This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Robert DeNiro. Released in 1976. Also with Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Albert Brooks, and Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul Schrader. Photographed by Michael Chapman. Produced by Michael and Julia Phillips. Themes - Alienation; Violence; Lust/reviewed on 9/11/99.
When I saw my first two Scorsese films, Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980), I enjoyed them and was very impressed by Scorsese's directorial skills. But neither was satisfying. I don't mean satisfying in a way that makes [you] leave the theater or shut off the VCR with a smile on your face or even tears rolling down your face after a sentimental tearjerker ending. Sure, those experiences may mean you were satisfied. But for me, satisfaction means your emotions (deep emotions) have been triggered by the movie and this kind of satisfaction means you can finish the movie in an upset or depressed mood.
Now don't get me wrong. I consider Raging Bull to be one of the top films of the eighties, and Mean Streets thrills me because it propelled Scorsese to success and it's raw and often exciting. But this film, Taxi Driver, is one that grabs you and pulls you into the screen, as do few movies. The Godfathers (especially Part II) does this, as do Vertigo, Saving Private Ryan in some scenes, and the Star Wars films on a good day. What are the qualities that can do this? I've found that color film usually helps me to get pulled in. Truthful acting, not just line reading - in fact the less talking the better, helps too. Music can really get me involved. Finally, the direction must give me the key to unlock the movie's world.
Taxi Driver contains one of the all-time best performances ever given on film, and perhaps the most real: Robert De Niro['s]. De Niro was in the two Scorsese films I saw, and I've seen him also in Heat (1995), Analyze This (1999), Ronin (1998), Great Expectations (1998), and his classic performances in films like The Untouchables (1987), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Godfather Part II (1974), and parts of Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990), on TV. But he's never been like this before or after. Even in his best, best work (Deer Hunter, Raging Bull) De Niro always seemed to be holding back a little bit. I was never sure why: maybe it was the parts. But in Taxi Driver he's wide open. Not one fragment of the character is not exposed, or at least existing in De Niro's mind.
Not in one single frame can you see him acting (as you usually can in The Untouchables), at least not in the traditional sense. Scorsese let De Niro improvise, but he improvises in character, as Travis Bickle. De Niro is simply existing as Travis, not acting as him. This is true "acting." Everyone else is excellent, but it's De Niro, Scorsese, and writer Paul Schrader who rule the movie, with help from Bernard Herrmann's powerful score (was there ever another kind from him at his best?).
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is a cab driver who is shut off from the world. He's a Vietnam veteran, but it's only briefly mentioned in the beginning. Still, it's very important to the story. Schrader and Scorsese seem to imply that Travis could only exist in a post-Vietnam world. Try to think of him in a buggy during the Victorian times or even in the thirties: it's impossible and highly unlikely, respectively. Travis writes yearly letters to his parents, telling them he's a government agent and cannot divulge more information; he says the same to Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute, who he wishes to save from her pimp (Harvey Keitel), who doesn't seem to be a sadist, but is certainly a pedophile.
Travis loves Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works for the campaign of a presidential nominee named Palantine. She rejects him after he brings her to a porn flick, and he tries to kill Palantine, but is foiled by the secret service, and runs away. That night, he goes on a killing rampage, slaughtering Iris' pimp, and various other lowlives who run the shabby whorehouse. Throughout the movie, Travis builds himself up, buys guns and practices with them, and even shaves his head into a mohawk. So at the end of the film, he is literally soaked in blood, both his own and that of those that he murdered. As the cops break down the door, Travis is covered with what must be mortal wounds. But in the ending sequences, we see newspaper clips covering the walls of his apartment, acclaiming his heroism. Then he picks up Bestsy in his cab and they part after she has briefly talked to him.
Roger Ebert has suggested that this is Travis' dying fantasy. I believe this fully. After all, look at the evidence: he's already been spotted trying to kill the presidential candidate. He's just murdered five or six people, mostly unarmed. And in the finale, we hear a voice-over of Iris' parents that says she has been returned to them, and they thank him. In real life, Iris would most likely just drift to somewhere else now that her pimp has been killed. Everything in the ending points to it being a dream: Travis is alive despite being shot numerous times in vulnerable places; he's chumming around with the other cab drivers; he hears that Iris is now safe; everybody loves him; he even gets to have revenge on the girl who broke his heart. This clearly must be his dying fantasy.
In fact, as he dies on the couch in Iris' room, he is holding his gun straight out between his legs. It's like Pauline Kael said: this is his version of sex, the closest he feels he can get. Finally, the movie ends with the decrepit streets of Manhattan as seen from Travis' cab. But Travis' reflection is no longer in the rear view mirror, as it was in the beginning of the shot. He's dead and he didn't change much after all. The city, the world, humanity, is the same as it always was and always will be, unchanged by him.
Tonight: The Third Man
Yesterday: The Seventh Seal