Thirty-five years after it claimed the Palme d’Or for best feature film at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver remains a landmark work of cinema. An iconic depiction of loneliness, violence and urban alienation, Scorsese’s film stands out within that period of American cinema during the late 1960s and 1970s often referred to as its last Golden Age. With its provocative subject matter, European cinema-inspired style and distinct directorial vision, Taxi Driver is characteristic of the daring and artistic brand of filmmaking that defined the era.
But Taxi Driver also reflects the social context of the 1970s in other ways. Through its representation of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a twenty-something year old Vietnam veteran who takes a job driving taxis in New York City to break the monotony of his aimless existence, the film evokes the uncertainty and trauma of America’s post-war years. In many regards, the character of Travis symbolises the loss of national confidence following the failure in Vietnam, the collapse of the counter-cultural revolution, and the rapid decline of America’s post-WWII economic prosperity.
Like the nation for which he’d gone to war, Travis Bickle seems caught at a crossroads in history. When we first meet him he appears as a kind of moralising observer, railing against the perceived filth of the city streets. However, as his personal frustrations intensify, Travis begins to envisage himself in a series of different roles – as lover to Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, then as liberator to Iris, a twelve year old prostitute played by Jodie Foster – culminating in his emergence as a self-appointed avenging angel. Insisting upon the need for decisive action, Travis resolves to commit an act of bloodshed in order to bring about his salvation. Yet as Taxi Driver’s oft-discussed ending implies, the traditional resort to violence may no longer serve as an effective means of achieving personal or social redemption.
Beyond Taxi Driver’s cultural significance, the film is also important in the context of Scorsese’s career through the creative relationships that it helped forge, and which would shape the director’s work in the years that followed. Taxi Driver’s screenwriter Paul Schrader would go on to collaborate with the director on three subsequent films (Raging Bull 1980, The Last Temptation of Christ 1988, and Bringing Out The Dead 1999) while actor Robert De Niro (who had previously appeared in Scorsese’s Mean Streets 1973) has worked with the director on eight occasions.
Through these associations Scorsese had found the perfect collaborators for the exploration of male violence, existential ennui, and religious burdens that define the male subjects of his films. And in these regards Travis Bickle is the archetypal Scorsesean protagonist, particularly when it comes to the issue of sex. Fixed in a dichotomous understanding of women as virgin/whore (a perception he imposes upon both Betsy and Iris), Travis’ sexuality is characterised by a stark ambivalence. Even as he habitually frequents porno theatres, Travis displays disgust at the presence of sex workers on the streets of New York. He is, as Betsy refers to him in one scene when she likens him to the lyrics of a Kris Kristofferson song, ‘a walking contradiction’.
Travis’ inability to reconcile these contradictory aspects of his personality may be one explanation for the violence that erupts in the film’s latter stages. And increasingly, the violence in Taxi Driver is coded with sexual connotations. Through Travis’ pistol-like gestures to pornographic imagery, to the scene of the disturbed passenger (performed by Scorsese) and his description of what he plans to do to his adulterous wife, the fetishistic close-up imagery of the .44 Magnum and the climactic shoot-out that takes place in a brothel, Taxi Driver repeatedly collapses the boundaries between sex and violence. In doing so, the film appears to locate and explore the impetus to violent action as emanating from a male paranoia and anxiety regarding sexuality.
But the violence in Taxi Driver (for which it is renowned) has another aspect to it that distinguishes it from the standard vigilante or psychotic Vietnam vet narrative. Rather than simply enact violent imagery, Taxi Driver repeatedly links Travis’ actions to the violence of earlier cinematic representations. From its overt references to numerous films and genres (particularly John Ford’s The Searchers 1956), to Travis’ transformation from insomniac flâneur to urban cowboy and Mohawk warrior, together with the guns that he purchases, each one associated with characters such as Dirty Harry and James Bond, or in his self-seeking performances before the mirror (“Are you talking to me?”), Taxi Driver draws attention to the role representations play in constructing individual and cultural identity. In this context, Taxi Driver’s coda can be seen to offer a critique on the way cinema (and the wider media) shape cultural perceptions of violence and heroism.
It is in this final regard that Taxi Driver, far from being merely a product of its time, remains entirely relevant to the contemporary era, and continues to exert a profound influence on filmgoers more than three decades after its initial release.