Study Guide

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver Introduction


Release Year: 1976

Genre: Crime, Drama

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: Paul Schrader

Stars: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd


If you want a case of the warm fuzzies, watch It's A Wonderful Life. If you want to see New York City at its finest, check out Ghostbusters. If you want to see an awesome movie about great cabbies being excellent people, peep Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth.

But if you feel like going into the small intestine of the seedy underbelly of NYC and watching a man spiral into madness—or hey, if you want to check out what is deemed by directors worldwide to be one of the Top 10 Best Movies Ever MadeTaxi Driver is for you.

Taxi Driver is the tale of how a lonely cabbie befriends a young prostitute and helps her reunite with her abandoned parents… by going on a bloody, psychotic rampage, and blowing away the young girl's pimp and a bunch of hotel employees. 

It's violent, it's dark, it's counter-intuitive—and it's a universally acknowledged classic.

Taxi Driver arrived at a time (1976) when New York City was at its sleaziest and grittiest. It was in the middle of a crime wave. It was in the middle of a recession. It was in the middle of a garbage strike—yum, hot trash juice cooking in the mid-Atlantic summer sun. Times Square was a festering sore full of porno theaters, porno shops, and (porno?) drugs.

Given the desperate conditions in the city, it wasn't too hard for screenwriter Paul Schrader to draw on his own feelings of isolation, concocting the tale of a lonely taxi driver who gradually loses his marbles and decides to pursue a course of vigilante violence. Paired with the vision of a young director named Martin Scorsese (who would go on to direct more masterpieces, like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed) Taxi Driver became an insta-classic.

The theme hit America—and the world—at the right time. It reverberated enough to win Taxi Driver the 1976 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, probably the most prestigious award in international cinema. At home, the movie didn't do quite as well at the Oscars: this "feel-bad" movie lost to the feel-good Rocky. It still managed to rack up four nominations, though (and competition was pretty steep that year: All the President's Men and Network were also nominated).

In the succeeding years, the movie's reputation has grown and grown: Quentin Tarantino called it the greatest "first person" study of a character in the history of movies, and it's rightfully included on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.

Taxi Driver might not be exactly sweet 'n' cuddly, then, but its depiction of human loneliness and encroaching madness left a major imprint on the history of movies. 

We're guessing it'll leave a major imprint on your mind, too.

What is Taxi Driver About and Why Should I Care?

Because Taxi Driver asks pretty much all the tough questions, we'll do the same: 

Why should you watch this movie?

No, really? Why?

Why on earth, in this violence-ridden, topsy-turvy, maddening world, would you want to spend a few hours of your precious time watching one dude descend into insanity? Why, when your faith in humanity is hanging on by a thread, should you watch a film about a guy whose humanity is… pretty much null and void?

Why, when you've just now come to terms with the fact that, no matter how long you plead with the drive-through staff, nobody at McDonald's is going to make you a Shamrock Shake outside of the St. Patrick's Day season… would you want to take on additional pain?

The answer is up to you. 

We can't pretend to know how this film will resonate with you—but we can promise that it will. Watching Travis Bickle gradually go from fractured to straight-up broken, from demented to full-on crazytown, will haunt you forever.

Here are a few reasons why watching Travis' downward spiral, in such claustrophobic close proximity, might be important for you:

1. You might understand—in a more gut-seizingly immediate way—the famous R.E.M. statement that everybody hurts. After all, at the beginning of this screenplay for the movie, Paul Schrader included a quote from the author Thomas Wolfe:

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.

Bleak? Oh yeah. Worth pondering? Abso-tootly.

2. You might learn, like poor Betsy, that some people are just flat-out creepy. Betsy first idealizes Travis—she thinks he's perhaps some sort of street prophet—before realizing that he's just plain wrong.

It's a depressing lesson, but Stranger Danger continues to be a real thing long after you've outgrown the phase when "Want some candy?" is the most enticing question in the world.

3. Maybe you have a taste for the most piquant satire, and will learn a thing or two from Scorsese's masterful portrayal of a psychopath lauded as a hero because he kills a pimp… rather than killing the presidential candidate he originally set his sights on.

