Taxi Driver (1976) — 40 Years Later… A Look Back at Martin Scorsese’s Classic

Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece from 1976 “Taxi Driver” is the ultimate visceral of Movie making, unsettling story of disturbed New York City and violent manifestation of the protagonist, as played by Robert De Niro, Travis Bickle’s fractured psych. Image Credit: @asifahsankhan.

If “Mean Streets” was Marty’s breakthrough, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” turned him into a Hollywood player, but “Taxi Driver” was the movie that announced his permanent Iconic Stature.

40 Years on… Martin Scorsese’s Greatest Film Remains — “Taxi Driver”

Taxi Driver —is easily the most popular Martin Scorsese film among fans and moviegoers, the film that turned Marty into a ‘Cinema Icon’ —but it is also the most darkly disturbing DeNiro-leading-Scorsese-directed film when it comes to depictions of violence on screen. While the action is staged in the chaotic, unorganised way that Scorsese is known for, it is rendered in exaggerated form. Bullet wounds don’t just cause bleeding—they cause profuse bleeding. Hands don’t just absorb a gunshot– they blow apart into millions of pieces. It’s not enough to kill somebody with a single shot—it takes several. Indeed, it’s because of Taxi Driver’s bloodbath finale that Scorsese found himself having to deal with real censorship for the first time. To avoid an X rating that would doom the film before it was ever released, he had to desaturate the colours during the climax so the blood wouldn’t be so bright and red.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Scorsese directing the 1976’s classic and in retrospect, anybody else but Robert De Niro playing the iconic lead— “Travis Bickle,” a deranged, socially isolated cab driver with delusions of grandeur. He delivers that famous line while preparing to assassinate a fictional presidential candidate. Although — spoiler alert — he comes up short, Bickle winds up becoming a celebrated, crime-fighting vigilante in a dark, ironic twist.

On Scorsese’s perspectives, the film, its subject matter falls in line so squarely with his aesthetic fascinations that one could be forgiven he wrote the screenplay from his own idea. There’s the New York setting (The original script, which was written by Paul Schrader placed the action in Los Angeles), the unflinching portrayal of seedy urban life and the use of antiheroes and/or criminals as protagonists. Taxi Driver takes this latter point to its ironic conclusion, with the media hailing Travis as a hero after a violent rampage that leaves Sport and his colleagues dead, whereas if he’d only been a little more organised in his earlier assassination attempt of Presidential candidate Palantine, he’d be condemned as a villain. While Travis does not share the Roman Catholic heritage of previous Scorsese protagonists, his inner convictions take on a somewhat religious bent and provide him with an almost biblical desire to purge the city of filth and sin.

I’ve always believed that great art is born from a place of deprivation. The state of needing something—love, companionship, comfort, etc.—can result in greater urgency and intensity on behalf of the person expressing an idea. Conversely, some of the banalest, meaningless art come from a place of complacency—simply collecting a paycheck. One of the most influential films of the 1970’s, director Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), was born of deep, existential deprivation. Writer Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay during a very turbulent time in his life that saw a series of escalating mishaps turn him into something of a recluse. Inspired by his interior monologue and self-perceived outsider status, Schrader fashioned a story about an everyday taxi driver as a study of pathological loneliness. The script was picked up by producers Julie and Michael Phillips and was separately brought to the attention of Scorsese by his filmmaking contemporary Brian DePalma. By this point, Scorsese had a handful of successful features under his belt and was teaching film at his alma mater, New York University. He strongly responded to the script, and actively campaigned for the job. It was only after his Mean Streets 1973) star, Robert De Niro, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II(1974) that Scorsese was able to leverage his collaboration with the actor into landing the job. Taxi Driver would become a transformative project for both men, propelling them to the forefront of the contemporary cinema scene with a bold piece of work that would define not only its decade but an entire generation.

Watch The Official Trailer from 1976:

Today, its reputation as a classic is basically secure: After scoring four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro), and Best Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster), Taxi Driver has spent the last 40 years crawling its way toward the top of cinephile best-of lists. Last year, it clocked in at No. 31 in the decennial Sight & Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made. And in 2009, Film Comment contributors voted it the single greatest Palme D’Or winner ever—a vindication, given how it was first greeted at Cannes. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 99% based on reviews from 68 critics; the site’s consensus states: “A must-see film for movie lovers, this Martin Scorsese masterpiece is as hard-hitting as it is compelling, with Robert De Niro at his best.” Metacritic gives the film a score of 93 out of 100, based on reviews from 8 critics, indicating “universal acclaim.” While Roger Ebert instantly praised it as one of the greatest films he had ever seen, giving the film a perfect 4/4 rating. Furthermore, Taxi Driver topped the list of the “100 greatest movies set in New York City” a poll conducted by Timeout Magazine earlier this year.

