Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) arrived amidst a resurgence in American cinema. Directors were no longer bound by studio demands. Instead, they were afforded sole creative control, answerable only to themselves and the artistic team working on any given film. It is no mistake that Taxi Driver coincided with what many of us now know as the ‘American New Wave Period (late ‘60s to the early ‘80s)’. Taxi Driver is indubitably the product of Scorsese’s, De Niro’s, Schrader’s and Chapman’s cinematic nous.
Taxi Driver is a perfect marriage of content and form. Scorsese’s understanding of how form impacts content; namely that form can generate meaning, is key to the artistic success of the film. Michael Chapman’s cinematography is a real highlight, as it gives rise to establishing and clarifying thematic and character concerns in the film. Similarly, other formal elements (editing, acting, music) work in conjunction with the cinematography to make Taxi Driver what it is: a modern filmmaking masterpiece.
Despite the overwhelming critical acclaim of the film, there has been insufficient attention paid to the eminence of the camerawork that is so essential.
This list intends to remedy the lack of shot analysis of Taxi Driver, and provide a view on the greatest individual shots of which Taxi Driver is composed. The definition of ‘shot’ for the purposes of this piece is quite loose. To be clear, it incorporates everything that is going on in the shot.
- Travis stares down a group of African Americans
Prior to the shot, a group of African American adolescents boisterously walk past Travis (Robert De Niro). They strut by confidently, and Scorsese gives us no indication that these young men have done anything wrong. Nevertheless, Travis locks eyes with the leader of the pack; intensely scrutinising and implicitly castigating the group. We get this sense that Travis is less than accommodating to this group by De Niro’s taut, vexed facial expression. This shot is presumably the product of the use of a Steadicam, and it travels from right to left while remaining focused on Travis’s response to the group of young men. We are put into a first person perspective, seeing with our own eyes the unmitigated loathing Travis has for the African American men. The red light that Travis is draped in only acts to reinforce the uneasy, hostile feeling that pervades the shot.
There are no words spoken, only looks exchanged. That is where the power of the shot is derived from; the quiet, pent-up rawness of it. It is as though Travis bears so much hatred for African Americans that he cannot even bring himself to speak to them. Despite his many encounters with African American characters, Travis only says one word to any of them: ‘hey’, before he shoots a robber dead in a convenience store. Travis’s burgeoning prejudice is notably the product of his poor level of education amidst a decadent American social climate.
It seems logical that Travis should have looked away, or attempted to minimise his contact with African Americans. This is because people usually try to limit their exposure to things they dislike. Travis does not take this approach. Early on, he states his happiness with working ‘anytime, anywhere’. As a result, he travels to Harlem, Queens, and the Bronx where criminality and drug use is rife. Travis is not psychologically immune to these unpleasant elements of New York, and he asserts his condemnation of them many times throughout the film. Nevertheless, Travis feeds his loathing of the virulent underclass of New York, which only reaffirms his anti-social and misanthropic tendencies. Therefore, this shot seeks to clarify something about the character of Travis Bickle: that he is a man so lost that his only way out of this pit of hopelessness is to revel in an isolating racial hatred.
9. Travis wearing a suit in a crowd of people
It is pretty standard for a director to show a character travelling from point A to point B. This helps us understand the narrative and temporal progress of the film. Scorsese is so accomplished a director that he would need better reasons to film such monotony. His reasons for showing Travis walking down a New York street in a suit to the Pallantine campaign office are certainly valid.
For this shot, the camera is placed at Travis’s eye level, which means that the traffic on New York footpaths is tangible. We see people walking in both directions, who sometimes obscure our view of him. This is one of the only times where we see Travis amongst the hustle and bustle of New York.
Throughout the film, Scorsese is reluctant to show Travis as a functioning, coherent part of New York. As a result, Travis is mainly confined to his taxi, and when he does walk the streets he does so alone. His only involvement at a community level is having coffee with other taxi drivers, but even then Travis is still alone in the group. So, it seems initially strange that Scorsese would ingratiate Travis into the population for this shot.
But, Scorsese is attempting to elucidate that Travis’s brief relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shepard) created a fleeting sense of purpose and location in him. The unmistakeable look on Travis’s face is of a man on a mission. There is more quiet passion in De Niro’s performance here than in Travis’s most violent moments. That speaks volumes of the importance of Travis’s relationship with Betsy.
