by Charles Michener
Martin Scorsese makes movies with more urgency than any other filmmaker today. In the current feverish atmosphere of moviemaking, urgency is all over the place: in the work of England’s Ken Russell, Germany’s Fassbinder, Italy’s Bertolucci and Wertmuller, and Hollywood’s Altman, to name a few other directors whose films seem to get made out of unusual personal exigency. But compared with Scorsese’s, their urgency seems constrained—tempered by needs other than that of simply getting “something” out and up there on the screen. In Russell’s case, it is the need to popularize Important Subjects; in Fassbinder’s and Wertmuller’s, to construct radical political metaphors; in Bertolucci’s, to psychoanalyze his protagonists; in Altman’s, to anatomize the ruptured American body politic. By contrast, Scorsese makes unprogrammatic movies that are intended not to instruct, explain, or scourge but simply to be (or more precisely, to move), movies that connect on the level of sheer energy Scorsese, who grew up a sickly kid in one of the worst places to be sickly—New York’s Little Italy—makes movies as though his life depended on it.
Mean Streets, Scorsese’s first widely acclaimed film (he had earlier made Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, a 1969 precursor to Mean Streets, and Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman) was his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, its Little Italy, his Dublin. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, his next film, was a hybrid, a messy composite of Scorsese’s attempt to turn his actors loose in a picaresque middle-American soap opera and the attempt of his star, Ellen Burstyn, to turn the movie’s story of a Widow on the Run into a Star-trip. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese is back where he grew up, New York City, and back in full control—in collaboration with his scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, and star, Robert De Niro. By far his most ambitious film to date technically and in the scope of its references, Taxi Driver shows Scorsese’s urgency working at full throttle—to the film’s considerable success and less considerable failure.
Only a New Yorker like Scorsese could do justice to Taxi Driver‘s governing conceit that the guy behind the wheel of the yellow cab that is bearing you through the streets of New York has a lot more on his mind than beating the lights and watching the meter go up, that he has it in him, in fact, to become a killer. In Schrader’s scenario, the nature of New York—as well as that of the cabbie—makes the realization of that potential inevitable. He is a young man, in his twenties perhaps, with the square, memorable but untraceable name of Travis Bickle. (Arthur Bremer at least had a German ring to it.) More to the point, he is a Vietnam veteran (Marine), who fulfills the current front-page definition of a “loner”: lives all by himself in a dingy one-room apartment; watches a lot of TV; talks to himself in a diary; can’t mix easily with his fellow-cabbies; can’t sleep easily; pops a lot of pills. New York is a jungle of sexual avarice. The only citizens on the sidewalks at night are pimps, muggers, and whores; his passengers are bleary businessmen who order him to drive faster while whores unzip their flies in the back seat. For after- hours diversion there are only 42nd-Street skin flicks. Plant a vision in Travis’s path of shining, uncorrupted beauty in the person of a beautiful, self-assured blonde who is idealistically campaigning for a clean-up Presidential candidate; have Travis attract her, then be spurned by her; introduce the candidate himself as an Arrow shirt mannequin with a gift for populist hot air, and the recipe is complete—for a bloody stew of violence. Travis buys himself the most up-to-date arsenal of guns on the black market, takes to the streets, and vengeance is his.
Reduced to its baldest terms, this is topical pulp, compounded not simply of the Bremer saga, Vietnam fallout, junior psychology of sexual frustration, and lurid confirmation of Johnny Carson jokes about Fun City, but other recent movies: Death Wish and Nashville. But like the best popular artists, Scorsese has a way of converting pulp into something more. The conventional Hollywood way with pulp—Michael Winner’s Death Wish—is to pump up clichés into political and moral archetypes. Mavericks like Altman (and before him Preston Sturges) have squeezed new life into pulp by means of satire and irony. Scorsese’s concerns are neither political nor, precisely, moral; and he’s no ironist. He is a fantasist who supercharges the clichés of Taxi Driver into the surreal figments of a nightmare that is at once comic, romantic, and terrifying. As in all nightmares, there is nothing in this one that we don’t already know—either about New York or fellow-citizens like Travis Bickle—but the feeling of a nightmare is never stale, and Taxi Driver, at its best, makes us feel New York and the Travis Bickles in it as no other movie has ever done before.
Scorsese has been frequently described as an “operatic” director for the flamboyance of his editing and camerawork (all Italian and Italian-American directors except the neo-realists and Antonioni are imprecisely tagged as operatic). But what is most operatic—and nightmarish—about Taxi Driver is the conversion of its principal elements (music, imagery, even characters) into motifs. The circularity of a cab driver’s movements makes his existence peculiarly susceptible to the recurrence of motifs; in Travis Bickle’s case, they recur like the Furies.