Yet for all the accolades Taxi Driver has accrued over the years, it remains a divisive movie—not in spite of, but because of its enduring popularity. Simply put, this is one of those films that people find difficult to separate from its fan base. After all, one of its most famous devotees was a would-be political assassin: John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981, harbored an obsession with Jodie Foster—the actress who plays the teenage prostitute in this cult classic—and claims to have devised his plot as an attempt to impress her, perhaps hoping to become a Bickle-like media celebrity.

(Scorsese was supposedly informed of Hinckley’s fandom at the 1981 Oscars, moments after he lost Best Director to Robert Redford, and was so disturbed by the knowledge that he briefly considered quitting filmmaking.)

It’s One Terrifyingly Realistic Portrayal of the City of New York Through the Eyes of a Troubled Cab Driver…
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle; "Taxi Driver" DVD Screenshot; Initial theatrical release February 8, 1976: Credit: © 1976 Columbia Pictures.
Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle; “Taxi Driver” DVD Screenshot; Initial theatrical release February 8, 1976: Credit: © 1976 Columbia Pictures.

Taxi Driver” was released in February of 1976. America was a country with a deeply wounded psyche at the time. The President was Gerald Ford, who had been Richard Nixon’s Vice President throughout the Watergate scandal. The sentencings of Nixon’s White House aides, along with John Mitchell, the former Attorney General of the United States, were not even 12 months removed. The summer prior, America had lost a war for the first time. The country watched as Saigon fell, and people scrambled to abandon the US Embassy.

America needed a hero. Instead, Martin Scorsese gave us an anti-hero: Travis Bickle

After eventually being offered the role by Martin Scorsese, De Niro was busy filming 1900 in Italy. However, every break from filming he’d get, he’d fly to New York and, having actually obtained his cab driver’s license, worked 12-hour shifts until returning to Italy to resume filming. Having already won an Oscar for his work on The Godfather Part II, he would occasionally be recognised. Stories include De Niro once telling a passenger, “Well, that’s acting. One year the Oscar, the next you’re driving a cab!” When not flying back to New York City to moonlight as a cab driver, he’d spend downtime in Italy listening to taped recordings of Arthur Bremer’s diary, the man who’d shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, who is a noted influence for the character. He would also visit an army base in Northern Italy where he’d befriend a group of U.S. soldiers who were from the Midwest. De Niro studied their accents, their mannerisms, and way of dress, all of which became part of De Niro’s portrait of Bickle.

We’re introduced to Travis Bickle as he applies for a job driving a taxi. And how’s his driving record?

“It’s clean, real clean. Like my conscience.” — Travis Bickle;

Bickle was a Marine who received his honourable discharge in 1973. Given the timing, it’s an easy conclusion to leap to that he served in Vietnam. Yet, I’m cautious with that… I feel if Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader had wanted to make a movie that spoke to the plight of Vietnam vets, they’d have given the viewer more to work with in that regard.

What we DO know about Travis is that he can’t sleep. He can’t sleep, and he’ll work anytime, anywhere. What we don’t realise yet is that Bickle wants to fill his time with work because he has nothing better to do. Since he can’t sleep nights, he’s been riding around the city on the subways and buses… just killing time.

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” — Travis Bickle;

He’s lonely, he’s isolated. He has too much time on his hands.

One of the reasons he gets the job is because he doesn’t mind working nights, and he’s not afraid of taking the fares that take him into the dangerous parts of the city. He’s in a cab in short order, and we’re introduced to the second major character in the movie, the film’s setting, the city of New York.

The cab flows through the veins of the city like a corpuscle. Through Bickle’s rain-soaked windshield, the lights of the city night blur into a painting in motion. The saxophone pours the main theme’s plaintive, lonely, jazzy moan and there are times -when he first starts hacking – that it’s tempting to romanticise the city.

