Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a film which falls into that rare category - somewhere between Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ and The Exorcist - a pop culture milestone now known almost as well in parody and homage as it is in its original irony-free, startlingly brilliant form.
Scorsese, now in his fiftieth year of filmmaking, may be better known for his ensemble pieces, but arguably his strongest film is still his character study of loner Travis Bickle. His second appearance in what would turn out to be a long-lasting relationship with Scorsese, Robert De Niro plays Travis, a Vietnam veteran and insomniac. Staving off a lack of sleep, he becomes a late night taxi driver, where his fixation on presidential campaign volunteer Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) fuels Travis’s need to take immediate, violent action against an uncaring world. Like the table salt poured into his glass of water in an early scene, Travis’s spiral into anarchy is another fizzing, hypnotic performance from a young De Niro, playing Travis as if he’s always just a hair away from exploding.
Its distinct brand of nihilism (courtesy of Paul Schrader’s exceptional script), perceived heroism and final outburst of violence reads somewhat differently in the 21st century, conjuring up images of the Columbine massacre and the socially-dejected male silhouettes plastered on the front of newspapers ever since. The film functions just as well as a post-Vietnam examination of masculinity as it does the trademark paranoid thriller of its late-70s context, with Scorsese tracking and panning the camera away from the object of Travis’s disgust, and back again, following Travis, watching over his shoulder.
Taxi Driver was made at a time when Scorsese was able to produce a film that was vehemently anti-establishment, anti-classification, screwy and fraying at the edges. It’s these qualities that draw me, consistently, to Taxi Driver - above all of Scorsese’s films, especially the prestige pictures of recent times. It’s indicative of a master of his craft working in an ideal time and place, with collaborators like fledgling Schrader (later known for directing of his own) and an unmatched Bernard Hermann, Hitchcock’s go-to composer for whom this film would be his last. In what accounts for two days of work before his death, the composer produced a score which mimics its protagonist: a noisy, disjointed aural soundscape like the barrage of noise coming from the city surrounding him, buried beneath a thin layer of aroused, hopeful curiosity. Hermann’s romantic, swooning saxophone, and suddenly crashing brass evoke Taxi Driver in anyone who hears them.
For all its sublimely grim 113 minutes, my earliest memory of Taxi Driver is not the unrelenting gloom of its New York landscape, Bernard Hermann’s cool jazz soundtrack or its anti-hero’s Mohawk hairstyle (though all of these elements are iconic in and of themselves). It’s four words spoken in front of a mirror. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” Despite itself, Taxi Driver relishes even now in its unparalleled iconicity.
As part of our Scorsese/De Niro season, Taxi Driver is screening at FACT on 2 April. Buy your tickets here.