The movie Taxi Driver (directed by Martin Scorsese) “may be the greatest first person character study ever committed to film” according to an interview of Quentin Tarantino. Within the realm of film noir there is interplay with light and darkness and there is the classic main character. The main character within every film noir has a couple key components that are common within many (if not all) the antiheroes of the genre. The film noir anti-hero (or corrupted hero) is most known for their descent moralistically or in the case of Travis Bickle, mentally. The conventions used to display this mental ambiguity is via the mis en scene, cinematography, and editing. Most normal formal elements that are used in film noir are within Taxi Driver. The hero is most of the time in film noir is a washed up hero who is preconditioned to descend into darkness in order to let justice prevail. In the Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade was already cold and distant when he met with Mrs. Wonderly and he was already having an affair with his partner's wife. By the time his partner died he really didn't have any remorse, in fact he actually replaced his partner's name on their company the next day. In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is already a washed up detective who left Chinatown to get away from whatever the system let him down for. Most of the elements within film noir "create a fatalistic, hopeless mood. There is nothing protagonists can do; the city will outlast and negate even their best efforts" (Film Noir 235). In Chinatown the villain gets away with the woman and the whole scene is a mess in the end and the good guys lose (which is more or less realistic in one fashion). The last thing is that within the story it is common, which is that there is usually a detective who meets the femme fatale. She is either a liar or a temptress of some kind and through the course of the film she leads the man on a very dark path which he usually takes willingly. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese doesn’t have Travis Bickle descend in terms of moral ambiguity but rather turns Travis from oddball to “Killer.” Travis’s descension mentally is synonymous to a film noir hero’s descension morally.
Like many film noir heroes, Travis seems predisposed to becoming a psychopathic killer, being that he was in the marines, needs a lot of time to keep himself busy, and he’s a complete loner. The mis en scene, editing, and cinematography of the movie show to the audience many scenes that connote to his later and more troubling behavior. The lighting is a part of mis en scene that permeates within the film (because it is film noir) and connotes that Travis is psychotic beforehand or is predisposed to it. Near the beginning the audience sees darkness around Travis’s eyes and not only that but they are then later drowned in a red light. All the audience sees are Travis’s eyes for a good fifteen seconds. Eyes are a very striking thing and to cover them in darkness and red light poses an ominous picture. For most of the movie there is only darkness but within the first thirty minutes of the film (or the setting of the film) there is only darkness and every scene takes place at night. The reason is to show the darkness that is already brewing within Travis. Another aspect of mis en scene is the actual props and what they connote. Travis’s “office” or his apartment is a symbol more or less of what he is, which according to the screenplay itself,
“Is unusual, to say the least: A ratty old mattress is thrown against one wall. The floor is littered with old newspapers, worn and unfolded streets maps and pornography. The pornography is of the sort that looks cheap but costs $10 a threw - black and white photos of naked women tied and gagged with black leather straps and clothesline. There is no furniture other than the rickety chair and table. A beat-up portable TV rests on an upright melon crate. The red silk mass in another corner looks like a Vietnamese flag. Indecipherable words, figures, numbers are scribbled on the plain plaster walls. Ragged black wires dangle from the wall where the telephone once hung” (Taxi Driver 8).
At the beginning of the movie there is rain upon the city and all Travis’s voice over says is that “someday he wants the rain to wash all the scum away” and as much as this sounds noble out of context, it carries a more eerie weight within the movie as it foreshadows his own psychotic actions against the pimps. Also when he meets Palentine in his cab, the senator asks him “what’s the one thing in the world that bugs him the most?” and as they’re all in darkness he says he “flushed down the toilet” and cleaned by force almost. This is both a message of politics and how his antiheroic actions eventually clean some of the streets faster than the senator who always answers “it will take some time” to every one of his questions. Everyone is in the darkness and so everyone has bad intentions at heart.
The last part of mis en scene that connotes that he might have a problem is his Holden Caulfield impression when he enters into the pornography theater. He acts like Holden Caulfield because he acts the woman behind the counter not for candy or soda or a ticket but rather he asks for her name. Eventually he bugs the woman behind the counter enough that she is tempted to call security. It doesn’t prove that he is a psychotic pimp killing machine but it points to him being a little off-kilter. The facial expressions tell most of the story though and if the sound was off both of them did an excellent job in displaying the emotions of both confusion (since all Travis wanted was her name and all she wanted him to do was move along) and anger (since they were both frustrated). The scene within the theater is a striking scene of mis en scene, where he is surrounded in darkness (like usual) but at the same time he is not smiling and there isn’t a look of pleasure on his face at all. It paints a picture of this loneliness and his search for empty love. He is desperately lonely.
The editing also connotes that he is a lonely man that is in search of love of some sort. In a voice over he is saying how he met Betsy and how she is beautiful. The camera cuts to many different crowds of people and there are people walking everywhere. The audience is drawn. It is daylight for the first time and the audience wants to know what sort of woman would attract Travis? Cut from one crowd (there’s no one) cut to another crowd (there is still no one) and then the last cut she comes at the last minute. She comes “like an angel” out of the right side of the screen with a bright white blouse. Betsy comes out of no where and the camera follows her just as Travis’s eyes would (which is a nice use of cinematography). Travis begins to fill that empty void in his life with Betsy.
