A sucker for jazz I may be, the sultry tones of saxophone overlaying the montage shots of taxicabs within the Big Apple is gorgeous, even if it does look seedy, bleak and grim. It is, as the protagonist says, as if a sewage pipe had been let off in the city. Director Martin Scorsese tackles the underbelly of city living rather well throughout Taxi Driver, but it is more the strange individuals encountered in the back of taxi cabs and what they proclaim of their own future that is more concerning and erratic. Such is the brilliance of this piece, and the devolution of the schizotypal inflicted lead is not just cause for concern, but an unveiling of how criminals operate on the fringes of society.
“I just want to work long hours” is the reason Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) gives for wanting to become a taxi driver. There is an ounce of truth to that, but it is not the real reason, naturally. Who would want to work long hours? Aside from workaholics and those running away from their own state of mind, there is little reason to work for as long as you can. Bickle is the latter, but that isn’t clear initially. He is an oddball who has apparently served time in the marines. He is the catalyst for the anti-Vietnam piece, although that is not fully realised. An argument could certainly be made for the fractured state of mind, but Scorsese does not lean on this outside of a few passing mentions, the training of a soldier, and a jacket akin to military clothing. Scorsese is far more concerned with the politics of the era.
Lingering in the background of an early scene is a poster for the George McGovern campaign. Nothing dates a move quite like the “A Return to Greatness” slogan, and like many films finding their feet in New York at this time, there is the brisk overlay of classism. Bickle escorts the high and mighty, and if he does well to these debutants then there is a tip in it for him. Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) and his chance encounter with Bickle in the back of his taxi cab makes for the ruminating realisation that Bickle must become a rogue. A man that will set things right in his own, brutal way. He is hailed as a hero by the end of it all, his violent actions freeing a girl from the clutches of crime. The morality of his decisions are repugnant, but does the renegade attitude have the benefits to outweigh such horrors? That is where Scorsese leaves the openness of the film to the audience, for them to prey on.
Is Taxi Driver sloppy and uncoordinated or rich in narrative tones? Both. Peter Boyle spouting nonsense under the red lights of the busy streets of night-time New York is a sight to behold, as are many of the technical choices found in this Scorsese piece. It is far removed from the glory days of Scorsese’s craft, the 80s and beyond were a whole new ground for the acclaimed director. It is in Taxi Driver, though, that those bright sparks come to life. Portions of the piece feel somewhat similar to that of his later work, but they are contrasted by the cutting musical cues and the building tension found behind the eyes of Bickle, confronting the socially terrorised streets of New York. It stands the test of time, a legacy-defining piece that will be pricked and prodded to see what other blobs of influence it can hack up for the modern era.