But this is not a romanticised view of anything. Instead, Scorsese gives us the dark heart of the city. Bickle’s world is inhabited by prostitutes and pimps, gun dealers and drug dealers. Gangs. Murderers. Scum. Filth. They’re his fares, they get in his cab. Each night he has to wipe the cab free of bodily fluids. He sees it all. Like being on a constant tour of famous crime scenes, without the fame, Bickle is taken around the city and through the perverse passion play that unfolds on its sidewalks night after night after night.

It’s no wonder that Betsy appears to be an angel to him.

Taxi Driver immortalizes New York City in the 1970s, a city vastly different from the New York we know today. The city’s filth is exaggerated in the film partly because it is seen through Travis Bickle’s skewed perspective, but during 1975, when the movie was filmed, New York was literally a filthy city. New York nearly filed for bankruptcy in 1974, so when the New York City trash collectors went on strike in the summer of 1975, causing the streets to fill with warm garbage, the city didn’t have the funds to fix the problem. One of the promises Jimmy Carter made when campaigning for the presidency, which he won in 1976, was that he would make sure New York City wouldn’t have to file for bankruptcy. Taxi Driver presents a true-to-life portrait of what Manhattan once was. Times Square was filled with peep shows and prostitutes, and during the summer of 1975, when the film takes place, the country was in the middle of a presidential campaign where one of the main issues was moving beyond the Vietnam War, which had officially ended only in 1973. One can easily imagine an ex-marine in New York being disgusted by the filth, finding the politicians who are supposed to help him to be artificial, and feeling that he needs to approach the city as he would a special combat mission.

“You talkin’ to me?”

“You talkin’ to me?” — The phrase has entered the pop-culture lexicon, so familiar it is. As Bickle stands in front of the mirror, clad in an Army jacket, threatening his unseen foes with the gun up his sleeve, Taxi Driver hits a disturbing peak because we know exactly where Bickle is coming from. You talkin’ to me?! Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader created one of the sorriest, scariest, messed-up muthers in the history of cinema. And while he starts off relatively normal (i.e. he seems able to coexist with the rest of society), during the course of the film he becomes a blood-crazed psychopath. His murderous rampage is a troubling, violent climax to his story (before he seemingly, amazingly comes full circle), but it’s the middle ground between “normal” and “insane” that is the most memorable moment from Taxi Driver. The phrase actually comes from Bruce Springsteen, as De Niro saw him say the line onstage at a concert as fans were screaming his name, and decided to make the line his own in this film. Robert De Niro improvised that whole paranoid monologue, including what would become the movie’s most famous line.

The film’s screenwriter, Paul Schrader, later said, “It’s the best thing in the movie, and I didn’t write it.” De Niro got the line from Bruce Springsteen, whom he’d seen perform in Greenwich Village just days earlier, at one in a series of concerts leading up to the release of Born to Run. When the audience called out his name, The Boss did a bit where he feigned humility and said, “You talkin’ to me?” Apparently, it stuck in De Niro’s mind.

Earlier this year, Robert De Niro wasted no time in giving his fans what they wanted at Thursday night’s 40th-anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Tribeca film festival in New York. “Every day for 40 f*cking years,” he said in introducing the film, “at least one of you has come up to me and said – what do you think – ‘You talkin’ to me?’”

Despite his character’s severely isolated nature, De Niro stressed that he “never had any existential discussions” with Scorsese before agreeing to take on the role. And as for the infamous mohawk hairstyle, Bickle adopts before the carnage begins, De Niro revealed that he never, in fact, shaved his head for the film.

“I was about to do The Last Tycoon after, and my hair was all bushy,” said De Niro. “We decided to have [makeup artist] Dick Smith do a test, and it worked.”

“I remember I was in the other room, and I had fallen asleep while we were working on your mohawk, and I just dozed off for a moment, and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and you were there with this thing,” Scorsese recalled, seated next to De Niro. “It was terrifying.”

(The Quotes were taken from the Interview from last year’s Tribeca film festival season time when the cast and crew behind the 1976 classic reunited at the to discuss violence, the mohawk and the film’s most famous line with The Guardian)

Scorsese meanwhile admitted that he never thought Taxi Driver was a film people wanted to see, explaining it was the passion that drove him to make it. When he first read Schrader’s script, the film-maker was in post-production on his first collaboration with De Niro, Mean Streets, and looking ahead to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. 