For that short juncture of time, Travis had a reason to present himself in an upstanding fashion. He was infatuated with Betsy, and like most people in relationships, wanted to make a pleasant impression. In this way, the staging of the shot indicates that Travis’s relationship with Betsy was his only chance to live a happy, normal life. And as that fails, we never see Travis in a suit or bumping shoulders with New Yorkers again.
8. You Talkin’ to Me?
Unto itself, this medium shot on Travis does nothing particularly special. It merely retains a sustained focus on Travis. Scorsese was not confronted with any real technical difficulty.
But to attend only to the technical details of this shot is reductive. It is a shot that captures perhaps the most well-known action in Taxi Driver: Travis’s line ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’
De Niro’s genius is readily acknowledged by film-goers for his improvisation in this shot. Paul Schrader’s script for the scene only read ‘Travis speaks to himself in a mirror’. Schrader’s provision that De Niro improvise on set, which was backed by Scorsese, suggests a lot about the symbiotic relationship between Scorsese and De Niro. It signals a level of trust and respect that allows Scorsese/De Niro projects to flourish so unabatedly, as there are some things that cannot be pre-planned or orchestrated. This is certainly one of those.
In a similar vein, the skill of this shot doesn’t reside in the technical prowess of it, but in allowing us to be exposed to De Niro’s pre-eminence as a performer. Intelligently, Scorsese doesn’t make use of any editing techniques that would detract from De Niro. And ‘Bobby’ does not disappoint; his unhinged ramblings into the mirror are a definitive indicator of Travis’s detachment from reality. The intensity of Travis’s increasing disassociation from organised society is made possible through Scorsese’s lack of directorial interventionism; as De Niro is one of the few actors able to generate such a mass of meaning in one mere shot.
7. Introductory Shot of Betsy
The frame of this shot is jammed with moving bodies navigating the streets of New York. Nevertheless, Betsy floats into the frame from the left and instantly captures our attention. This is the product of a number of factors.
The preceding shots leading up to Betsy’s introduction show regular New Yorkers populating the streets. They are bunched up, creating a kind of collective movement in which no individual really stands out. This is true also for the shot Betsy features in (except for Scorsese’s not so subtle cameo in staring at her). Betsy is presented antithetically to the ordinary New Yorker; as she alone occupies the spatial centre of the shot. Cybill Shepard’s striking physical appearance no doubt aids in Betsy absorbing our attention. Her white clothing, meanwhile, is a pretty overt reference to the her seeming angelic qualities.
The implementation of slow motion, moreover, augments our experience of the shot. It drags out Betsy’s appearance, and enhances her traditional stylishness. In line with the impossibility of slow motion, its use imbues the shot with a sense of romanticised unreality. It is as though Betsy is the perfect incarnation of a humanity that is abject and debased.
We are under no illusion that this shot presents Travis’s perspective of Betsy. We hear his strong words of uncritical admiration, while Bernard Hermann’s score takes on a new life of romance as it plays over the action. In conjunction with the flawless visual image of her, the audio helps to produce the idea that Travis has put all his eggs in one basket. That is, the only way for humanity to be redeemed in Travis’s eyes is for him to have Betsy. For better or worse (obviously for the worst), Travis glorifies Betsy. This makes her subsequent fall from Travis’s graces all the more injurious; greatly aggravating his distaste for human life.
6. Exposing Travis’s Mohawk
The majority of Taxi Driver is shot in a way that is forthright and direct. That is to say, Scorsese is more concerned with immediately showing us the subject of any given shot rather than embellishing it with suspense or other cinematic devices. Presumably, this is because he is confident of the film’s ability to exude such elements as suspense, tension and conflict.
This shot, though, does not just show Travis’s new Mohawk. In fact, there is an unusual build-up to it. Prior to the shot, we see Travis exit his famed yellow taxi. But we don’t see his Mohawk. Scorsese is clearly intent on building up to this moment.
