Taxi Driver (1976) | Review by Pauline Kael

No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully; at first, here, it’s horrifyingly funny, and then just horrifying.
Taxi Driver (1976)

Pauline Kael had a conflicted relationship with one of her rebels, Paul Schrader. Since turning down the movie-reviewing post in Seattle that she had urged him to take, Schrader had been living in Los Angeles, trying to be a screenwriter. By 1973 he had finished a number of original scripts and, swallowing his pride, sent Pauline four of them—Taxi Driver, The Yakuza, Deja Vu, and Rolling Thunder. Schrader wrote to her about them in May of that year, clearly wanting her to approve of the path he had taken. He told her that he considered Taxi Driver the best of the lot.

Pauline took the screenplay of Taxi Driver to bed with her late one night, expecting to leaf through only a few pages before dropping off to sleep. She was so riveted by it, however, that she read the entire script before dawn broke. She was unnerved by the characterization of Travis Bickle, the dissociative cabdriver so obsessed with purging the scum of New York, that she was unable to sleep with the script in the bedroom. Eventually she took it into another room, stacked a pile of other things on top of it, and went back to bed.

In mid-1974 Taxi Driver was green-lighted by Columbia Pictures. Schrader was in New York and had dinner with Pauline and the Chicago film reviewer Roger Ebert at the Algonquin. Perhaps because she didn’t want to admit she had been wrong about which vocation he should choose, she never said much to Schrader about his script. All she offered about Taxi Driver that night was that she felt Robert De Niro would never be able to do justice to the part of Travis Bickle.

In December 1974, when The Godfather, Part II was released, Pauline changed her mind about De Niro. Pauline found that she came close to not having “the emotional resources to deal with the experience of this film. Twice, I almost cried out at acts of violence that De Niro’s Vito committed. I didn’t look away from the images, as I sometimes do at routine action pictures. I wanted to see the worst; there is a powerful need to see it. You need these moments as you need the terrible climaxes in a Tolstoy novel. A great novelist does not spare our feelings (as the historical romancer does); he intensifies them, and so does Coppola.” Pauline wondered of the film’s early scenes. She thought that De Niro, as young Vito, had “the physical audacity, the grace, and the instinct to become a great actor— perhaps as great as Brando.”

Pauline strayed from the herd with her review of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It must have been difficult for her to write about the film, given her history with Schrader, and in the review she pointedly did not go into any detail about Schrader’s contribution; she simply mentioned that he wrote the script. All the credit was given to Martin Scorsese, whom she thought “may just naturally be an Expressionist… Scorsese’s Expressionism isn’t anything like the exaggerated sets of the German directors; he uses documentary locations, but he pushes discordant elements to their limits, and the cinematographer, Michael Chapman, gives the street life a seamy, rich pulpiness.” Although she initially told Schrader that De Niro wouldn’t be up to playing Travis, she thought that he had given a wondrous performance: He had “used his own emptiness—he’s reached down into his own anomie. Only Brando has done this kind of plunging, and De Niro’s performance had something of the undistanced intensity that Brando’s had in Last Tango.” She wrote, “No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully; at first, here, it’s horrifyingly funny, and then just horrifying.”

Ultimately, Pauline saw Taxi Driver as a brilliant expression of her own fears about New York. In the screening room where she first viewed the film—Bernard Herrmann’s score had not yet been added—she sat in stunned silence at the ending, in which Travis winds up being acclaimed as a hero and resumes his restless night-driving search, which will surely explode in violence once again. Her friend Joseph Hurley recalled that when the movie was over, she leaned back in her seat and cried, “He’s still out there!”

* * *

Underground Man

by Pauline Kael

Taxi Driver is the fevered story of an outsider in New York—a man who can’t find any point of entry into human society. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), the protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s new film, from a script by Paul Schrader, can’t find a life. He’s an ex-Marine from the Midwest who takes a job driving a cab nights, because he can’t sleep anyway, and he is surrounded by the night world of the uprooted—whores, pimps, transients. Schrader, who grew up in Michigan, in the Christian Reformed Church, a zealous Calvinist splinter (he didn’t see a movie until he was seventeen), has created a protagonist who is an ascetic not by choice but out of fear. And Scorsese with his sultry moodiness and his appetite for the pulp sensationalism of forties movies, is just the director to define an American underground man’s resentment. Travis wants to conform, but he can’t find a group pattern to conform to. So he sits and drives in the stupefied languor of anomie. He hates New York with a Biblical fury; it gives off the stench of Hell, and its filth and smut obsess him. He manages to get a date with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a political campaigner whose blondness and white clothes represent purity to him, but he is so out of touch that he inadvertently offends her and she won’t have anything more to do with him. When he fumblingly asks advice from Wizard (Peter Boyle), an older cabdriver, and indicates the pressure building up in him, Wizard doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Travis becomes sick with loneliness and frustration, and then, like a commando preparing for a raid, he purifies his body and goes into training to kill. Taxi Driver is a movie in heat, a raw, tabloid version of Notes from Underground, and we stay with the protagonist’s hatreds all the way.

