10 Great Shots in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver

From the grimy opening to the bloody climax, Nick Bugeja looks at 10 Great Shots from Martin Scorsese’s cinematic masterpiece, Taxi Driver.

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) arrived amidst a resurgence in American cinema. Directors were no longer bound by studio demands. Instead, they were apportioned 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 the American New Wave of the late ’60s to early ‘80s.

Taxi Driver is indubitably the product of Scorsese, De Niro, Schrader and Chapman’s cinematic nous, a perfect marriage of content and form. Scorsese’s understanding of how 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 masterpiece of filmmaking.

10. 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). Nevertheless, Travis locks eyes with the leader of the pack; intensely scrutinising and implicitly castigating the group. We get the 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.

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. 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.

Early on, Travis states his happiness with working ‘anytime, anywhere’. As a result, he travels to Harlem, Queens, and the Bronx where criminality 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. Travis feeds his loathing of the virulent underclass of New York, which only reaffirms his anti-social and misanthropic tendencies. This shot clarifies something about the character of Travis Bickle: he is a man so lost that his only way out of hopelessness is to revel in an isolating hatred.

9. Travis wearing a suit in a crowd of people

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 the city. As a result, Travis is mainly confined to his taxi, and when he does walk the streets he does so alone. So, initially it seems strange that Scorsese would ingratiate Travis into the population for this shot.

Scorsese attempts 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.

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. 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.

In a similar vein, the skill of this shot resides in exposing us 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. This is the epitome of the symbiotic relationship De Niro and Scorsese shared.

7. Introductory Shot of Betsy

The frame 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.

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 an 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. Its use imbues the shot with a sense of romanticised unreality.

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 theme takes on a new life of romance as it plays over the action. It is clear that 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 increasingly injurious; greatly aggravating his distaste for human life.

6. Exposing Travis’s Mohawk

This shot 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 climax.

The shot first captures the torsos of Pallantine supporters. The camera then tracks to the right, and it lands on Travis’s army-clad torso. 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.

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. 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.

By travelling, and then pausing on Travis’s torso, the ‘reveal’ of his Mohawk is all the more suspenseful and shocking.

5. Travis’s Eyes

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 means this shot stands outside the chronology of the film’s narrative. As a result, the shot functions to foreground Travis as a lonely, vengeful creature. As the first and last appearance of Travis focuses on his eyes, it might also suggest a circularity; that he will never return from his deeply fractured psychological state.

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. The shot harkens back to classic noir films such as The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) This highlights Scorsese’s fruitful relationship with film history, and his competence in using such inspiration to enhance his own films.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fundamentally, by putting us into Travis’s head, we comprehend his indiscriminate anathema of socialised individuals. The two women on whom Travis points the gun represent a world that which for him is unreachable. By this point in the film, Travis’s respect for human life is all but dissipated, and Scorsese gives us a powerful foresight of what is to come.

2. Travis on the phone to Betsy

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.

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. 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. 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.

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 birds eye view from which the shot captures the carnage allows us to objectively appraise Travis’s onslaught as objectionable and misguided. The shot acknowledges the indescribable nature of such violent loss of human life.

-Nick Bugeja

Go inside the world of the master filmmaker before SCORSESE ends on September 18

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Originally published at www.acmi.net.au.

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