4. Maybe, just maybe, you love literature and film and want to see one of the grittiest movies to come out of the grit pit that was American cinema in the 1970s. Maybe you love masterful lead performances. Maybe you love saturated color and jarring visuals. Maybe you want to take a crash course in How To Write An Intimate Portrayal Of A Madman.

Any way you cut it, if you love the immersive properties of the silver screen, you kind of need to watch Taxi Driver.

Go ahead and choose one of the options above as the reason you need to add Taxi Driver to your Netflix queue, or hey, make up your own. There are as many reasons to watch this Scorsese masterpiece as there are rats scurrying about the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

For good measure, though, we'll throw in a reason why you shouldn't watch Taxi Driver:

You shouldn't watch Taxi Driver if you think Travis is cool. If your idea of ultimate slickness is asking the mirror "You talkin' to me?" well, a) the mirror isn't speaking, and b) Travis Bickle is a deeply wounded, psychotic individual.

Hey, though—if you want an idol whose mind is warped, whose vision is a perpetual fever-dream, and whose actions rocked a nation and made him a hero, you should turn your admiring gaze to Martin Scorsese. Dude's a mad genius, and you only need to watch Taxi Driver to realize this.

Trivia

De Niro actually got a cab license and drove around in a taxi to prep for the role. He also listened to tapes of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer's diaries, and visited a U.S. army base in northern Italy, using the accents of American Midwestern soldiers as the basis for Travis' accent.
(Source)

Martin Scorsese changed the race of Sport and the two other guys killed in the climactic rampage scene in order to avoid sending the wrong message. In Paul Schrader's original script they were all African-American.
(Source)

The tracking shot of carnage at the end took three weeks to prepare, since the filmmakers had to cut into the ceiling to carve a path to shoot it.
(Source)

John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate President Reagan (and was declared "Not guilty by reason of insanity") was obsessed with Jodie Foster and tried to imitate Travis Bickle's attempt to kill Charles Palantine.
(Source)

De Niro improvised his famous "You talkin' to me?" line, but saxophonist Clarence Clemons said De Niro told him it was inspired by hearing Bruce Springsteen talk to a cheering audience.
(Source)

Steven Prince, who plays the gun dealer Easy Andy, was the basis for the heroin overdose and adrenaline injection scene in Pulp Fiction. He told the story about how he saved a girl from OD-ing by injecting her heart with adrenaline in the Scorsese documentary American Boy, about Prince's life.
(Source)

Harvey Keitel (who played Sport) said, "I worked with a pimp for a few weeks in creating the role of Sport. We wrote nearly all of the dialogue, me and this pimp. I recorded the improvisations we did. He'd play this pimp and I'd play the girl; I'd see the way he'd treat me, then I would play the pimp and he'd play the girl. We did that for a few weeks over at the Actors Studio."
(Source)

Taxi Driver Resources

Websites

Taxi Driver IMDB Page
This is a major center for technical info about Taxi Driver, including trivia, cast lists, etc.

Taxi Driver Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes collects all the reviews of movies, old and new. Naturally, the reviews for Taxi Driver are, on the whole, pretty rave.

Taxi Driver – AMC Filmsite Page
American Movie Classics provides its take on Scorsese's masterpiece (or, one of his masterpieces).

Taxi Driver – TCM Page
TCM's Taxi Driver page serves up some movie clips along with the original trailer and some technical details about the movie.

Articles and Interviews

Roger Ebert's Original Review of Taxi Driver
It didn't take too long for Roger Ebert to love this movie. He was a big fan right off the bat. Ebert hated the ultra-violence in the earlier movie A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick), but thought it was extremely effective in Taxi Driver, since it's a deeper character study.

Roger Ebert Interviews Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader
Scorsese discusses his feelings about the movie with Ebert, explaining why he considers Taxi Driver to be a feminist statement, what the Catholic references in the film are, and how De Niro prepped for the role by working as an actual cabbie.

