Of Taxi Drivers + .44 Magnums

Of Taxi Drivers + .44 Magnums

By Eugene S. Robinson

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) checks out his revolver in the movie Taxi Driver.
SourceJohn Springer/CORBIS


Because cinema this good blurs all the lines between goodness, greatness, film and reality.

By Eugene S. Robinson

For many of life’s greatest experiences, well before you have them, whispers of what makes them great find their way to you in no uncertain terms.

“You have GOT to go see Taxi Driver.”

The idea of seeing a movie about what is possibly the least photogenic profession around, and shot in full Andy Warhol fashion, with 113 minutes of static shots of the back of a driver’s head — it seemed daunting at best. It could give a person pause. Until the adamant fan addended: “It’s badass.”

Before its release in 1976, there were months of confusing and strange pre-press. Reports that lead actor Robert De Niro really worked as a cabbie for weeks prior to and through filming. News that 13-year-old actress Jodie Foster had to be cleared by a team of psychiatrists before she could even take the role of the teenage hooker. And the story that the MPAA ratings board nearly denied Taxi Driver an R rating because of the bright shades of red used by director Scorsese for the blood in his slaughter scenes, a shade violent enough to merit an X rating.

Yeah: badass.

If you haven’t seen it, you should. And if you have? Do it again.

Folks filled the theaters in droves to see Scorsese’s edgy, lovingly detailed depiction of De Niro’s slide as taxi driver Travis Bickle. According to Scorsese, the film—  equal parts Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground and would-be presidential assassin Arthur Bremer’s diaries — focuses on Bickle’s attempts to either rescue or redeem a teenage prostitute, woo a campaign worker or assassinate a presidential campaigner, all while grappling with mental illness and real existential issues.

“You talkin’ to me?” 

It’s a question the armed Bickle asks himself while standing in his tenement apartment facing down loneliness and specters of the city’s very real bad guys. The line was ad-libbed by lifelong New Yorker De Niro, and either inspired by some stage side chatter he heard Bruce Springsteen utter, or something the car-dwelling, depressed screenwriter, Paul Schrader, cooked up (he’d been kicked out of his place by his girlfriend at the time). The question was both a prelude to the epic violence that soon followed and a desperate attempt to, as film critic Roger Ebert said, “make some kind of contact somehow.”

And it was all delivered in a crazy cinematic stew that tasted of Scorsese’s well-publicized cocaine addiction, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, a city in decline and a mise-en-scène rife with alienated and vacant strangers. Its public reception was directly commensurate with the film’s greatness: four Oscar nominations, a few BAFTAs, a win at Cannes and the widely held belief that, if there were better movies about the modern condition, few had seen them. 

Which is to say: If you haven’t seen it, you should. And if you have? Do it again.

The complete film is available for streaming on Amazon.