Taxi Driver (1976): An Enigmatic Cinematic Masterpiece with a Troubled Legacy
All of us have heard of Martin Scorsese, who is perhaps one of the greatest and most celebrated directors of all time. His works are some of the most critical acclaimed masterpieces from the 1970s to the present day. However, it is one his earlier works that has a cult following but also a troubled legacy, that will be the subject of this article.
As you might have understood from the title, it is none other than Taxi Driver.
The Basic Details
Produced by: Julie Philips and Michael Philips
Released in: 1976 (Rated R)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Paul Schrader
Music by: Bernard Hermann
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Harvey Keitel, Leonard Harris, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd etc.
The Film Summarised (Plot and Ending) *SPOILERS*
The film is about Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who after returning to United States after his service in the military as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War, takes on a job in New York city as a night-time taxi driver due to sleeplessness. The movie follows Bickle over a period of time as he journeys throughout New York over the long nights transporting passengers from one place to another.
Over time, as Travis’ mental health deteriorates and slowly plunges him into the depths of insanity, he makes several comments about the state of New York City in 1970s (which was actually a very troublesome time in the city) and the film slowly brings to the surface the true depths of Travis’ cynicism and his descent into insanity to the point where he considers himself to be the “God’s lonely man” due to his inability to fit in and him feeling very isolated.
Travis’ mentality and his view of New York can be best seen through this one iconic quote from the movie:
“Thank God for the rain, which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks. I’m working long hours now: six in the afternoon to six in the morning. Sometimes, even eight in the morning, six days a week. Sometimes seven days a week. It’s a long hustle, but it keeps me real busy. I can take in three, three-fifty a week. Sometimes even more when I do it off the meter. All the animals come out at night — wh**es, skunk p*****s, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” — Travis Bickle
As we follow Travis around his journey, we also find him getting infatuated with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for senator and Presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Travis eventually manages to take Betsy on a coffee date which goes well, however, the relationship is cut short when he takes her to an adult movie theater on their second date, which ends in Betsy leaving feeling ashamed and disgusted. With Betsy ignoring Travis’ attempts to correct his mistakes, his downward spiral accelerates.
During his nightly trips around the city, Travis sees an underage 12 year old prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster) on several occasions. Eventually he finds out her place of work and goes to her to make her leave her life in New York and lead a normal life for a 12 year old. While she does not agree to leave her New York life behind, Travis develops a sort of a warm friendship with her.
As the film progresses and Travis becomes more insane, he buys weapons from an arms dealer named Andy after confiding his thoughts to fellow taxi driver Wizard (Peter Boyle). As Travis starts to see himself and righteous person with a moral obligation to clean the city, he tries to assassinate Charles Palantine justifying it as an act of removing corrupt, powerful and greedy politicians who will only lead to ruin. While he fails to assassinate his target, he then goes and tries to save Iris from her life of exploitation by killing her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and the security at the brothel.
Here is an idea of Travis’ messiah complex in his own words:
“Listen, you f**kers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the c**ts, the dogs, the filth, the s**t. Here is a man who stood up.” — Travis Bickle
The movie ends with Travis being shot by the police who were called to the brothel after reports of multiple gunshots. The movie is open-ended showing scenes of Travis covered in his own blood, followed by scenes of newspaper clippings on the wall hailing Travis as a saviour, a thank you letter from Iris’ parents for returning their daughter and Betsy returning to Travis on one of his nightly rounds. However, it is unclear whether Travis survives the shootout, whether these are hallucinations of a dying mind, crazy person or actual reality itself. The ending of the movie has been debated, even after Martin Scorsese has acknowledged the interpretation of those scenes as Bickle’s dying dream.
Roger Ebert perhaps has one of the most philosophical takes on the ending saying:
Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader append the perfect conclusion to Taxi Driver. 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.
Troubled Legacy of the Film
Over the years, the film has been criticised for 3 reasons:
The Casting of Jodie Foster: One of the most divisive controversies surrounding the movie was the casting of Jodie Foster, who was 12 years old at the time of filming. Not only was she cast in a role of an underage prostitute, but she was present the shootout scene that served as the movie’s jarring climax. Even though she has stated that everything was explained to her and the team behind the movie followed all the protocols for a child actor to act in such a role (including psychological testing). Even though the movie is one of Foster’s greatest performances, there are still those who believe that she should not have been given such a role requiring a much more mature actor.
John Hinckley Jr: Another controversy is around John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan after watching the film and becoming obsessed with Jodie Foster. It is known that he sent many letters, poems to the actress and carried out the act in an attempt to impress her. He went on to many lengths to gain her attention, including moving to Connecticut when Jodie Foster went to Yale University. In fact, he wrote a letter to the actress just before the attempt saying:
“Over the past seven months I’ve left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself. … The reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you.”
3. The Film’s Rating: Though this might seem small compared to the controversies above, there was issue around the rating of the film due to the violence depicted in it. In fact, the climax scene nearly got the film an X Rating. Martin Scorsese, was then forced to de-saturate the scenes to reduce the brightness of the blood, to make sure that the film got rated R.
My Take (Lights, Camera, Action! :))
The film is a very clear and stunning depiction of a man’s fall from grace and into the depths of insanity. It is a stunning portrait of paranoia, cynicism and narcissism and finally, of violence and brutality in the form of its protagonist, Travis Bickle. From an honourably discharged U.S. Marine to a gun-totting maniac who kills some people in cold blood in his attempts to clean up the city. While Travis is clearly not in his right mind and is a malicious person, the interpretation of his character can range from antihero to the movie villain. It is clear that he views himself as a saviour and hero, doing what needs to be done, a vigilante. While I would not go as far as calling Travis Bickle an anti-hero, I would describe him as a troubled protagonist in dire need of help and a person whose mental problems were amplified due to his experiences and his cynicism which ultimately leads to his transforming to become the movie’s villain. He is at his core a cynical narcissist and how he views himself and how the audience views him are completely different, making him “ a walking contradiction.”
The movie’s ambiguous ending serves as a very fitting conclusion letting the viewers themselves decide what kind of a person Travis was. Some might call him a villain, others might argue he is insane and needs help, some may go even further and say that his actions of shooting the criminals was right. Just like the movie, which has no clear villains or heroes, the ending further highlights that between heroism and villainy, there is a huge grey area, where all humans due to their complex natures, ultimately lie.
A Lasting Impact
The film has over the years attained a cult following and has a lasting impact to date, due to the stellar performances of Jodie Foster and Robert De Niro, who were both nominated for the Oscars in 1977, Martin Scorsese’s directing for which he received the Palme D’ Or and the topic that it explores, which is the psyche of a man who is lonely and isolated, and proves to be a stunning portrayal of mental illness, paranoia, narcissism and violence.
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