She’s Just Like the Others… Cold and Distant…
Cybill Shepherd as Betsy; "Taxi Driver" DVD Screenshot; Initial theatrical release February 8, 1976: Credit: ©1976 Columbia Pictures.
Cybill Shepherd as Betsy; “Taxi Driver” DVD Screenshot; Initial theatrical release February 8, 1976: Credit: ©1976 Columbia Pictures.

Bickle sees Betsy at her work, campaigning for Charles Palantine for President.

He’s struck by her beauty… He watches her for a brief time, then summons the courage to barge into the office and ask her out. His honesty and his intensity momentarily win the day. Betsy agrees to have coffee with him on her break.

Things go well and Betsy is so far impressed by Bickle’s honesty and the fact that he wants to “get organised.”

But that’s just a cup of coffee.

His attempts to woo Betsy illustrate how isolated Bickle is from society. He has no idea who Charles Palantine is, or what he stands for. When Betsy asks him about music, he’s at a loss, pretending his stereo is broken. He has the candidate she works for as a fare in his cab on a night, but he fails to leverage that in conversation with her. When the time comes to take her out, he’s so socially inept that he takes her to a porno movie.

“I realize now how much she’s just like the others, cold and distant, and many people are like that…” — Travis Bickle;

So her rejection of him, to me, is a social rejection, not simply a romantic one.

In his sole another attempt to “socialise” in the movie, his attempt to connect with Peter Boyle, Bickle fails to connect as well. He tries to talk to someone, to tell someone that he’s… becoming unstable, and what he gets is “I’m a cabbie, what do I know,” and, “eh, you’ll be alright.”

With no connections, unable to sleep, surrounded by moral decay and rejected by society, Bickle becomes unhinged.

“…I’ve got some bad ideas in my head.” — Travis Bickle.

 Loner. Isolated. Ostracized. Maladjusted… Bickle is about to add Psychotic and Dangerous to the list of unfavourable adjectives which can be applied to him.

His diary entries, our connection to his thoughts, become darker, more aggressive.

“June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pullups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.” — Travis Bickle;

He begins working out, arming himself, pushing his endurance and tolerance for pain. He undergoes a militaristic training regimen for a yet unannounced mission. The viewer watches as his rope becomes taut. He compresses like a spring-loaded trap.

In one of the many social commentaries of the movie, it’s easier for Travis Bickle to buy a small cache of personal handguns than it is for him to find a friend, or to make a romantic connection.

The focus of his obsession becomes Senator Palantine, the presidential candidate. There may be some residual bitterness for Palatine placating him in the cab, or over the fact that Betsy rejected him and she works for Palatine, but I feel that it’s mainly just that Palantine is famous, and important, and Bickle isn’t. Bickle has been rejected, he’s a societal malfunction. Killing someone important would be an empowering act, something that commanded attention and regard from the world that is currently happy to completely ignore him.

And we’re left with no doubt that he’s capable of it, either. In his first act of vigilantism, Bickle shoots a convenience store robber in the head, killing him. In shades of things to come, not only does he get away with it, the store owner is grateful to him.

But before completing his “Work for the Government”, Bickle has one more thing he wants to do. He wants to free the young prostitute who tried to escape her current existence by getting into his cab one night.

 Jodie Foster as Iris “Easy” Steensma

 Directors are often advised not to work with children or animals because most of the time they can’t possibly help it but rather make it harder to work with. But for those who ignore this advice and bring to life screenplays with a great role for a child or teenaged talent, the brilliance of young actors can be breathtaking, resulting in some of the most memorable performances in cinema.

Foster credits her mother, Evelyn, with instilling the impeccable standards she displayed when choosing a material, even at a young age. She consistently turned down chances to join the Brat Pack or to be the ingenue or love interest in generic rom-com, in favour of scripts that were smart, layered and edgy – preferably with an A-list director attached. So Foster did Taxi Driver and Freaky Friday. The Accused, not Pretty in Pink. The Silence of the Lambs, not Sleepless in Seattle.

“Taxi Driver was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I didn’t become a weirdo and squawk like a chicken.” — Jodie Foster.

