Film Projections: Taxi Driver, 35 Years Later
Posted May 2, 2011on:
(35 years ago, Taxi Driver was unleashed on the American movie-going public. The film, which solidified the iconic relationship between Martin Scorsese and Robert Deniro, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1976 and was nominated for four Academy Awards. For its anniversary, a restored 35 mm print of the film screened at New York’s Film Forum in March; the print is currently touring the country. Below, our film expert Franklin Laviola, who was present at the New York screening, reflects on the power and legacy of this great film).
Released in February of 1976, Taxi Driver was Martin Scorsese’s fifth feature and arguably his first masterpiece. The landmark film became a surprise box-office smash, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that May, and would go on to be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for its star Robert DeNiro. Now, thirty-five years later, Taxi Driver remains an astonishingly visceral experience and one film that has lost none of its seductive mystique.
Of all the American films of the hallowed 1970s which can claim comparable stature, Taxi Driver is by far the most difficult to categorize. What genre does its tale of the now iconic antihero, Travis Bickle, even belong to? Is it, for example, a film noir? Taxi Driver might have the dark, seedy atmosphere, reminiscent of so many post-war examples of the genre, not to mention, an unattainable female object of desire as a key dramatic device, but unlike your typical film noir protagonist, Travis, ultimately, controls his own fate.
In crafting Travis’ frequent point-of-view shots, Scorsese has acknowledged the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Is the film, then, a thriller, in the vein of Hitchcock? Taxi Driver certainly shares a focus on one man’s prevailing sense of paranoia with so many examples of the thriller genre, but an over-arching principle of suspense does not drive its narrative.
Perhaps then, Taxi Driver is closer to a western on a basic structural level. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader pay homage to the plot of John Ford’s The Searchers (albeit with Sam Peckinpah’s flair for bloody spectacle), in particular, by setting Travis off on a self-imposed moral mission, a path to regenerative violence, similar to John Wayne’s loner protagonist, only, of course, in a contemporary, urban setting.
But the film’s building blocks are not limited to traditional Hollywood forms. What would Taxi Driver be without the transcendental character studies of Robert Bresson, for instance? All one needs to hear is DeNiro’s first-person voice-over narration and it becomes clear his insomniac New York City cab driver comes from the same cinematic lineage as the French protagonists of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket. Taxi Driver, like those two films, is one man’s (a social outsider‘s) private diary of loneliness and despair.
And then, there are the more modernist auteurs, like Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni, whom Scorsese draws stylistic inspiration from and methodically quotes at specific points in the film to a particularly expressive effect. In one early scene at an all-night diner, a shot from the former’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is recreated, when Travis drops an Alka Seltzer tablet into his glass of water and stares blankly at it. The camera overhead slowly zooms in on the sizzling bubbles, further underscoring Travis’ disconnect from his fellow cabbies, who attempt to engage him in conversation. Another scene, a little later on in the film, features Travis making a call to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), at a payphone. In a lateral tracking shot that would be right at home in Antonioni’s The Passenger, the camera moves away from Travis, mid-phone call, to focus on an empty corridor, as the girl of his dreams rejects him.
At the DGA, this past March, for the premiere screening of the digital restoration of Taxi Driver, Scorsese himself, mentioned yet another influence, acknowledging his debt to one particular film by New German Cinema auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder:
“But [Fassbinder’s] The Merchant of Four Seasons … But the thing about Merchant of Four Seasons was that it had a kind of brutal honesty about the way the camera looked at the characters — at the actors — and not necessarily the melodramatic scenes. And it just made me realize that you could do anything, really. Just anything, as long as you feel honest about it. It’s an honest image. It’s like a police photo — a crime scene photo. There’s an objectivity to it. How does a crime scene photographer chose the angle? You know? Does he say, ‘This’ll be nice …’ Or is it, ‘There it is! Life, death, right here.’ That was the impulse that Fassbinder’s stuff gave me.”
With Scorsese and Schrader borrowing select narrative forms and techniques from both the traditions of Hollywood and European art house filmmaking, while making a delirious number of references to individual films, it’s a miracle that Taxi Driver does not look, sound, or, most importantly, feel, like a self-conscious pastiche of all these disparate elements. In fact, after countless viewings, I would argue that one of the most remarkable traits of Taxi Driver is how fluidly Scorsese is able to strike a balance between two dominant stylistic modes — gritty realism and baroque expressionism.
This is a scene that perfectly embodies the “objectivity,” which Scorsese claimed he was striving for in his photographic style. Here, Travis, now determined to arm himself, against the “scum” of the streets, meets with the gun salesman “Easy Andy.” The scene that unfolds, as presented by Scorsese’s (and his brilliant cinematographer Michael Chapman’s) camera, could be a documentary on the purchase of illegal firearms, if it wasn’t already distinctly a part of a fictional narrative. The setting is a real apartment or hotel room in Brooklyn, overlooking the East River and Lower Manhattan, and the room’s lighting is flat, minimal, attuned to the changing sunlight. There is no music, the accompanying sound is ambient noise from the actual location, and the dialogue consists almost exclusively of detailed information about each gun, delivered in a deadpan tone by a sleazy Steven Prince.
To capture the initial interaction, Scorsese relies on a two-shot tableau of Travis and “Easy Andy,” not dissimilar to one of the memorable two-shots of his own mother and father in his documentary Italianamerican. In cutting to singles of Travis observing and examining each gun, inserts of those weapons, and the occasional single of “Easy Andy,” selling his merchandise, Scorsese maintains a clinical, detached quality, but allows himself two subjective flourishes. The first comes early on, when “Easy Andy” opens up his suitcase, and Scorsese cuts to Travis’ POV. The film suddenly becomes silent, as the camera glides, in close-up, over the lengthy barrel of the .44 Magnum, fetishizing the lethal object. The second punctuates the middle of the scene, when Travis takes the .38 snubnosed revolver in hand and points it out the window, at unsuspecting traffic. This POV shot not only foreshadows the would-be political assassin into which Travis will transform himself, but frighteningly evokes the POV of a real-life assassin — Lee Harvey Oswald. With these two fleeting digressions, Scorsese has expressed Travis’ own private reality.
