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Classic Film Review: Taxi Driver [1976]

Taxi DriverMartin Scorsese’s 1976’s American psychological thriller film, Taxi Driver, was shot during a New York heat wave and garbage strike.

Robert De Niro plays insomniac New York taxi driver, Travis Bickle, driven mad by driving around the hellish streets at night- or perhaps already that way? He has a humiliating date with a political activist, played by Cybill Shepherd, who is way, way out of his league, and becomes a would-be assassin once he realises. He also conceives an obsession with a 12-year-old underage prostitute, played by Jodie Foster (who puts all child actors everywhere to shame).

Taxi Driver came into conflict with the ratings and censorship board for it’s violence- a problem Scorsese handled by de-saturating the colour in the final shoot-out, earning the film an R rating.

To create the atmospheric scenes in Bickle’s cab, a sound man would be shut in the truck and Scorsese with his cinematographer, Michael Chapman, would conceal themselves on the floor of the back seat, using just the available lighting to shoot.

The film rarely strays very far from the personal, highly subjective way in which Travis sees the city and lets it wound him. He is a Vietnam vet and the national trauma of the war blends perfectly with Bickle’s paranoid psychosis, making his experiences after the war more intense and threatening.

To feed this anger and hatred, Travis drives his taxi to places he abhors in the city.

It is a city populated with women he cannot have: Unobtainable blondwomen who might find him attractive for a moment, who might join him for a cup of coffee, but who can see through to the madness under his shell. The men of the city anger Travis just as much- the city is full of men who can have these beautiful women: men who might be awful human beings in Travis’ mind but who have the mysterious ability to not get everything wrong.

Taxi Driver is not a film about New York, per se; more the weathers of a man’s soul and the things he selects that feed and reinforce his obsessions- New York is just the setting.

Scorsese clearly finds Travis’ rejection more painful than the later murders: as Travis talks on a payphone to a girl who is turning him down, the camera slowly dollies to the right and looks down a long, empty hallway. As if the audience and the camera cannot bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. When Travis later goes on a killing rampage however, the camera goes so far as to adopt slow motion so we can see the horror in greater detail.

This mindset clearly tells us a lot about Travis as a film character and also urban violence on film; he stands here for the men who have been shut out so systematically, so often, from a piece of the action that eventually they have to hit back somehow.