Jodie Foster consistently turned down chances to join the Brat Pack, or to be the ingenue or love interest in generic rom-com, and does the same even today, in favour of scripts, that were smart, layered and edgy. Though she was only 12 years old when the movie was filmed, Foster was one of the most experienced actors in the cast, having appeared in dozens of TV shows and a handful of movies (including Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). Nonetheless, with material as rough as Taxi Driver, her youth outweighed her experience, and the producers had her meet with someone from California’s child welfare department to make sure she was mature enough to handle it. A welfare worker supervised her scenes and Foster’s older sister, Connie, was hired as her body double for some of the sexier and/or more violent shots. Foster said that the welfare worker “saw the daily rushes of all my scenes and made sure I wasn’t on the set when Robert De Niro said a dirty word.”

The premise of her character “Iris” in Taxi Driver is simple enough: She first flashes before the camera in a crimson crop top and full make-up. Though only fourteen when she made her feature-length debut, Foster delivers a truly nuanced performance in this picture – one that stayed with audiences long after they exited the auditorium. This could be put down to the fact that she had already completed eight years’ worth of television work, but as she holds her own in scenes with both Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel (her manipulative pimp, Sport) it’s clearly more than that: Foster wields her own unique charisma that betrays a wisdom well beyond her years. Her stand-out scene is surely the breakfast conversation at the coffee shop in which she effortlessly juggles vulnerability, playfulness and shrewdness. While Travis spews forth his rather convoluted stream of consciousness she piles jam onto toast in thick globs, sports not one but two different sets of vibrantly coloured sunshades and giggles deliciously, childishly, naturally throughout. “Didn’t you ever hear of women’s lib?” she quips when Travis tells her she should be at home with her parents rather than turning tricks, but in the next instant she’s straight-faced and pensive; deliberating Travis’s hard verbal knocks and some of the poor life choices she has made. And in the bloody finalé, “Iris” delicately depicts the true colours of the character as, dressed in white, she curls up, cowering in the foetal position. She has reverted to the baby she is deep down as Travis shoots his way through the men who have exploited her. His actions give her a chance to be born again and continue a different life. The rebirth draws terrified cries and screams from her but, ultimately, she winds up where she was always supposed to be: in the arms of her parents.

Harvey Keitel as Matthew ‘Sport’ Higgins

“Escaping the Hell on Earth”

Iris,” as we learn her name is, is only 12 years old. A prostitute.

Her pimp, Sport, informs Bickle that he can do anything he likes with her. But no rough stuff. When Bickle talks with her, after paying for her time, he learns that she’s a runaway and a drug user.

Bickle may be psychotic, but he has a moral centre. This is wrong, and he’s certain of it. To him, the perpetrators of crimes such as the selling of Iris for sexual favours are inhuman. Scum. Vermin. Animals. So when his attempt to assassinate Palantine fails (in a demonstration of his ineffectual), Bickle’s attention turns to them. They bear the brunt of his pent-up frustrations, his anger at the evils of society, and his desire to, in some way, be a person of power.

What unfolds is a scene of legendary violence. It may be defrayed now by decades of violence on film, but it was highly controversial at the time. Scorsese had to desaturate the colours and thus de-emphasize the blood in the scene in order to achieve an R rating.

Not having a bullet left for himself, Bickle survives the shootout. Roger Ebert has put forth a possible interpretation that Bickle actually died from his wounds, and the denouement celebrating him as a hero and his brief reunion with Betsy are in fact, post-mortem delusions.

I find it far more interesting that he lived, however.

Taxi Driver plunges us into Bickle’s brooding sense of anticipation, of dread, and into the pushed down anger that keeps seeping to the surface in his life, and we the viewer watch this angry somnambulist as he begins to unravel, and just as he spirals out of control, how he hatches a plan to redeem not just himself but all of society, a plan that involves rescuing at least one person from what’s coming down the pike, and that person is Jodie Foster’s Iris, in the movie’s penultimate scene which is symbolically a shocking bloody, soul-cleaning explosion of violence in which the redeemer is redeemed, and ultimately his sins are forgiven (Scorsese desaturated the color in the final shoot-out in order to get an “R” rating).

