"Are you talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here."
Here we are, Scorsese’s fifth feature film, 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s just perfect. In fact it’s better than perfect, you see to me perfect sounds as if the best filmmakers and actors have done the best job they can using the best source material, but ‘Taxi Driver’ just feels better than that. I regard it as the best character study in the history of cinema, the ultimate amalgamation of writer, director and actor, truly one of the greatest films ever made.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an honourably discharged U.S. Marine, is a lonely and depressed man living in New York City. He becomes a taxi driver to cope with his chronic insomnia, driving passengers every night around the boroughs of New York City. He also spends time in seedy porn theatres, keeps a diary, becomes infatuated with a woman working for a presidential election campaign and begins a crusade to rescue and underage prostitute (Jodie Foster).
It is difficult to give a plot synopsis of ‘Taxi Driver’ because on paper it comes across as just a series of unrelated events occurring around Travis Bickle. At its heart the film is about Travis’ failed attempts to connect with the world around him, it follows his complete and utter isolation from the rest of society, a culture that he both loathes for not understanding and yet yearns to be a part of. The sense of aloneness that permeates every frame, ever line of dialogue, every subtle movement makes it one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.
This success can be attributed to three men and their individual work on the film. Their names are Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. I know of no other example where a film’s writing, directing and acting complement and advance one another so well. I’ll try to break them down individually and then explain precisely why, together, they form a masterpiece.
It’s widely known that Schrader’s script was inspired by John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ and it’s not hard to find the parallels. An alienated man is unable to establish normal relations within the world around him and as a result becomes a lone wanderer, only to take up the task of rescuing a young girl without her consent, because her life defies his own principles. There are many small stories within the script and none of them are there to fill time or show of a certain technique, they are all placed within the film to convey the same theme and allude to the inevitable conclusion. As well as that they all seem logical, each event is just a new obsession for Travis, he attaches himself to love interests, political causes and moral crusades and each one is a new effort to make some, any, kind of connection.
But as well as being so tightly crafted the screenplay is one that allows multiple interpretations. It creates undercurrents that make Travis’ ultimate motive impossible to definitively pin down. In many ways he is an enigma, he hates the violence of society despite having been directly involved with it, he loathes the sexual activity of the city but routinely visits porn theatres, he hates the scum that “comes at out night” and yet he chooses to work during nights. It seems that though Travis claims to hate this society around him he regularly goes out of his way to involve himself in it. So is this hatred directed more at himself? I couldn’t tell you for sure.
De Niro’s performance stands as one of the best ever put to film (and the only reason I say one of the best is because the actor has to compete with his own filmography). It’s hard to name another actor who you could say for certain would be willing to do what he did in this role to be as prejudiced and as flawed as Travis is and to present it in such a pure and unforgiving way, running the risk of alienating your audience by asking them to become attached to this violent sociopath.
De Niro is even exceptional in how he tries to hide emotions from the audience. The feelings and actions that Travis tries to suppress through subtle movements, glances, tone of voice and sentence structure says more about is true identity than the one he tries to project. But once again he is there to provide such an ambiguity to the character that his true motives are never fully known. As an audience we can only attempt to decipher him and it’s down to De Niro that was are both disgusted and sympathetic towards him, but never completely understanding.
It’s under Scorsese’s direction that the film balances that most brilliant of atmospheres, one that Marty himself has perfected time and time again, the balance of grit and style. While the techniques themselves are not revolutionary what makes them so effective, both then and now is how they are used used to suggest a subjective and POV mind set. Having previously applied varying levels of speed to great effect, Scorsese does the same here but to an even more acute style. Notice how the shots of Travis’ cab moving through the city are in ordinary time but his view of the outside world is slowed down to reflect his more observant nature. Scorsese also employs close-ups to let you see what Travis sees, what catches his attention catches the viewer’s attention because Scorsese forces it to.
Through this film Scorsese achieved what may be the single hardest thing to do in film as a medium, to provide an insight into a characters perspective and psyche. Through his direction we take a journey into Travis Bickle’s mind, and reflects how the world around him has been warped by his own outlook of it. His lone taxi cab patrolling the streets is suddenly a chariot wading through the scum of the earth, the people around him are unsympathetic to his plight and society has mutated into something ugly. Whether it actually has or not that is how Travis views the New York City and so that is how we view New York City.
But at the same time Scorsese allows the viewer to see the big picture, he allows you to see the utter isolation of the main character. He often cited the most important shot of the film as the one in which Travis attempts to call a woman after a failed date. He desperately tries to call her, hanging onto the last scrap of hope that this could be his connection but his attempt is to no avail and so the camera swings around to see a long and deserted corridor, there is no one else there. At the end is a door leading back out into the darkened streets that Travis uses to exit the building. It is symbolic of his entire journey, the failed attempt at interaction, the isolated path in front of him, and the darkness that lies ahead. All in one shot.
As I was saying, each aspect is impressive enough on their own but together they form a stunning work of art that can be likened to a great novel. Schrader’s script provides Scorsese with an outlet to employ directorial devices that give you a further insight into the characters mind while also giving De Niro enough material from which to build that character in a physical level. Then Scorsese’s direction highlights the subtle nuances of De Niro’s performance as well as the overall themes of Schrader’s script. De Niro’s performance gives Scorsese’s direction a point of focus and brings forth the emotion within Schrader’s script. Never have a writer, director and actor been in such perfect unison.
There are other additions that only serve to elevate the film even further. The supporting cast such as Jodie Foster who brings a haunting sense of vulnerability to the film and Harvey Keitel carries a sense of grit and toughness to his own role to reflect what Travis hates about society. Michael Chapman’s cinematography makes the city both vibrant and grim, and Bernard Hermann’s score evokes such a sense of dread and impending doom.
‘Taxi Driver’ has a special impact on all who view it, it had a profound impact on me the first time I saw it and my appreciation of it has only grown since. As Roger Ebert put it rather eloquently in his own review “We have all felt as lonely as Travis Bickle. Most of us are better at dealing with it”. In fact just to stick with the Ebert quotes (because as much as I would love to say I came up with this point myself, I can’t) he raised a good point about the film’s most iconic scene and line in which Travis looks at himself in the mirror starts talking to himself. “Are you talkin' to me? Well, I'm the only one here” he says. The first sentence gets quoted all the time, but it’s the second line that never gets quoted which is ironic because it’s the truest line in the film.