Through the Looking-Glass: Why Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver Remains an Important Movie

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Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) fails to kill himself.

Movies in which persons stare at themselves in the mirror or talk to themselves are a dime a dozen in the world of today. Yet there aren’t too many iconic characters in modern Hollywood, or in contemporary cinema in general, especially not too many polarizing figures inspired by real life. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, however, the mad cabbie from Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, is certainly among them. He eventually becomes a hero in the eyes of the public – but for all the wrong reasons imaginable.

Nobody expected anything when movie mahatma Martin Scorsese tackled a low-budget project with the telling title Taxi Driver as his fifth directorial work in the mid-1970s, least of all himself. There wasn’t anyone who anticipated that it would grow into an all-time classic over the years. It was hard to even find any takers for the movie in the industry. No major producer wanted to take on and finance the film, despite the participation of Robert De Niro, who had just won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the young Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. Even screenwriter Paul Schrader was initially hesitant about the idea of having Martin Scorsese sit in the director’s chair.

He dismissed the up-and-coming filmmaker as a ‘Tiffany guy’ because he had just finished Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a drama that had netted Ellen Burstyn an Academy Award as Best Leading Actress in 1975. Likewise, censorship was causing the controversial picture centering on the manic Travis Bickle problems right from the start because of its explicit depiction of violence. In spite of it being controversially discussed and overshadowed by several scandals at once, Taxi Driver nonetheless remains a prime example of the experimental American cinema from that era – a long-forgotten period that Hollywood should probably hark back to more frequently.

Martin Scorsese’s fifth work as man at the helm is a very personal film in which the director, leading man Robert De Niro, and screenwriter Paul Schrader deal with the United States society of that time. As a Marine veteran, Travis is a product, or rather a spawn, of a culture in a rut and identity crisis after the sudden end of the hippie movement and the Vietnam disaster. He returns from his missions abroad a disturbed man, only to find his homeland a completely different country from the one he knew.

The sole reason why Bickle becomes a taxi driver in the first place is because he can’t sleep at night. More often than not, such a dysfunction is the expression of a posttraumatic stress syndrome. We experience Travis as an uptight character right from the start. Initially, the ignorant, uneducated, and naïve ex-soldier can keep himself together – until he experiences his personal Waterloo. When he is sent off with a flea in his ear by the pretty blonde campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), he goes completely off the rails.

In his eyes, she goes from a goddess in white to sleazy whore from this moment on. Bickle now seeks revenge, and the taxi driver doesn’t really care in which shape or form. His original plan is to whack Betsy’s boss, the charismatic U.S. Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), but when a secret agent prevents him from doing so, the cabbie simply finds a new target. Soon he emerges as the protector of an underage prostitute, the flower child Iris (Jodie Foster), even though she doesn’t really look for his help.

The final bloodbath of Taxi Driver, in which Travis brutally hunts down her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and his henchmen, is even more tragic, since the veteran actually wanted to top himself along the way. His grand undertaking is only bound to fail because he has no bullets left by the end of his killing spree and the police find him still alive. Bickle eventually survives and is magnified to the status of a hero by the media for his gutsy rescue mission of the child prostitute – or was it all just a (bad) dream?

In Taxi Driver, New York comes across as a rather nasty metropolis. Through the protagonist’s eyes, we see the city as a sinister, dirty, amoral Gomorrah. Evil lurks everywhere, and Travis (mis)interprets himself as the messiah who can rid the hotbed of sin from all the misery in the streets. Yet the former Marine is no better than all those flamboyant characters he constantly criticizes. In fact, the modern version of Dante’s Inferno seems to be downright beckoning to him.

His world is that of the red light district and the show-and-tells, to which he invites Betsy and is immediately rebuffed. At heart, Travis is a prototypical flâneur by Charles Baudelaire. On first glance, he looks like a local, who has no problems to find his way through his milieu. Still, Bickle doesn’t really belong anywhere. He is totally incompetent and overstrained on a social level. Thus, the young Iris remains his only true contact during the entire film. In this regard, you can even go as far as calling Taxi Driver a series of failed attempts to connect.

At times, the ex-soldier is also a true-blue gunslinger. As a matter of fact, the confrontation between him and the pimp consciously imitates a scene between the cowboy Ethan Edwards and the Comanche chief Scar from the iconic movie The Searchers by John Ford that Martin Scorsese frequently refers to. After Travis has started to ‘sport’ a Mohawk, however, there are no clear-cut boundaries between the two characters anymore. As in the western, we don’t know for sure who the hero and who the villain of Taxi Driver is.

Both Bickle and the pimp simply want to protect Iris in their own deranged way. The final killing spree is ultimately the pointless expression of frustrations that have pent up in the taxi driver for years. Instead of having a short fuse occasionally as other people do, the lonely, misunderstood Travis lets everything out as a combat machine. It would seem natural to think that he would feel relieved once he has let off steam, but does he really? The danger of history repeating itself remains.

Martin Scorsese’s movie is a masterpiece of referential cinema. It’s loaded with allusions to other works. In a sense, the taxi driver is as much a Nietzschean overman as he is a theatrical version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment. The way Bickle records his thoughts reminds us of the transcendental Diary Of A Country Priest by Robert Bresson, while the Alka-Seltzer scene with a close-up of a glass of water refers to 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her by Jean-Luc Godard.

Like the perverse killer from Peeping Tom by Michael Powell, Travis is a voyeur whose sole pleasure consists of watching scantily-clad ladies and living out his sexuality through violent eruptions. We can also notice the dimension of Bickle’s derangement on the audio level, where composer Bernard Herrmann takes up his own legendary three-note motif from Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. Even today, many other movies cite Taxi Driver. The most obvious example is probably La Haine by Mathieu Kassovitz, in which Vincent Cassel mimics the famous ’Are you talkin’ to me?’ scene in front of the mirror.

Travis Bickle is not only part of popular culture and an iconic character, for which Robert De Niro meticulously prepared himself as a real-life cabbie, but its whole set of problems still remains very much alive. For his screenplay, Paul Schrader drew from Arthur Bremer’s assassination attempt on Governor Arthur Bremer in 1972. Only few years after the release of the movie, John Hinckley referred to Taxi Driver when put on trial for trying to kill President Ronald Reagan. He claimed to have acted as Jodie Foster’s proxy and satisfied her greatest wish.

For that reason, there’s a complex interdependency between the movie and reality in which one imitates the other. In addition, the question of sensations and sudden stardom or heroism through vigilantism is also appropriate in the (post)modern media landscape. The newspapers glorify Travis because he has liberated Iris from prostitution and sent her home to her parents. He thereby becomes the emblem of a real but utterly perverted American Dream – or is it trauma? Either way, the United States is still haunted by it.