Martin Scorsese is widely considered the most influential American filmmaker of the last thirty years, and this is due in large part to his ability to capture the hectic energy of the city in which he grew up. In many ways, Taxi Driver (1976) is his most effective movie: an unrelenting portrait of angst, nihilism, and the debilitating effects of urban life on the psyche.
“I got some bad ideas in my head.” — Travis Bickle
Accompanied by Bernard Hermann’s haunting musical score, the title character sails through the rain-drenched streets of 1970s New York. Scorsese captures the soul-scarring repetitiveness of his heedless journey, with no sense of departure or arrival. The filthy city is framed by the dirver’s rain-speckled taxi cab: its windshield, windows, bonnet, bumper, and mirrors, as the multicolored New York lights bounce off it in a dizzying, nauseating kaleidoscope.
The result is a very subjective look at what is probably the most photographed city in the world, transformed into a living organism that is both alienating and alien. These sequences of the taxi moving through the city appear as though they were pulled out of a science fiction movie set on a strange and hostile world with no sense of homeliness, identity, or belonging.
The film is equally powerful at showing the internal world of the taxi driver himself, played by Robert DeNiro. In a fantastic scene close to the start of the movie, we’re given a glimpse into his agitated mind. During a conversation with a fellow driver, Travis drops a tablet of effervescent medicine into his glass of water. The sound of the conversation fades as the fizzing rises. The shot moves closer on Travis’s face and tighter on the drink, until the sound overwhelms everything else and the bubbles fill the screen — a perfect metaphor of the rage boiling just behind his quiet, unassuming exterior.
My favorite scene of the movie gives us an even more disturbing view of Travis’s inner mind as he is rejected by the girl he likes. He calls her on the phone and asks for a date, and the excruciating look of rejection on Travis’s face is so unbearable to watch that even the camera itself pans away to reveal an empty corridor as the conversation continues offscreen. The camera holds on the image of the corridor into which Travis walks, a forlorn, loveless figure in a vacant space.
This story is from Meedo’s upcoming book montagespace: Cinema and the Making, Un-Making and Re-Making of Architecture. Please feel free to contact us for more details and read related stories here.