#443) Taxi Driver (1976)
OR “Mr. Scorsese’s Wild Ride”
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Paul Schrader
Class of 1994
The Plot: Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) takes a job as a New York City taxi driver to combat his chronic insomnia. His increasing isolation causes him to become unhinged, leading to violent thoughts and stalking political campaign organizer Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). After an encounter with child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel), Bickle starts purchasing firearms, planning to become the metaphorical rain that will “wash all this scum off the streets”. If you dare to follow Bickle as his mental health deteriorates, be sure to make clear that you are, in fact, talking to him.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up mostly assumes you know why the film is a classic, giving a brief synopsis and a rundown of the major creatives. They do, however, state that Schrader’s screenplay creates “one of American cinema’s most European in artistic style.”
But Does It Really?: My name is Tony and I’ve never seen “Taxi Driver”. With that out of the way, man alive does this movie live up to the hype. The subject matter is dark and unsettling (and unfortunately still relevant), but Scorsese masterfully draws you into this underworld, to the point that you feel unsafe just by watching this movie. The entire cast is great, with De Niro giving a performance worthy of its continued praise and parodies. Scorsese et al elevate “Taxi Driver” to an unforgettable film experience, but we’ll see if a movie about a white gunman continues to be one of filmdom’s untouchables.
Shout Outs: Paul Schrader has cited “The Searchers” as a major influence on his screenplay. As for references within in the film, Travis wears a King Kong patch on his jacket, and a “Nashville” poster briefly appears in the background.
Wow, That’s Dated: First off, taxi drivers (“Uber Driver” doesn’t pack the same punch). Secondly, this film is a thorough encapsulation of the hellhole that was 1970s New York, aided by the real-life garbage strike during production. Also of note: porno houses, a nod to Kris Kristofferson, and un-inflated cab fares ($1.35!? That’s highway robbery!)
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial hit, “Taxi Driver” received four Oscar nominations, but was the only Best Picture nominee that year to go home empty-handed. Bernard Herrmann’s posthumous score lost to “The Omen”, De Niro and Foster lost their acting bids to the cast of “Network”, and the film lost Best Picture to “Rocky”. Neither Scorsese nor Schrader were nominated, a trend of Oscar abuse that would continue for both men for decades to come.
- It’s a bit concerning, but Paul Schrader has called “Taxi Driver” autobiographical. In the early ‘70s, Schrader was unemployed, divorced, and depressed. Like Travis Bickle, he developed insomnia, visited porno theaters, and started researching guns. In the midst of all this, Schrader theorized that he could be a taxi driver, and inspiration struck. To better understand his protagonist, Schrader studied the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who attempted to assassinate Governor George Wallace.
- Robert De Niro man. Robert Fucking De Niro. This is the performance that solidified De Niro as his generation’s best actor. He so fully inhabits Travis Bickle, forcing you not only to witness his deep disturbing attributes, but also to recognize how similar you may be to this guy. If forced to choose, this is the single best De Niro performance.
- One of my notes simply reads “Could Not Be Made Today”. The film is brilliant, but the days of sympathizing with a white male loner are over.
- Cybill Shepherd is quite good as one of Scorsese’s first angelic blondes. I’m more familiar with Shepherd’s later work (like her sitcom), but she is equally good joking around with Albert Brooks as she is reluctantly engaging with Travis Bickle.
- The camera is constantly moving in this film; gliding over scenes that would normally be covered in static close-ups. I think it’s to symbolize Travis as a modern-day angel, but mostly it’s distracting. Other than that, great movie.
- The brilliance of the movie’s structure is that the danger element creeps in incrementally. By the time you figure out just how dangerous Travis is, you’re already past the point of no return.
- After actor George Memmoli was injured during another film shoot, Martin Scorsese cast himself as “Passenger Watching Silhouette” in one of filmdom’s creepiest director cameos. Even when acting, Scorsese keeps directing De Niro (“You see that light up there? The window?…Are you blind? Do you see the light? Yeah, yeah you see it. Good.”)
- Peter Boyle is so underrated as an actor. He’s best remembered for his comedies (“Young Frankenstein” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”), but the man was also capable of impressive, naturalistic performances, such as his work here as fellow cabbie The Wizard.
- Respect must be paid to legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, who died the day after the final recording session for “Taxi Driver”. Side note: Shoutout to Ronnie Lang for the film’s saxophone solos.
- All accounts agree that De Niro improvised “you talkin’ to me?” on the day. It’s another iconic movie quote that still works in its original context, despite the repeated homages.
- Travis’ showdown at the liquor store is our first glimpse at the film’s unrestrained violence. It’s a disturbing moment, which makes me wonder just how intense this all was for an audience in 1976.
- Even at 12 years old, Jodie Foster was the most intelligent adult in the room. Any actor who can pull off this movie and “Freaky Friday” in the same year has my lifelong respect. To ensure that she would not be traumatized from playing a child prostitute, Foster underwent psychological counseling, and had all of the violent effects explained to her in detail so nothing surprised her. Foster’s older sister Connie also served as a body double for her more evocative scenes.
- Like a car accident on the side of the road, the film’s violent finale is gruesome, yet simultaneously compelling. And if the color seems a little off, you’re not imaging things: Scorsese brightened the film’s last reel to make the blood look less realistic and avoid receiving an X rating.
- Everyone has their own take on the last scene. Mine? Real life doesn’t always reward the good and punish the bad, or even successfully differentiate the two. Travis’ “heroics” will be forgotten, and I suspect his life will continue unchanged by the events of the film.
- “Taxi Driver” has one of the most unfortunate cultural impacts of any film. In the early ‘80s, 26-year-old John Hinckley Jr. became obsessed with the movie and formed an unhealthy fixation on Jodie Foster, to the point of stalking her while she attended Yale. To prove his love for her, Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan, mimicking Bickle’s assassination attempt in the movie. Reagan survived, and although Hinckley was declared not guilty by reason of insanity, he ended up serving 35 years in a psychiatric hospital. The team behind “Taxi Driver” rarely, if ever, comments on this situation.
- On a lighter note, “Taxi Driver” was the film that launched Scorsese into the roster of A-list directors. His follow-up film, 1977’s “New York, New York”, was less successful, but he bounced back with “Raging Bull”.
- Paul Schrader continues writing and directing films, and received his first Oscar nomination for 2017’s “First Reformed”. Other career highlights include the screenplay for “Raging Bull”, and this iconic George C. Scott turn in “Hardcore”.
- De Niro and Scorsese planned on making a sequel to “Taxi Driver” in the mid-2000s. The film was scrapped, as was an experimental remake in the 2010s, which Paul Schrader publicly called “a terrible idea”.
- But of course, this film’s main takeaway is “You talkin’ to me?” Everyone, EVERYONE, has spoofed this to death. But its official demise came in 2000, when De Niro himself repeated the phrase while playing Fearless Leader in “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”.
Listen to This: Only tangentially related to the film, sound designer Tony Schwartz made the National Recording Registry in 2003 with his 1959 album “The New York Taxi Driver”, comprised of actual recordings with real drivers. Thankfully, none of them possess any parallels to Travis Bickle.