If the previous exemplified the mode of documentary realism, this nighttime scene could be the fullest representation of Taxi Driver’s expressionistic side. Identified in the film’s credits as “Passenger Watching Silhouette,” Martin Scorsese makes what could be the greatest (and most disturbing) director as actor cameo in the history of American cinema, surpassing even Roman Polanski’s own cameo in Chinatown, as the gnomic henchman, who disfigures Jack Nicholson’s “nosy” gumshoe. The scene arrives at a point in the narrative, when Travis is at his most vulnerable, having just been spurned by Betsy. Scorsese’s passenger instructs Travis to pull over to the curb and leave the meter running, while they sit. Bernard Hermann’s ominous score is at its most subtle here, but fades away completely, halfway through the scene. There’s a prominent, impeccably composed two-shot, with DeNiro, behind the wheel, at the far right end of the frame, and Scorsese, behind the plexiglass divider in the backseat, at the far left end of the frame, but the majority of the exchange is captured in various singles of the two actors. As Scorsese cuts between these singles, on nearly every line of dialogue, there is a slight disorienting effect, signaling to the viewer a growing instability in Travis’ world.
The scene’s one shot from Travis’ POV comes when the passenger demands that he take a look at a particular woman in a window. In a manner very similar to one of the many elaborate James Stewart POV shots in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Scorsese’s camera scans up the building and then crosses over at a perfect 90 degree angle, before coming to a stop and fixed focus on a silhouetted mystery woman. Barely uttering more than a syllable, Travis listens, as the passenger claims that she is his wife and that she is currently with another man. As if things couldn‘t get any more shocking, he boasts to Travis that he is going to kill her with a .44 Magnum. Almost completely shrouded in darkness, Scorsese’s passenger character is like a maniacal ghoul, a devil on Travis’ shoulder. But is he real? Just as the passenger laughs and repeatedly asks Travis, “Do you think I’m sick?!,” Scorsese jarringly cuts to what could be the scene’s most significant shot — a medium close-up of the back of Travis’ head, accompanied by a beat of deadly silence on the soundtrack. This one key shot, along with the scene’s intense film noir lighting, suggests that this passenger, is just a figment of Travis’ own twisted psyche, and that the previous dialogue was really an internal monologue of sorts. Scorsese’s beyond profane passenger, then, is a projection, an embodiment of all Travis’ basest feelings and thoughts of misogyny and racism, coupled with an urge to commit horrific violence.
His assassination attempt of a presidential candidate thwarted, Travis is now fiercely resolved to rescue the adolescent Iris (beautifully played by a then thirteen year-old Jodie Foster), from her pimps and a life of drugs and prostitution. This climactic sequence is a masterful synthesis of the film’s two stylistic modes. Scorsese begins it all with an objective eye — in one sustained shot, he tracks Travis, as he exits his taxi and approaches the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), and then locks in, virtually head-on, to capture the hostile interaction between the two characters. From somewhat of a distance, the camera first observes, as Travis suddenly shoots Sport in the gut, and then continues to track him again, as he walks away. The result is like a dispassionate crime scene photo.
However, once Travis enters the pimps’ building and continues his shooting rampage, Scorsese quickly shifts gears and the style becomes startlingly baroque. Employing an arsenal’s worth of camera, editing, and sound techniques, Scorsese is hell-bent on plunging the viewer into Travis’ adrenalized mindset. There is no musical score, gunshots initially explode like thunder and then echo loudly throughout the cavernous hallways, and a wounded pimp screams incessantly, “I’ll kill you! You crazy son of a bitch! I’ll kill you!” Scorsese deftly moves between dolly shots that rush towards and away from Travis, assorted high-angle shots of the gunfire, cutaways to a cowering Iris, and sickening close-ups of bloodied faces and body parts bursting. The rhythm is hallucinatory, as time and the moving image, alternately slow down or speed up. In the immediate aftermath of the shootout, Scorsese momentarily transitions back to a removed, gritty objectivity, as a seriously wounded Travis attempts suicide in vain and collapses onto the couch, while Iris cries in the corner, clearly in shock. When armed cops enter the room, Scorsese cuts to a final tight close-up of Travis, as he points his bloody index finger to his head and mimes firing multiple shots into his brain. Travis’ head falls back and he looks directly upward, on the verge of expiring. The sequence ends on a note of ambiguity, since what follows is either the ultimate high-angle crime scene photo or quite possibly the ultimate subjective shot. As the camera floats directly above Travis and then travels to survey the gruesome bloodbath, while Hermann’s score pounds in awe, the viewer can’t help but wonder, if this actually is the POV of Travis’ tormented soul, finally departing his body.
As eclectic and as impure as it might be, the visual style of Taxi Driver convincingly and vividly blurs the line between objective reality and subjective reality. Aided enormously by Robert DeNiro’s fully-immersed and stunning performance, Martin Scorsese has crafted a liminal zone on screen, in which the realistic and expressionistic radically collide and become virtually indistinguishable from one another. The effect is timeless.
Franklin P. Laviola is a filmmaker and freelance writer, based in the New York area. He wrote and directed the award-winning short film “Happy Face,” which has screened at over twenty film festivals. He recently wrote on the life and passing of actress Maria Schneider. Taxi Driver is now available on Blu-Ray.