News and Commentary – Taxi Driver: The Man Who Wasn’t There

The sensation that was Taxi Driver settled in as the eleventh screening at our semester of the seventies film.  Directed with brilliant, baroque virtuosity by Martin Scorsese (on the heels of his breakthrough Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Taxi Driver was the result of an extraordinary convergence of the talents of three young men: Scorsese (collaborating with cinematographer Michael Chapman), screenwriter Paul Schrader, and lead actor Robert De Niro. 

Taxi Driver, which takes place in the hot, troubled discontent of New York City in 1975—and within the city, Times Square, as (expressionistically) perceived by the troubled eyes of Travis Bickle (De Niro).  But even accounting for his distorted point-of-view, by any account Times Square had come even closer to an incarnation of hell-on-earth than was seen just a few years previously on those same gritty, despairing streets in Midnight Cowboy.  (As Vincent Canby so aptly described in his New York Times review, in Taxi Driver, “Manhattan is a thin cement lid over the entrance to hell, and the lid is full of cracks.”)

Enormously controversial for its treatment of violence, gender, and race, Taxi Driver is, more than anything, a study of loneliness and alienation.  But it would be redundant to rehearse these arguments here or to provide a summary of the film’s nominal plot—the movie is familiar to most, having reached a very wide audience, and it has been written about extensively and discussed at length routinely (most recently during events surrounding its fortieth anniversary).

Let’s look instead at one sequence, in the service of my theory that the deranged passenger (played by Scorsese himself) who vents venomous (and what one would have thought unspeakable) racist and misogynist rage does not actually exist, but is a manifestation of Travis’ own now-uncontained violent impulses.  Consider the sequence: Travis has a final confrontation with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), marking the end of their brief and ill-fated flirtation.  “You’re going to burn in hell,” he shouts at her (which seems like a rather dramatic reaction to being turned down for a third date), and now realizes, he tells himself, that “she was like all the others.” Immediately following this, Scorsese appears in the back of his cab.

Or does he? Directing Travis to the location where his unfaithful wife has plotted a liaison with her lover, the scene plays like a movie—with a beautiful Hitchcockian camera move, first up, and then across the bricks of the apartment building, to reveal a woman (or an image) in perfect silhouette, complete with negligee and cigarette, framed by the window. And in the midst of this action, there is an incongruous shot of the back of Travis’ head directly from behind, which is not Scorsese’s point of view (he is sitting on the other side of the cab).  Whose point of view is it?  The most plausible interpretation is that it is how Travis imagined it.  In addition, during this four minute scene, Travis barely utters one word (a muttered “yeah”), despite being asked, in fact hectored, by his “passenger” with a series of direct and urgent questions.  (Why talk to a man who isn’t there?) 

Immediately following this unsettling episode Travis seeks out the advice of the wisest man he knows – The Wizard (Peter Boyle), sidewalk sage of the night-shift cabbies – for advice about his troubles.  “I got some bad ideas in my head,” he explains (which fits with the interpretation that views Scorsese’s character as an apparition conjured by Travis’ troubled mind).  Wizard is on the job – serving up a great existentialist rap that’s worth listening to again next time you watch the movie – but he’s out of his league. The two men talk past each other, and the final lifeline Travis reached out for snaps as Wizard’s cab pulls away, and, now fully alone and untethered, he descends into madness. 

 

Confrontation with Betsy

Confrontation with Betsy (Albert Brooks Intercedes)

 

Passenger?

A Passenger Appears

 

projection

Like an Image on the Screen

 

Whose PoV

Whose Point of View?

 

Wizard

Seeking Advice from Wizard

 

Alone

Wizard's Cab Pulls Away

 

Travis Alone

Travis Heads off Alone, into the Night