“God’s Lonely Man…”

Watching Taxi Driver made me realise everything I thought I knew about movies was wrong and I had much to learn about film. “All the animals come out at night” and one of them was a cabby who’s about to snap. An insomniac ex-Marine Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) works the nightshift, driving his cab throughout decaying mid-’70s New York City, wishing for a “real rain” to wash the “scum” off the neon-lit streets. Chronically alone, Travis cannot connect with anyone, not even with such other cabbies as blowhard Wizard (Peter Boyle). He becomes infatuated with vapid blonde presidential campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who agrees to a date and then spurns Travis when he cluelessly takes her to a porno movie. The truth of my initial viewing is Martin Scorsese’s direction dropped me so far into Travis’ mind and I never understood any of his actions as wrong. I didn’t see him as a vigilante or even insane, I felt his struggles, loneliness, and desire to cure the world of uncivilised people. It was not until I read up on the film after the fact that it hit me, Taxi Driver is a diary of a madman, not a “hero’s tale.” This led to a magical rush of cinematic brilliance inside me, lined in a sour sorrow that maybe I was crazy because I’ve been extremely lonely. Maybe everyone’s crazy. Are we crazy because we’re lonely?

We’ve all felt like that dead animal Travis focuses on as he watches TV, while everyone on the screen dances around the fallen soul. What Scorsese makes of Taxi Driver is not solely educating us about the loneliness we may feel, but presents us with a theory on why we are so lonely: we make ourselves lonely when the lines between what we want and what we can have do not overlap. We try to reach out, but the people we want, do not want us back. There are people that accept us into their lives, even if we surround ourselves with them, we will still feel unfulfilled by the absence of the people we want. This makes us feel unworthy on top of the loneliness.

Betsy represents who Travis wants un-mutually and Iris is the woman he can literally have but has no interest in possessing. Using his masculinity, Travis can’t extract revenge on Betsy by killing the man she looks up to (the presidential candidate), so he kills the man of Iris he is able to murder (the pimp).

Taxi Driver show’s Travis’ loneliness in two specific acts in the finale: 1) the need to change the world’s problems (with the shootout) and 2) wanting to end his miserable life by killing himself. After Travis kills everyone he desired to in the finale to save Iris, he puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger. The light sound effect of an empty gun brought the biggest gasp from me embedded in intense sorrow and the slight disappoints Travis feels. Loneliness pushes us to extremes that with a fulfilled life we would think we would have to not sink to. Not only is it my opinion that I think this is Scorsese’s best film, but I would guess this is one that’s most personal to him. In particular with the placement of his cameos 1) by gazing at Betsy, he’s acting as Travis 2.0, showing his fascination and love/lust for her. 2) the man in the back of the taxi cab who literally directs Travis on a screen to a method of expressing his loneliness through violence. The framing of Scorsese to DeNiro make the director like the “devil” on the side of Travis’ shoulder, telling him to feed into his dark side.

Scorsese is aided by Robert DeNiro’s portrayal, there’s no adjective to describe the superb acting he performs as Travis Bickle. One of the finest performances in cinema, he’s a factor that made my first reaction so personal. DeNiro’s finest scene is talking to The Wizard outside the coffee shop. We understand Travis, we’ve been in his mind, we know what he wants to say, but he struggles to communicate when he tries.

The point of view of Taxi Driver is crucial to the brilliance of Scorsese’s work. He puts us in Travis’ mind and his feelings. To realise Travis’s violent, criminal actions fed me food for thought: how do we know if we are like Travis? Inside our own minds, we are the heroes and everyone else is a possible villain. We have a magnificent image of ourselves in our minds, even in Travis’ head, we feel victimised by Betsy. However, if we look at the story from Betsy’s point of view: Travis is a creepy guy that took her to a porno movie theatre and stalks her every move. Can we *really* blame her? Perspective is key here and thinking of this fact may help broaden our minds to accept other people’s perspectives, not only our own in everyday situations in real life.

‘Taxi Driver’ was the 2nd “De Niro/Scorsese Collaboration”
The De Niro/Scorsese Collaboration —
The De Niro/Scorsese Collaboration —”Taxi Driver” was also the 2nd Director/Actor collaboration of Martin Scorsese & Robert De Niro. The two would eventually continue to pair up for two more decades (at intervals) & produce six more truly remarkable and celebrated features. | Image courtesy of @asifahsankhan.

Opening Title Sequence: Cut to Bickle's eyes as he peers through the window of his taxi, observing the city streets. The seedy splendor of 1970s New York City flashes by, images of a nightly routine that threatens to become hypnotic.
Opening Title Sequence: Cut to Bickle’s eyes as he peers through the window of his taxi, observing the city streets. The seedy splendor of 1970s New York City flashes by, images of a nightly routine that threatens to become hypnotic.

