When we talk about iconic character shots in film, we’re generally talking about shots where something clever and technical happens. The simultaneous track-back and zoom when Roy Scheider sees Jaws at the beach. The puff of steam from the waiting train as Marilyn Monroe is revealed in Some Like It Hot. The subliminal flash of a skull on Anthony Perkins’s face at the end of Psycho. Taxi Driver is full of these sort of shots – full of elegant trickery and long fluid sequences that belie the rehearsal that must have made them possible – but the single scene that sticks in people’s minds couldn’t be simpler: the unbroken, unmoving shot of Travis Bickle taunting his imagined enemies in the mirror, goading himself into action.
A legend has built up around this scene. In Paul Schrader’s original screenplay there is no dialogue, only a direction: ‘Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.’ Robert De Niro is credited with improvising the dialogue that accompanies it: ‘You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to? You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?’ But there must be more to it than De Niro’s improvisation – more art and direction, more writing. Only a few scenes earlier, Jodie Foster’s prostitute Iris has asked Travis who he thinks he’s talking to.
However it came about, this scene is the one that gives Taxi Driver its meaning and heart: it would be half the film without it. Downtrodden and disgusted, Travis has seen lots of things he dislikes, but now he is consciously choosing to have enemies. That he speaks the lines to a mirror is a clue that he knows who the final enemy is. When the cleansing rain comes and washes all the scum off the streets, he knows he will be among them, but hopes to be the last man standing. Hence his finger-cocking mock-suicide when he accomplishes his mission.
Taxi Driver is not a particularly subtle film, and De Niro’s is not a subtle performance, but more consistently than any other Scorsese/De Niro collaboration it’s the one where the director seems more interested in the character than the magnetism of the guy playing him. Indeed, while De Niro is at the centre of almost every shot, Scorsese continually fills the frame with as many extra characters and details as he can. This is largely to point up Travis’s marginality to everyone but himself, but there is also an evident nervousness about De Niro’s star quality unbalancing Travis’s marginality, and perhaps about what Travis’s actions actually mean.
Uniquely among the heroes of Scorsese’s films, Travis’s rebellion comes from left field. Unlike the other famous lowlifes and hoodlums in Scorsese’s canon, he does not ‘become the job’. (Even Scorsese’s Jesus becomes the job.) Travis’s quest – to do something good, though he be damned – is entirely sincere and self-directed. His desire for purity is ungodly in execution but religious in sentiment.
Paul Schrader’s later writing credits rather blow the whistle on the religious aspects of Taxi Driver, but a lot of the continuing appeal of the film lies precisely in De Niro’s comfort with these ideas and Scorsese’s difficulty. How close can the camera get without seeming to support this lunatic in his crusade? De Niro doesn’t care: for all the scope the role allows him, it is perhaps the most modest performance of his career. But Scorsese cares deeply: he rations De Niro’s close-ups to just the most extreme and the most impassive moments. The result of these approaches could have been chaos and dissonance, but by some essential alchemy between director, writer and star, Taxi Driver has a momentum and an integrity that carries all before it.
The film’s other big significant moment is one that a lot of first-time watchers miss, given that it comes during the end credits. Travis has survived his ordeal, but he sees something in his rear-view that spooks him and tilts his mirror up. The credits follow Travis’s eyeline through the streets of New York – except we never see the streets. Travis is looking at the sky. He can’t look at the streets, because, like an addict, he knows they will draw him back in and kill him. Thirty-five years on, the viewer wants to know what happened – and what is still happening – on those seductive, destructive streets.
The restored “Taxi Driver” is released on Blu-Ray on 11 June, through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment UK