This picture is more ferocious than Scorsese’s volatile, allusive Mean Streets. Taxi Driver has a relentless movement: Travis has got to find relief. It’s a two-character study—Travis versus New York. As Scorsese has designed the film, the city never lets you off the hook. There’s no grace, no compassion in the artificially lighted atmosphere. The neon reds, the vapors that shoot up from the streets, the dilapidation all get to you the way they get to Travis. He is desperately sick, but he’s the only one who tries to save a twelve-and-a-half-year-old hooker, Iris (Jodie Foster); the argument he invokes is that she belongs with her family and in school—the secure values from his own past that are of no help to him now. Some mechanism of adaptation is missing in Travis; the details aren’t filled in—just the indications of a strict religious background, and a scar on his back, suggesting a combat wound. The city world presses in on him, yet it’s also remote, because Travis is so disaffected that he isn’t always quite there. We perceive the city as he does, and it’s so scummy and malign we get the feel of his alienation.

Scorsese may just naturally be an Expressionist; his asthmatic bedridden childhood in a Sicilian-American home in Little Italy propelled him toward a fix on the violently exciting movies he saw. Physically and intellectually, he’s a speed demon, a dervish. Even in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore he found a rationale for restless, whirlwind movement. But Scorsese is also the most carnal of directors—movement is ecstatic for him—and that side of him didn’t come out in Alice. This new movie gives him a chance for the full Expressionist use of the city which he was denied in Mean Streets, because it was set in New York but was made on a minuscule budget in Southern California, with only seven shooting days in New York itself. Scorsese’s Expressionism isn’t anything like the exaggerated sets of the German directors; he uses documentary locations, but he pushes discordant elements to their limits, and the cinematographer, Michael Chapman, gives the street life a seamy, rich pulpiness. When Travis is taunted by a pimp. Sport (Harvey Keitel), the pimp is so eager for action that he can’t stand still; the hipster, with his rhythmic jiggling, makes an eerily hostile contrast to the paralyzed, dumbfounded Travis. Scorsese gets the quality of trance in a scene like this; the whole movie has a sense of vertigo. Scorsese’s New York is the big city of the thrillers he feasted his imagination on—but at a later stage of decay. This New York is a voluptuous enemy. The street vapors become ghostly; Sport the pimp romancing his baby whore leads her in a hypnotic dance; the porno theatres are like mortuaries; the congested traffic is macabre. And this Hell is always in movement.

No other film has ever dramatized urban indifference so powerfully; at first, here, it’s horrifyingly funny, and then just horrifying. When Travis attempts to date Betsy, he’s very seductive; we can see why she’s tantalized. They’re talking across a huge gap, and still they’re connecting (though the wires are all crossed). It’s a zinger of a scene: an educated, socially conscious woman dating a lumpen lost soul who uses one of the oldest pitches in the book—he tells her that he knows she is a lonely person. Travis means it; the gruesome comedy in the scene is how intensely he means it—because his own life is utterly empty. Throughout the movie, Travis talks to people on a different level from the level they take him on. He’s so closed off he’s otherworldly; he engages in so few conversations that slang words like “moonlighting” pass right over him—the spoken language is foreign to him. His responses are sometimes so blocked that he seems wiped out; at other times he’s animal fast. This man is burning in misery, and his inflamed, brimming eyes are the focal point of the compositions. Robert De Niro is in almost every frame: thin-faced, as handsome as Robert Taylor one moment and cagey, ferrety, like Cagney, the next—and not just looking at the people he’s talking to but spying on them. As Travis, De Niro has none of the peasant courtliness of his Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. Vito held himself in proudly, in control of his violence; he was a leader. Travis is dangerous in a different, cumulative way. His tense face folds in a yokel’s grin and he looks almost an idiot. Or he sits in his room vacantly watching the bright-eyed young faces on the TV and with his foot he slowly rocks the set back and then over. The exacerbation of his desire for vengeance shows in his numbness, yet part of the horror implicit in this movie is how easily he passes. The anonymity of the city soaks up one more invisible man; he could be legion.

