The idea of the lone vigilante exacting revenge upon criminals and lowlifes has long been a preoccupation of Hollywood Cinema. Whether it be a traditional Western starring John Wayne, Clint Eastwood’s rogue Det. Harry Callahan or more recently Christian Bale as the comic book superhero Batman the idea of the outsider who takes the law into his own hands continues to fascinate cinema audiences across the globe.
The cultural climate of the 1970s saw a spate of vigilante films that reflected America’s uncertainty over its own moral authority. The increasing opposition to the Vietnam War combined with economic hardship, the Watergate Scandal and rising levels of crime led to disillusionment among many of the country’s citizens who, for the first time in their lives, felt at odds with the government and mainstream political opinion. Violent revenge thrillers such as Death Wish, The Exterminator and Mr. Majestyk portray idealists deeply disturbed by the insecurity and immorality of their surrounding environment, forced into a corner they feel compelled to lash out. These films question whether violent retribution can ever offer a solution to feelings of victimisation. They also explore how much of the self is lost in the process of revenge.
A work of concentrated introspection Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) follows the psychological breakdown of New York cab driver Travis Bickle, (Robert De Niro.) A crucial aspect of Paul Schrader’s excellent script is the lack of background knowledge on the central character. We know that he is a former Vietnam veteran and whilst it is obvious from his anxious persona that the war has mentally scarred him, the ever reticent Bickle tells nothing of his time there. As he works the night shift the immorality and brutality of warfare is echoed all around him as the pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers ply their trade.
At the very heart of Taxi Driver is Travis Bickle’s loneliness. His dour narrative informs us ‘Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere, in bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man…” This phrase “God’s Lonely Man” refers to an essay by philosopher Thomas Wolfe. However, rather than seeing loneliness as a universal trait and is an essential part of being human, as Wolfe did, Travis sees his isolation as something that he must overcome, “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.” The irony of this statement does not go unnoticed by the audience as Travis continues to mull over his existence. Repeatedly he tells himself that he will improve his life but instead goes in the opposite direction. He says he will get in shape but continues to have a terrible diet and deliberately sabotages his relationship with Betsy when he takes her to see a dirty movie.
A frustrated dreamer the source of Travis’s anger stems from the disparity between how he thinks things should be and how they actually are. When Iris, (Jodie Foster,) refuses to recognise the depravity of her situation Travis tells her how she should be living. “You’re a young girl, you should be at home. You should be dressed up, going out with boys, going to school, you know, that kind of stuff.” Foster’s performance is startling both in its accuracy and execution. Her convincing portrayal of a pre-teen prostitute as both a streetwise hustler and immature young girl makes for thoroughly uncomfortable viewing.
Charles Palantine, who is running for President on a programme of dramatic social change, also shares Travis’s indignation. Palantine’s campaign slogan “We Are the People” is centred on decent people reclaiming the streets for themselves. Palantine quotes the American poet Walt Whitman “I am the man, I have suffered” paraphrasing it to “We are the people, we have suffered” a viewpoint which corresponds with Travis’s thinking. The fascinating scene where Palantine catches a ride in the back of Travis’s taxi political rhetoric meets the crude but truthful language of the street. The Governor asks him the one change he would like to take place. Travis replies he would like to see of all of the filth ‘flushed down the fucking toilet.” In this chance meeting it appears that Bickle likes and respects the Governor calling him “a good man.” Towards the end of the movie, when he has undergone his full transformation, Travis attempts to carry out an assassination on Palantine seeing him as just another career politician filled with lies. The fact that Betsy looks up to and respects Charles Palantine makes him even more of a target. Notably Travis drastically changes his appearance, when he decides to exact his revenge shaving his hair into a mohawk and wearing an army jacket he goes undercover as one of the hip city hustlers.
A full artistic achievement Taxi Driver’s deep psychological study of loneliness, morality and alienation is backed up by original and brilliant camerawork. At times Travis’s New York issue taxi resembles a majestic cruise liner as it slowly glides by the filth and depravity of the city. The heart stopping climax skilfully utilizes slow motion camerawork to amplify the horror that is unfolding.
Bernard Herrman’s jazz score perfectly fits in with the seedy side of New York life. The slinky saxophone delves into the film’s very psyche being both romantic and sleazy it uncovers Travis’s idealised fantasies of what could be and all of the dark pleasures the city has to offer.
A powerful statement on the America of the late 1970s Taxi Driver, like Travis Bickle, stands alone in the vigilante genre as one of the greatest films of the 20th Century. Exploring the alienation and disenfranchisement of a nation that felt duped by the government, politicians and the law the film has left an indelible imprint on the public’s imagination. The film gave Robert De Niro one of his most defining roles as an actor playing the ultimate antihero who reclaims the streets through the barrel of a gun and loses his mind in the process.
Taxi Driver is showing at Phoenix Square until June 20th. Click here to book tickets.