This story of a lonely man isolated from the millions of people around him could have been told in any city but Martin Scorcese’s movie could only have been made in New York City, and only in the city of the mid-seventies. Travis Bickle is as much a product of that time and place as he is a creation of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s imagination.
The New York City of Taxi Driver is definitely not today’s “Disney-fied” city. This is the pre-Giuliani Big Apple, the domain of pimps and drug dealers. Bickle (Robert DeNiro) cruises the streets in a big, hulking Checker cab, seething with moralistic resentment at the decay, moral and physical, he sees around him.
A former Marine who served in Vietnam, Bickle is unable to sleep. He takes a job as a cab driver because he already spends his nights riding around the city. “I might as well get paid for it.” Inarticulate and awkward, Bickle seems to lack a common frame of reference with the rest of the human race.
When he develops a romantic fixation on Betsy, a pretty young campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd), the relationship ends badly when he takes her to a porno movie for their first date. He can’t seem to conceive that other people are repulsed by what he see’s as normal entertainment.
Stung and bewildered by her rejection, Bickle retreats into isolation and a fantasy world in which he is avenging vigilante, cleaning the scum off New York’s street. When he stumbles on a twelve-year-old prostitute, Isis (Jodie Foster), he becomes obsessed with rescuing her from her pimp (Harvey Keitel), despite her lack of interest in being “saved.”
Bickle also fixates on the presidential candidate (Leonard Harris) for whom Betsy works as the cause for her rejection of him and begins planning to assassinate him for reasons that make sense only to Travis Bickle.
DeNiro’s performance is a marvelous of suggesting emotions rather than expressing them outwardly. Bickle’s normal emotional responses are stunted to the point that DeNiro is left with using very subtle tools to imply what the man is feeling.
Despite the character’s reputation as an almost stereotypical “crazed Vietnam veteran,” the movie does not make it explicit that Bickle’s inability to connect with the people around him has anything to do with the war. He could easily have been just as alienated with or without that experience.
Scorcese’s direction and Michael Chapman’s cinematography almost make the New York streets and Time Square DeNiro’s co-stars in this movie. Two years later, Chapman would use similar some techniques when shooting Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Despite their dissimilarity in subject matter, both films have some common DNA in their themes of urban isolation and paranoia.
With the musical score, frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann makes some intriguing choices, incorporating both the bombast of the film noir movies that influenced Scorcese’s direction with smoky but somehow sinister jazz music in other scenes.
Why did this slightly seedy, squalid film strike such a nerve that it became a cultural landmark of the seventies? I think, even though (hopefully) few of us are as truly lonely and isolated (and psychotic) as Travis Bickle, I think we have all had moments when we felt like the rest of the world turned right when we turned left. Even if we don’t turn into a mohawked killing machine, there are parts of the character that we can identify with. There is also the “there but for the grace of God go I” factor, because we all know that, on some level, people like that exist.
Possible Spoilers Follow
See the next page for a brief discussion of the ending of Taxi Driver.