Scorsese handles the cast immaculately. Harvey Keitel’s pimp is slimy, all right, yet his malicious, mischievous eyes and his jumpiness are oddly u-inning. Jodie Foster, who was exactly Iris’s age when she played the part, is an unusually physical child actress and seems to have felt out her line readings—her words are convincingly hers. Cybill Shepherd has never been better: you don’t see her trying to act. She may actually be doing her least acting here, yet she doesn’t have that schoolgirl model’s blankness; her face is expressive and womanly. There’s a suggestion that Betsy’s life hasn’t gone according to her expectations—a faint air of defeat. The comedian Albert Brooks brings a note of quibbling, plump pomposity to the role of her political co-worker, and Leonard Harris, formerly the WCBS-TV arts critic, has a professionally earnest manner as Palatine, their candidate. Peter Boyle’s role is small, but he was right to want to be in this film, and he does slobby wonders with his scenes as the gently thick Wizard, adjusted to the filth that Travis is coiled up to fight; Boyle gives the film a special New York-hack ambience, and. as the cabby Doughboy. Harry Northup has a bland face and Southern drawl that suggest another kind of rootlessness. Scorsese himself is sitting on the sidewalk when Travis first sees Betsy, and then he returns to play a glitteringly morbid role as one of Travis’s fares—a man who wants Travis to share his rancid glee in what the Magnum he intends to shoot his faithless wife with will do to her. As an actor, he sizzles; he has such concentrated energy that this sequence burns a small hole in the screen.

As a director, Scorsese has the occasional arbitrariness and preening of a runaway talent; sometimes a shot calls attention to itself, because it serves no visible purpose. One can pass over a lingering closeup of a street musician, but when Travis is talking to Betsy on a pay phone in an office building and the camera moves away from him to the blank hallway, it’s an Antonioni pirouette. The Bernard Herrmann score is a much bigger problem; the composer finished recording it on December 23rd. the day before he died, and so it’s a double pity that it isn’t better. It’s clear why Scorsese wanted Herrmann: his specialty was expressing psychological disorder through dissonant, wrought-up music. But this movie, with its suppressed sex and suppressed violence, is already pitched so high that it doesn’t need ominous percussion, snake rattles, and rippling scales. These musical nudges belong back with the rampaging thrillers that Taxi Driver transcends. Scorsese got something out of his asthma: he knows how to make us experience the terror of suffocation.

Some actors arc said to be empty vessels who are filled by the roles they play, but that’s not what appears to be happening here with De Niro. He’s gone the other way. He’s used his emptiness—he’s reached down into his own anomie. Only Brando has done this kind of plunging, and De Niro’s performance has something of the undistanced intensity that Brando’s had in Last Tango. In its own way. this movie, too. has an erotic aura. There is practically no sex in it, but no sex can be as disturbing as sex. And that’s what it’s about: the absence of sex—bottled-up, impacted energy and emotion, with a blood-splattering release. The fact that we experience Travis’s need for an explosion viscerally, and that the explosion itself has the quality of consummation, makes Taxi Driver one of the few truly modern horror films.

Anyone who goes to the movie houses that loners frequent knows that they identify with the perpetrators of crimes, even the most horrible crimes, and that they aren’t satisfied unless there’s a whopping climax. In his essay “The White Negro.” Norman Mailer suggested that when a killer takes his revenge on the institutions that he feels are oppressing him his eruption of violence can have a positive effect on him. The most shocking aspect of Taxi Driver is that it takes this very element, which has generally been exploited for popular appeal, and puts it in the center of the viewer’s consciousness. Violence is Travis’s only means of expressing himself. He has not been able to hurdle the barriers to being seen and felt. When he blasts through, it’s his only way of telling the city that he’s there. And. given his ascetic loneliness, it’s the only real orgasm he can have.

The violence in this movie is so threatening precisely because it’s cathartic for Travis. I imagine that some people who are angered by the film will say that it advocates violence as a cure for frustration. But to acknowledge that when a psychopath’s blood boils over he may cool down is not the same as justifying the eruption. This film doesn’t operate on the level of moral judgment of what Travis does. Rather, by drawing us into its vortex it makes us understand the psychic discharge of the quiet boys who go berserk. And it’s a real slap in the face for us when we see Travis at the end looking pacified. He’s got the rage out of his system—for the moment, at least—and he’s back at work, picking up passengers in front of the St. Regis. It’s not that he’s cured but that the city is crazier than he is.

The New Yorker, February 9, 1976


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