The actual shot itself first captures the torsos of Pallantine supporters. The camera then tracks to the right, and it eventually lands on Travis’s army-clad torso, which prominently exhibits his ‘We are the People’ badge. It lingers here for some time, until finally an upwards pedestal camera movement is instituted to showcase the objective of the shot: Travis’s Mohawk.
The visual focus on Travis’s Mohawk is significant for a number of reasons. First, Mohawks are strange, unconventional hairstyles. It thus follows that Travis’s decision to cultivate the Mohawk stems from his apathy towards functioning as an ordinary human in society. Second, and more important, U.S soldiers in Vietnam had their hair cut in a Mohawk style prior to engaging in dangerous battles. It was thought that the Mohawk would intimidate the Viet Cong and further galvanise the U.S troops.
Therefore, the intense focus on Travis’s Mohawk in the shot reminds us that the origins of Travis’s disenfranchisement begun with his Vietnam war experiences. Although never explicitly stated, it is safe to assume that his participation in the war contributed significantly to his eventual state of loss and hopelessness. Similarly, the sudden appearance of the Mohawk strongly suggests to us that Travis is about to embark on a kind of mission, which conflates the actions of war and his impending spate of urban violence.
For a director of Scorsese’s calibre, the technical aspect of this shot is not all that challenging. However, praise must be given for its conception and flawless delivery. The shot exemplifies the meticulous way the camera captures the action in Taxi Driver, and even Scorsese’s films as a whole. Every movement and pause is warranted, as the camera is the main arbiter of tension for this shot. By travelling, and then pausing on Travis’s torso, the ‘reveal’ of his Mohawk is all the more suspenseful and shocking. The shot powerfully announces Travis’s final phase in the film; chiefly that he has lost all signs of regular functioning.
5. Travis’s Eyes
Taxi Driver seems to have a morbid fascination with the eyes as a source of meaning. The first and last sighting of Travis in the film is captured in a way so as to focus on his eyes. Scorsese said that the final shot of Travis coldly looking into the rear view mirror is an indication that he will engage in further violent conduct.
The opening shot of Travis is an extreme close-up that only frames his eyes. His face is draped in a red light, which suggests to us that Travis is in his taxi. At this point in the film, though, Travis is yet to become a taxi driver, which most likely means that this shot stands outside the chronology of the film’s narrative. As a result, the shot functions to foreground Travis immediately as a lonely, vengeful creature dissatisfied with the world he lives in. As the first and last appearance of Travis focuses on his eyes, it might also suggest a circularity in that he will never return from his deeply fractured psychological state.
Exclusively framing Travis’s eyes is an optimal way of conveying his interior state. Indeed, at many stages of the film, De Niro makes a powerful contribution to the character by expressing through his eyes. There is anger, suspicion, loneliness located in Travis’s eyes in this shot. The red wash across Travis’s face further reinforces his nihilistic views on urban life and indeed his very own existence.
4. Opening Shot of Travis’s Taxi
This is a visually breathtaking introduction to the smoke-laden streets of ‘70s New York. It would have taken Scorsese and Chapman a considerable amount of time and effort to properly prepare and execute the lighting, smoke and taxi encompassed in the shot. What it does so well is establish the rich aesthetic style of Taxi Driver, and provides us with one of the visual highlights of the film. The shot is no doubt a technical achievement unto itself.
The smoke and shadows that pervades the shot immediately grounds the film in the neo-noir genre. The bold lettering of the title, Taxi Driver, further adds to the neo-noir air established. In an abstract but tangible way, the shot harkens back to classic noir films such as The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) and Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). This highlights Scorsese’s fruitful relationship with film history, and his competence in using such inspiration to enhance his own films. Importantly, Scorsese never reproduces his sources of inspiration; but rather refashions them to fit the unique film worlds he constructs.
The main subject of the shot is Travis’s distinctive yellow taxi. As it drives through the yellow-tinged smoke, the taxi becomes a kind of protective capsule through which Travis traverses the grimy New York streets. The bulk of the taxi is so clearly divided from the smoke that envelops it. In this respect, the taxi is the vantage point from which Travis castigates his New York counterparts. As Travis is usually confined to this taxi when observing the ‘scum’ on the streets, he is seemingly physically isolated from their depravity. Symbolically, the taxi shields Travis from the yellow smoke that consumes the screen; smoke that indicates the civil and moral decay of ‘70s New York.