During my most recent viewing, I took particular interest in focusing on the heavy use of taxi cabs as symbolism for loneliness. The taxi itself boxes Travis in from everyone him, he’s enclosed from the world only able to see what and who is around him never reaching true intimacy. Taxi cabs are yellow, yellow is a colour usually associated with being optimistic, which gives Travis pain as a taxi driver all the sicker. Travis sees New York as a filthy space with evil people. Scorsese makes us feel Travis is driving through Hell, with the company of the vast smoke surrounding the taxi cab. The first shot after the taxi cab entering through the smoke is that of Travis’ eyes, full of confusion and fear of the unknown. Taxi Driver suggests we never see all the shades of some people, we only see the side they show us. People are not simply black and white based on their occupation, stature, or personality. For example, as the desired woman image of any young man fits Betsy, but she turns out to be a cold, mean woman (at least from the perspective on Travis). Iris, however, the morally “wrong”, troubled whore is the person Travis is able to be himself with and treats him kindly. That’s Travis’ problem at the core, suffering from post-traumatic stress after the Vietnam war, he was left unable to communicate, therefore isolated.

The “Symbolism” is taken advantage of by the director and Cinematography, as well as creating newly inspired camera shots.

  • At the beginning of the film, Travis walks home passing a row of several taxi cabs. This gives the feeling of Travis’ future consisting of nothing but loneliness.
  • Travis’ apartment windows caged with bars make us feel like he’s trapped in his life of unhappiness and isolation.
  • Water is shown the windshield of the taxi, which acts almost as tears of sorrow from the streets of the city leaking onto Travis’ life.
  • Betsy notices Travis is staring at her from inside the campaign headquarters. The shot of Travis observing the campaign building raises the windshield just below his eye line, which shows he can’t do anything in his life besides “watch.”
  • On their first date, Travis is shot with taxis behind him (symbolising loneliness) and behind Betsy is massive amounts of people (symbolising appropriate socialising and more fulfilment with relationships).
  • He is unable to communicate even with his friends. Scorsese gives us close-ups of his friends when they are speaking in the coffee shop, but when Travis is put forward to answer questions, there’s a change to a wide shot as Travis mumbles.
  • In the pathetic moments of Travis begging Betsy to talk to him, he stands next to two empty phones. After Betsy rejects him once again, the camera gives up hope, doesn’t care, and is too humiliated to even look at Travis panning across to the other side of the room as Travis continues to speak.
  • Outside the coffee shop, Travis talks to the Wizard where he’s placed in front of a taxi cab with red lights from the streets hitting him. The taxis behind him symbolise loneliness as the root of his problem and the red lights hitting his face as a foreshadowing for his eventual bloodbath.
  • When Travis buys the gun, the salesman pops the cylinder out trying to appeal to Travis. His eyes are placed in the middle of the cylinder, brilliantly showing where his motivation lies: murder and violence
  • The television begins to act as a symbolism for loneliness, too. TV provides a source of false comfort for lonely people, like in his taxi cab, he can only observe the social interaction, never be apart of it.
  • After the deed is done and only two survivors are left in Iris’ apartment, the long shots that exit the crime scene act almost like the news story recapping the events in a glacial fashion.

The glorification of Bickle after his killing spree is a condemnation of the media, and of the society of the “Taxi Driver”-verse (our society), as a whole. Certainly, Bickle is no hero, he was moments away from killing a political figure. The only reason he didn’t kill himself was that he ran out of bullets. Holding the scum of the city responsible for their crimes is one thing… summary executions are another. It’s a mixed blessing at best, and is Travis Bickle really the type of person we would want sitting judge, jury and executioner? As opposed to celebrating vigilantism, I think “Taxi Driver” un-glamorizes it, and points more to the fact that our society often does a piss poor job of knowing who to honour and who to vilify. “We are the people,” is the slogan of Charles Palantine, it also becomes the tagline of the film. “We are the people” unites us all in the universal hopeless feeling of loneliness. It impacts us all, even if the wave hits some of us harder than others. The last shot of Travis looking back into the rear-view mirror tells us that Travis is standing tall at this moment of ignoring Betsy now that she desires him, but the loneliness still lurks underneath the surface.

Focusing on the vigilante violence of “Taxi Driver” overlooks the broader meaning, however. As much as it’s a film that speaks to crime and violence, I feel the heart of “Taxi Driver” deals with isolation and the absence of social interaction. How, if marginalised and discarded, people can become unstable. Violence is a logical output… It’s a film about loneliness and the tragedy which can result from the failure to make genuine connections with others.

