Forty years on, ‘Taxi Driver’ remains a stunning example of what a great director can do with an already great script.
For a film that’s become all kinds of iconic, Taxi Driver has entered its forties with very little noise. It wasn’t until The Hollywood Reporter rounded up cast and crew for an “oral history” – a freewheeling set of remembrances around the film – that I realised this was a big anniversary. (The original release date was February 8, 1976.) The chat yielded fascinating facts (the movie’s most famous line of dialogue, “You talkin’ to me?”, wasn’t in the script; Robert De Niro’s salary for portraying one of the most legendary anti-heroes of American cinema was… $35,000) – and no, there wasn’t a word about Rocky winning Best Picture at the Oscars that year, which became a clear sign of things to come. In the 1970s, Taxi Driver was part of the regular mainstream fare released by big studios. Today, a film so prickly and polarising would be an independent production and end up fighting for a release date in December. It would be considered an “Oscar season film.”
Despite the acclaim for Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver is the film that really put Martin Scorsese on the map – and it’s not hard to see why. He took a great screenplay (by Paul Schrader) and made a movie that was greater. Forty years on, the film remains a stunning testament to the job of a director, and aspiring filmmakers only have to compare the shooting script (available on the Internet) with the finished film to see what they can do to make the written word “come alive.” Take the scene where De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, sets out to buy guns from a travelling salesman who calls himself Easy Andy. The scene largely follows the graph of the screenplay. Travis and Easy Andy meet in a cab, they go to a hotel room, Easy Andy shows Travis a number of guns (with a non-stop sales pitch), Travis picks up what he wants and leaves.
But the point at which the scene stops being Schrader’s and becomes wholly Scorsese’s is at the script instruction: “Travis hefts the nickel-plated .38, points it out the window.” That’s it. It’s just that one line. And in a way, that is exactly all that happens in that scene. Easy Andy says, “That’s a beautiful little gun… It’ll stop anything that moves,” and as he continues to talk, Travis takes the gun and “points it out the window.” Actor and director have done what the script asked from them. But Scorsese doesn’t stop there. Travis moves closer to the window. Now we see only the part of the hand holding the gun, and we see what’s outside the window – parked cars, moving cars, two women with umbrellas who’ve stopped to chat. The scene is no longer just about “points it out the window.” The scene is also about the things and people it could be pointed at, the calm world outside the window unaware that an unhinged man with a gun is making a plan.
This extra meaning, this embellishment of the ur-text – that’s what a director does, and Taxi Driver is filled with examples. Another great scene comes after Travis falls for a beautiful girl named Betsy, who dates him for a while and then dumps him. So we get to the point in the script where Travis is speaking “intensely into a wall pay phone.” The way Schrader wrote the scene, Travis holds the receiver, Betsy has hung up, and we’re now inside Travis’s apartment. The script reads: “Against the stark wall, there is a row of wilted and dying floral arrangements. Each one of the four or five bouquets is progressively more wilted than the one closer to the door. They have been returned.” Travis says, in a voiceover, “I also sent flowers with no luck. I should not dwell on such things, but set them behind me. The smell of the flowers only made me sicker.” Reading the script, we imagine a sad, lovelorn man, sitting sadly in his sad apartment, filled with sad flowers.
But see how Scorsese transforms it. We still get Travis at the wall pay phone, the camera watching him from behind. We still get a man who’s been dumped, and the sense that he’s perhaps holding the receiver, talking even after she’s hung up. But instead of taking us to Travis’s room, the camera glides to the right and cuts Travis off the frame. We now see a corridor that stretches ahead, and we see the road at the far end, with cars whizzing by. What Scorsese does here isn’t as instantly apparent as what he does in the gun-buying scene, and the mind comes up with many interpretations. Maybe this is the point where the Travis we knew earlier “has left the building,” so to speak. Maybe this is where he loses it. Maybe the desolate corridor is a reflection of Travis’s contention that “loneliness has followed me all my life.” Maybe it’s just kindness – maybe the camera wants to spare Travis from our gaze during his rejection and humiliation. But even if we struggle to articulate the exact “meaning” of this moment, we feel it in our bones – and it feels right. When a director is in form, he can make every moment of a movie feel right.
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