The most insistent of them is the pounding musical score by the late Bernard Herrmann, who died shortly before the film’s release. The last score by the legendary Hollywood composer for Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest and Psycho among others), it works on two levels in much the same way that Gato Barbieri’s music did for Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. On the one hand, it underscores, in the most old-fashioned manner, the film’s every dramatic moment and shift of mood, approaching at times the effect of a sledgehammer. On the other hand, it heightens, by its very qualities as an old-fashioned movie score, the dream-like nature of Taxi Driver, proclaiming it not a slice of life but an exercise essentially in surrealism, a movie.
Almost contrapuntal is the motif of Travis’s diary, spoken in quiet, flat voiceover by Travis himself, lapidarian in its inscription of Travis’s shut-in interior life and mounting rage against the outside world, illuminating the moral disgust that will finally explode in disgusting “purifying” violence. “Thank God for the rain,” Travis writes after a night on the job. “It helped wash away the garbage from the sidewalks.”
The most disturbing of the motifs is the garbage itself that floats in and out of Travis’s blurred vision. Much of it remains on the periphery, nameless and faceless—the muggers, pimps, and whores who line the sidewalks like lizards. Some of it floats into momentary central focus: a gang of Harlem kids who splatter eggs across Travis’s windshield; a psychotic passenger who uses the cab’s back seat as a perch from which to spy on his wife having an affair with a black man, all the while telling Travis how he’s going to fire a 44 Magnum pistol into her “pussy.”
None of the garbage will go away, when he’s not seeing it, he’s being told about it by other cabbies at their pit stop, the Belmore cafeteria. His attempt to transform the nightmare into a dream of romantic love for the “clean” campaign beauty fails because of his own “corrupt” unworthiness (she splits when he takes her to a porno movie). In a last-ditch effort to shake off the nightmare, he converts himself into the Romantic Hero, St. George slaying the dragon (his near assassination of the hollow “Mr. Clean” Presidential candidate) and finally, Sir Galahad rescuing an innocent in distress—a kewpie-doll, pre-pubescent hooker, a runaway kid who is being kept by a sexually authoritative pimp. Confronted by Travis’s newly-acquired prepotency with guns that are unleashable from nearly every part of his body, the pimp goes limp—and Travis wakes up.
As long as Scorsese stays within the confines of the nightmare, Taxi Driver projects a febrile, enveloping immediacy that is almost intoxicating. Scorsese obviously agrees with Ingmar Bergman’s remark that “the camera is erotic,” and he exhausts the arsenal of cinematic tricks with terrific panache, letting the images accumulate as a series of implosions—in preparation for the final explosive bloodbath. He has cast and directed his actors with an eye and feeling for their immediacy on screen, and in most cases obtained it. (Two exceptions are Harvey Keitel’s enormously engaging pimp, which smacks of a virtuoso riff, and Scorsese’s own cameo as the psychotic wife-watcher, which smacks of shtick.) As the super-clean, unattainable blonde, Cybill Shepherd is perfect: allowed to be Cybill Shepherd, she gives her most alertly relaxed performance since The Last Picture Show. Albert Brooks, the TV comedian, registers neatly as a rather desperately plugged-in rival for her affections, a foil for the desperately unplugged Travis.
Peter Boyle supplies thick-headed warmth as one of the boys at the Belmore. And Robert De Niro, in his most film-sustaining performance to date, is so right in the title role that cab riders will look twice at their driver to make sure it’s not Travis up there behind the wheel. De Niro is probably the most engaged disengaged figure on the American screen today—and you can’t take your eyes off him.
But finally, you can’t shut your mind off either, and once the exhilaration of the nightmare is over—once Travis “wakes up”—Taxi Driver takes a drastically wrong turn. Having wiped out the pimp, two of his partners in scumminess and nearly himself in his efforts to rescue the child hooker, Travis emerges a hero with his face on the front page of the Daily News, his rage exorcised, his violence purged.
But never mind. Never mind that Scorsese and Schrader don’t bother to explain why the investigating cops found nothing peculiar about crazy-eyed Travis, sitting amid the carnage, his head shaved like a Mohawk Indian’s, his body laced with straps for a half-dozen unregistered guns. Never mind that the Secret Service had previously spotted him as a would-be assassin of the Presidential candidate. It’s a gimmicky O.Henry “surprise” ending that scrambles the film’s intentions and raises unexplored implications that don’t need raising about real-life cops and real-life killers. But never mind. People who make films with the urgency of Scorsese are apt to be careless and callow. And if Taxi Driver‘s dead-end ending reveals the risks of that approach, it also points up the unmistakable brilliance of what has come before.
Film Comment, Vol. 12, No. 2 (March-April 1976), pp. 4-5