional life for being irritable and when Scorsese approached him about scoring the film, his initial response was something to the effect of “I don’t do movies about cab drivers.” Scorsese convinced him it wasn’t really about cab drivers and so Herrmann read the script and agreed to score the film. His score turned out to be yet another masterpiece in a career filled with many. Herrmann’s score marries symphonic jazz with a sound that is reminiscent of some of his economic, sparse Twilight Zone scores (particularly the harp writing). The score concludes, fittingly, with the same chords that end his own score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
For the final scene, when Bickle suddenly reacts to something he thinks he sees in the rear-view mirror, Scorsese felt that the music for the scene didn’t accentuate that particular moment, so Herrmann quickly recorded a separate cymbal crash that would play over it. When Scorsese said that it wasn’t quite what he was looking for, Herrmann said “Play it backwards,” and walked out of the room. He went back to his hotel room and died later that same night, on December 24, 1975 at the Universal Sheraton hotel in Universal City.
In addition to winning the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, Taxi Driver was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster) and Original Music Score (Bernard Herrmann). Herrmann received two posthumous nominations that year, the other for Brian De Palma’s Obsession, but ultimately lost to Jerry Goldsmith for The Omen (which would turn out to be Goldsmith’s only Oscar).
Well, I’m almost done here and I haven’t yet written about the mirror scene — possibly the most famous scene in the movie. Apparently the script said something like “Travis talks to himself in the mirror,” and De Niro came up with it all (including the most-quoted line in the film) during the rehearsal process. And that’s about as perfect example as I can think of regarding the collaborative process between writer, director and actor.