3. Travis pointing gun
Taxi Driver shows us the ‘70s New York that Travis lived in and experienced. All the information we receive from the film is tainted by Travis’s perspective. From that perspective, Scorsese allows us to follow Travis’s journey into the unknown realm of psychological alienation.
When Travis meets the black market gun salesman in a hotel, we are instantly unsettled by the blaring implication. Scorsese takes our unease even further and plunges us into a first-person perspective of Travis ‘trying out’ a .38 magnum revolver. Suddenly, we are no longer observers of this character, but sown into his very being. For most of us, that is a scary thing.
The panning movement of the camera, which follows Travis’s gun-holding hand, is maintained with a high degree of control. The movement is slow; calculated. Consequently, we can intuit that Travis is exercising a deliberate calm in pointing the gun out of the window. This shot reminds us that Travis’s psychological disassociation is gradual, and thus his relationship with violence becomes more familiar as the film travels along.
Fundamentally, by putting us into Travis’s head, we are put into a position where we can comprehend his almost indiscriminate anathema of socialised individuals. The two women on whom Travis points the gun represent a world that which for him is unreachable. Following Betsy’s crude repudiation of him, it is likely that Travis’s pent-up animosity towards women had increased to an unhealthy level. By this point in the film, Travis’s respect for human life is all but dissipated, and Scorsese gives us a powerful warning and foresight of what is to come. Despite being placed in the first person perspective, this is done so we can analyse him, not empathise with him.
2. Travis on the phone to Betsy
Scorsese himself has publicly declared the ‘phone call’ shot to be his favourite in Taxi Driver. It is easy to see why Scorsese reserves so much love for it.
The camera begins fixed on Travis, trying to repair the damage he had done by taking Betsy to the porn theatre. De Niro, as Travis, squirms around, trying his very best to play it cool. Nonetheless, Betsy avoids Travis’s apologies and advances, which consigns him to desperate questions of whether he will ‘see her again’. By this point, the camera has proactively tracked into the hallway; thereby removing Travis from the frame of the shot. Instead, we are given an empty hallway to look at.
This shot can be interpreted it two ways, both of which attest to Scorsese’s genius. Firstly, the apparent motivation of the camera movement away from Travis’s figure is to highlight the awkward desperation with which he conducts himself. It is as though the camera can no longer bear to scrutinise an encounter so bereft of reciprocity. Secondly, it is just as likely that Scorsese moves the camera into the expanse of the hallway to evoke Travis’s consignment of a life of loneliness. The hallway facilitates this interpretation, as it is of considerable size and completely empty. In this respect, we intuit that Travis will be gulped up by the forces of isolation following his failed relationship with Betsy.
1. The ‘overhead’ shot
Clearly Scorsese and his team thought a lot about the necessity of an overhead shot depicting Travis’s carnage, as a decent amount of the floor of the above apartment had to be cut with a chainsaw for it to work. In all, the ‘shootout’ sequence took about three months to conclude, and it is safe to say this shot would have taken up a tangible amount of this time.
And it was worth it.
The preceding events leading up to the shot are characterised by a frenzied intensity; as Travis marches through the apartment shooting down three men involved in the perpetuation of child prostitution. The editing is jarring, screaming loud, and Travis unflinchingly determined.
The overhead shot canvassing Travis’s past action is steeped in silent aftermath. The subjects in the frame appear frozen; as if by the magnitude of what had transpired. Iris (Jodie Foster) turns her back to the casualties, while Travis stares at the ceiling with either cathartic relief or stolid indifference. The overwhelming slowness of the camera movement and the silence in the shot acknowledges the indescribable nature of such violent loss of human life.
The birds eye view from which the shot captures the carnage allows us to objectively appraise Travis’s onslaught as objectionable and misguided. In contrast to other scenes and shots, this shot asks us to separate our own experience from that of Travis’s experience. The effect of this is to ascertain whether Travis’s conduct was warranted. Scorsese expects us to reach the conclusion that it wasn’t, but still nonetheless demands that we see Travis through a humanistic lens. Ultimately, the documentation of Travis’s use of violence bluntly conveys an ugly truth: that such violence arises out of isolation and fragmented human relationships.