"Martin Scorsese's Remarkable Taxi Driver," by Derek Malcolm—Original Review of Taxi Driver from The Guardian
Derek Malcolm's review is extremely positive, calling the movie, "a tour de force which doesn't so much explain America as reflect part of it with unerring accuracy."

"You Talkin' to Me? Scorsese, De Niro, Keitel, and Foster on the Making of Taxi Driver" by Richard Luck
This interview contains really interesting revelations—like Harvey Keitel discussing how he worked with an actual pimp to prepare for the role. Despite not being mentioned in the title, Paul Schrader and Julia Phillips talk here too.

Robert De Niro on Taxi Driver: "I'd Like to See Where Travis Bickle is Today," by Xan Brooks
De Niro talks about a potential Taxi Driver sequel (something Paul Schrader was initially against) and the virtues of shooting movies quickly instead of doing lots of takes.

"I Was in a Bad Place" – Paul Schrader Discusses Writing Taxi Driver
Schrader delves into the dark place he was in when writing Taxi Driver—acting like Travis Bickle, hanging out in porn theaters, and living in his car.

"Martin Scorsese Remembers Shooting Taxi Driver," by Bilge Ebiri
Scorsese talks about the challenges he faced in making the movie, like a New York garbage workers strike that filled the streets with piled up trash. He also says New York isn't a great place for a young person to go be an artist anymore—it's too expensive.

Video

Original Trailer for Taxi Driver
The original trailer touts De Niro's achievements—like his prior performances in Bang the Drum, Slowly and The Godfather: Part II.

"You Talkin' to Me?" – Clip
This might be the most famous moment in the movie, an iconic scene parodied and referenced over and over and over again.

Travis Wants to Help Iris – Clip
Since Travis is trying to talk to a child, it makes his mission even more difficult (especially in his mentally unbalanced state).

Jodie Foster Discussing Her Role in Taxi Driver
Foster explains how Martin Scorsese got her involved in Taxi Driver, and how it convinced her that being an actress was a worthwhile pursuit.

Quentin Tarantino on Taxi Driver
Tarantino pays tribute to the movie as the greatest first-person character study of all-time, in addition to repeating a rumor about how Scorsese reacted when he heard the MPAA wanted to give Taxi Driver an X rating.

Audio

Martin Scorsese on Making Taxi Driver
Scorsese describes the significance of the scene in which Sport sweet-talks Iris, claiming he loves her. In his analysis, he takes a decidedly different and unexpected tack—probably not what you were thinking.

Bernard Herrmann's Theme to Taxi Driver
Herrmann's theme blends a romantic and somewhat sleazy surface with a darker and potentially violent undercurrent—just like the movie's version of NYC.

Images

Taxi Driver Original Poster
This poster has Bickle in psycho mode, sporting his new Mohawk, and waiting to try to shoot Palantine.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle
This pre-Mohawk Bickle still looks pretty intense, staring at us from his taxi and wearing his Marine jacket.

Peter Boyle as Wizard
Wizard looks like a bald and rumpled dude—possibly likeable.

Jodie Foster as Iris
As a twelve-year-old playing a twelve-year-old prostitute, Foster's heavy eye-shadow accentuated how young she really is.

Cybill Shepherd as Betsy
As Betsy, Shepherd looks like a savvy young political campaign worker who knows what she wants.

Albert Brooks as Tom
Albert Brooks looks put together and intelligent, and like an entirely different species from Travis Bickle.

Leonard Harris as Charles Palantine
Note that the statue behind Palantine has its arms raised in the exact same way as Palantine does.

Harvey Keitel as Sport
Keitel looks pretty ripped, even though he's a sleaze-ball.

Paul Schrader, Screenwriter – Young
Here's the young, bespectacled Schrader who wrote Taxi Driver.

Paul Schrader, Screenwriter – Old
The old Schrader is much the Dutch-American elder statesman of screenwriting in this photo.

Director Martin Scorsese with De Niro on Set
A young, bearded and longhaired Scorsese hangs with De Niro outside his cab.