Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), is an American film classic that tells the story of a cabbie named Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in New York. The film features one of De Niro’s most iconic, and memorable performances, and with its ingenious score and camerawork is also a sensory feast.
As a whole, the film is an excellent study of madness, of isolation, and of the grinding friction that gives rise to the strange, dark stories that emerge from a teeming metropolis. Quentin Tarantino says “it may be the greatest first person character study committed to film.”
In a way it is easy to identify with this film while living in Karachi, where the inside pages of the newspaper are often peppered with stories telling of strange, galling crimes that are often as mysterious as they are shocking. The stories that seem to tell of a kind of wild madness that emerges specifically as a product of the frictional, feverish, big-city life in a land where everything is not okay.
Taxi Driver follows Bickle as he snakes his cab through the streets of New York. He narrates his reflections in the form of a diary that he is keeping in his spare time (he has plenty). Bickle is a Vietnam veteran, who has been honorably discharged from the Marines. Like many American war vets of the time, he finds himself unable to find a purpose, unable to sleep; and unable to identify with the city he has returned to; finding it alien and corrupted with “filth” of all kinds.
When we join him, he is a loner. He drives a taxi, and works overtime. It is a profession which allows him to roam the streets, witnessing the seedy underbelly of New York life.
“All the animals come out at night” narrates Bickle while writing in his diary, as we see a montage of lit New York streets in the rain. The visuals are set to an immersive jazz score by Bernard Herrmann. This dreamy, passive observation sets the tone for the whole film, while the ingenious music acts like a heartbeat for the city, for Bickle and even for us the viewers.
The lonely Bickle seethes as he observes all the participants of the New York nightlife: from the thugs and prostitutes to drug users, and pimps. They revolt him, and in his self-imposed seclusion he broods about “a real rain” that will come and “wash all this scum off the streets”.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle practices drawing his guns alone in his room. De Niro got a cab-driver's license prior to shooting the film in order to understand his character's environment better.
But Bickle’s isolation is not just self-imposed. Whether it is because of his time in the war, or his general psychotic tendency, he is almost incapable of identifying with others in-spite of himself. “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe that someone should become a person, like other people.”
So there is a sense from the beginning of the film that we are joining Bickle at a delicate time. He is balancing on the edge of sanity. There is a taste of that darkening introspection which slowly creeps up on an isolated person.
Eventually Bickle’s frustration gives way to action: He takes things into his own hands and turns towards a dark vigilantism that leads the film into an ever-darkening, violent climax.
“You talkin’ to me?” De Niro ad-libbed this famous scene during the shooting of the film. According to Scorsese it hadn’t even been planned in the script, and they only shot it because De Niro started to improvise so well in the mirror.
Throughout the film Bickle meets various characters in and out of his cab. Underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) emerge as two of the principle characters. Along the way we also get a glimpse at other characters from his point of view. He witnesses their lives and their activities, as he ferries them to their often-seedy destinations in the late hours of the night. They engage in all sorts of activities which disgust him, invisible from his driver’s seat. “People do anything in front of a taxi driver… it’s like a taxi driver doesn’t even exist” he says.
Bickle is also obsessed with a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). He asks her out and ends up inexplicably taking her to a cinema that shows adult films, obviously scaring her away.
During the 70s, such “openness” was being newly explored in American culture, yet, most of it would still be very objectionable for the more reserved and traditional American. Scorsese talks about this in his documentary titled Scorsese on Scorcese: “It was a hypocritical thing that was happening” he says, “But also was opening up the society at the time.” He also admits to personally seeing “this freedom and this way of thinking” as a “threat”.
This sort of confusion and constant friction with more “liberal” ideologies is a part of America that often gets overshadowed to outsiders, especially in our own part of the world where the US is viewed as a completely “free” society.
In a way the American internal struggle between “conservative” and “liberal” ways of life is almost as frictional as our own in Pakistan, albeit on different issues.
Even in the mind of Bickle these two ideas cause dissonance, resulting in his erratic contradictory behavior – he hates the depravity he sees on the streets, but somehow finds it is okay to go and watch it in the cinema.
Bickle’s irrepressible angst with what his surrounding culture and his desperate need to become its savior are forcing him to lash out, while his scars from the war make him conditioned and predisposed to heroism through gratuitous violence. This schizophrenic and turbulent mindset is reminiscent too, of the troubled times we are seeing in our own society.
De Niro as Travis Bickle sports a new hairdo. A representation of his radical thoughts emerging into practice and burning dangerously close to the surface ... while still no one notices.
Taxi Driver plays out like a Dostoevskian character study: A troubled man spirals downwards in his own frustration and fantasy as he struggles with his delusions of grandeur.
Writer Paul Schrader was, in fact inspired by Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” – A short story that deals with the bitter, rambling memoirs of an unnamed retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. The movie also echoes many themes from “Crime and Punishment”, another Dostoevsky novel that deals with murder, existential crisis and self-imposed isolation.
Isolation in the presence of millions of cramped city-dwellers is a theme that has continued to fascinate American filmmakers, musicians and artists to this day. With the theme being dealt with in many movies such as "American Psycho" and also in music, such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers song "Under the Bridge".
The film is also a masterpiece in vision and sound; a lot of it is shot from inside the taxi, in parts of New York that were genuinely unsafe and uncomfortable to shoot and work in.
Scorsese was born in NY, and grew up there. His understanding of the city is legendary, and has formed the backbone of his filmmaking career. He says that he learned about life and tuned his visual sense through observing the city and its people – such as time spent on a balcony in his grandmother’s apartment seeing “things unfolding in the streets” – what he calls his very own “camera obscura”. This is also the opening shot of the first film he ever made “Who’s that knocking at my door”. He is a living example of success by “write what you know”.
This film is a work of art, but it is not for the sensitive viewer, it does not shy away from strong language, references to sex, and gratuitous violence (Scorsese had to de-saturate the final, bloody scenes in order to just get an R rating). Also, please don’t watch this film and try to assassinate anyone.
In the end, however, the film is a sharply insightful view of New York, and an American madman in the 1970’s. Once you look past the place and the time, the film also ends up capturing very universal characteristics of buzzing, thriving cosmopolitan cities – leading big-city-dwellers from all around the world to understand and form a connection with the film.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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