That’s a timeless message, and thankfully, this film has been preserved by the National Film Registry.

Park Circus, the U.K.-based classic film distributor which represents Martin Scorsese's post-Vietnam drama internationally, unveiled the one-sheet, ahead of its 40th anniversary re-release in 2016. Photo: 'Taxi Driver's 40th anniversary poster.
Park Circus, the U.K.-based classic film distributor which represents Martin Scorsese’s post-Vietnam drama internationally, unveiled the one-sheet, ahead of its 40th anniversary re-release in 2016. Photo: ‘Taxi Driver’s 40th anniversary poster.

Taxi Driver” lost the Best Picture Oscar to the more comforting “Rocky” but its legacy is far beyond than any other film’s reach, especially other films of that sub-genre and is still unmatched. Anchored by De Niro’s disturbing embodiment of “God’s lonely man,” it remains a striking milestone of both Scorsese’s career and 1970s Hollywood. It won worldwide critical acclaim upon its release and is still highly regarded to this day. It came in at #47 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Films, and remained in the same general vicinity ten years later (#52) when the tenth-anniversary edition was released. Bickle’s quote, “Are you talkin’ to me?” made at #10 on their list of the top 100 movie quotes of all time, and Bickle himself came in at #30 on their list of 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains. 

On the “Villains” side. Of course, artists should rarely (if ever) be held responsible for how madmen interpret their work. But there’s no denying that Travis Bickle, so ferociously embodied by Robert De Niro, has become something of a pop-culture icon—an outlaw anti-hero, immortalised on dorm-room posters and through the transformation of his psychotic bedroom soliloquies (“You talkin’ to me?”) into oft-quoted catchphrases. If the legacy of Taxi Driver is the lionisation of a murderous bigot, then maybe Williams was right to be reluctant about handing it an award. The million-dollar question, to which there may not be a satisfactory answer, is whether the movie is accidentally fascist or just widely misunderstood. Is Bickle’s nihilism so persuasively conveyed that it ends up sounding like a kind of gospel, not the ravings of a lunatic?
On the other hand, much has been made about Taxi Driver as a political film, and there’s little doubt that Bickle is intended as an embodiment of American disillusionment—the angry voice of an angry nation, post-Vietnam and Watergate. But Bickle’s fury is not constructive, it’s misdirected: “I don’t know much about politics,” he tells Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris), the presidential candidate he’ll later plot to assassinate. And indeed, the politician becomes his target, not because of any specific agenda he promotes, but because Betsy—the girl who snubbed Bickle earlier in the film—is working on the man’s campaign. Mostly, Bickle just lumps all of his imaginary rivals into one category, blaming “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies” for ruining his city. There’s also a racial angle to his animosity, with Bickle sharing several long, cold stares with the black men he encounters during his nightly odysseys. To see this misfit as a hero—any kind of hero—one basically has to share his prejudices. He’s the antithesis of the counterculture, acting on behalf of only himself and his own hang-ups. Did it deserve to win? Sadly, I’ve only seen a small handful of titles from the 1976 competition slate.

But it has to be Taxi Driver, doesn’t it? Problematic or not, Scorsese’s film has a power—a combined force of performance, atmosphere, and directorial verve—that can’t be ignored. It’s an unforgettable movie. Less worthy, perhaps, but still very worthwhile: Roman Polanski’s creepy-funny apartment thriller, The Tenant, a great companion piece to his Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby; and Wim Wenders’ Kings Of The Road, another of the German director’s loose, poetic travelogues and a fine tribute to ancient movie houses. I’d have to see the majority of the other contenders to know for sure, but Taxi Driver seems in retrospect like a no-brainer.

Watch Taxi Driver‘s 2016 re-release trailer: 

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Nobody predicted that Taxi Driver (1976) would become this legendary. Nobody predicted it will become Scorsese’s greatest creation, ‘Travis Bickle‘ as De Niro’s greatest portrayal on screen and their collaboration together will end up as America’s greatest and most iconic cinematic brilliance.


Forty years on… Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver still thrives collectively in public consciousness.

Thank you,

Asif Ahsan Khan

Taxi Driver by Asif Ahsan Khan

© 2017 Asif Ahsan Khan. ® All Rights Reserved.

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