In many noir films the main character finds that there is temptation within the drug or the money or whatever is being offered to them. In the movie Brick, the temptation for Brendan in the end is to ditch Emily and stop investigating whatever is going on and just become Laura’s boyfriend. In The Maltese Falcon the temptation was money and to make much more money than his current job offered. He could be rich and have whatever he wanted. The temptation in Taxi Driver isn’t drugs or money but rather love. At first he was satisfying himself with empty love by going into the movies but now there is someone new, someone to go into the light for. For most of the movie the cinematography focuses on just Betsy’s face and so we are forced to make eye contact with her and try and sympathize with Travis. The amount of point of view shots whenever the audience sees Betsy or anyone else for that matter are the reason why this may be considered a great first person case study. The audience is supposed to empathize with the person they “know” the most.
The mis en scene between the two would be subtle. Whenever the two of them would go to a movie or to dinner, the camera would focus on the faces. This was to get a hold on the very subtle hints of displeasure within the two of them that came up from time to time. The weirdest part about this whole relationship (other than her accepting his offer for coffee) is that he was staring at her in the darkness of his taxi (which is weird to have amidst the daytime) with the cup that he was drinking from during the adult movie theater.
The breakup between Travis and Betsy is what drives him off the edge and begins his descent towards mental instability and psychotic rampages. Since Travis is already a weird guy, he of course thinks that taking a woman to an adult movie theater is the perfect way to woo her and of course (and understandably) she breaks up with Travis. As Travis talks to her for what seems to be the last time (according to the voice over), the camera shifts from him being in the light with a telephone to an empty and narrow hall leading towards the darkness outside. He walks into the empty hall and gradually walks away from the audience and into the darkness itself. In his own apartment all his flowers rot and are dead. The visual symbolism almost explains itself for how his love for her is dead and she is now viewed by him as just as cold as everyone else in the world. The smell of the flowers makes him sick and he starts to become a misanthrope.
At this point things start to roll and Travis begins to literally crack from the inside out. Within his cab, Travis is almost drenched in darkness and there is a shady guy in the back of his cab. He is a little bossy but the cuts grow more rapid as the screen moves from the shady man who’s going to kill his wife to Travis. The audience is told by the cinematography that we are to be slightly annoyed by the man since the camera is in a first person point of view. He is yelling at the audience to look at the light on the second floor and the camera hasn’t gotten there yet. The break up at this point brings about this more vocal embodiment of just how psychotic Travis will become.
Right outside the bar where Travis and Wizard both hand out, the two of them have a talk and the two of them are sopping in darkness and red light. The two of them have a conversation and the cutting and everything stops--the cinematography and the editing stops at that conversation. The director wants the audience to focus on the conversation and not anything else. “A man’s job becomes what he is” says the Wizard and according to an extra feature on the DVD version of Taxi Driver on the making of the film, the screenwriter Paul Schrader says that the taxi cab is a metaphor for loneliness and that it is a metaphor more specifically for Travis’s loneliness. Travis wants to get rid of this loneliness and doesn’t want it to become a part of him. He is starting to get some “crazy ideas.”
He finally descends when he meets Iris and has this instinct to protect her and feels that it is his calling upon earth to get this child back to her family. After almost running her over, Travis feels the need to stalk her (which seems to be his usual tactic) but this time even though he is in darkness he does not have his adult movie cup with him. After he goes to the weapons dealer Easy Andy and mentions the gun the psychopath had—a 44 magnum. As he takes out the guns the audience hears screaming children in the background which is foreshadows later events. As he practices before the mirror and does the famous and eloquent soliloquy “You Talkin’ to Me?” he says “you’re dead” and yet another girl screams in the background. The girls in the background symbolize the intense and yet shocking episode that will come later for Iris.
Darkness descends into the next scene as Travis pulls into a supermarket. Of course the small supermarket gets robbed and this is where the cracks turn from internal to external. As the robber points a gun towards the cashier, Travis whips out a gun says “look here” and then proceeds to shoot the robber in the face. Part of mis en scene is the musical numbers that play within the scene. In this particular scene there is a song called “Late for the Sky” which talks about why Travis does what he does. “How long have I been drifting alone through the night/How long have I been dreaming I could make it right” (1.18-19).
One of the most striking scenes within the whole screenplay is the dance that Sport has with Iris. There is darkness amidst a crimson light which pours everywhere. The crimson light gives the scene a darker lusty feeling and the jazz music that once served as background music for Travis’s love music now serves for this pedophile. The cinematography makes this more disturbing as well, which focuses on the hands. At first the audience is drawn to an insert of the record player. As the music plays the camera scrolls up almost seductively to a close up Sport’s face as he says “I need you.” As they dance, the camera doesn’t cut but rather it just leaves the audience there to view this more striking scene. Immediately the scene cuts to a series of shots. There is darkness all around except for a window where we see Travis shooting his guns. It’s almost looks like he’s shooting Sport (which makes for great foreshadowing).
The cinematography in the scene where Palantine is talking delivers Travis’s new haircut well to the audience. The camera drifts but doesn’t show the heads of anyone. We see Travis holding his pills but the audience still doesn’t see his head. The camera then tilts upward fast and the audience sees that he has a Mohawk. The physical transformation has been complete—his mental instability matches his physical difference in the crowd. Travis now looks like an individual within the crowd (there is even a point of view shot from Palentine’s perspective that shows everyone and then Travis in the back grinning with his new haircut).
The end of the movie is where most of the technical aspects of the movie go wild. There is a deeper and noticeable contrast within light and darkness within the last ten minutes of the movie. Everything looks more grainy as well. The light is more emphasized and the darkness is more pronounced. Everything is harder to see but at the same time everything that is full of light draws the audience in. After shooting Sport, he goes into Iris’s apartment and shoots the old man in the corridor. There are three rapid cuts that go up the stairs and seemingly follow the noises that the 44 magnum made at that shot. The director then cuts to an overhead shot of the corridor. Travis travels into the darkness at the end of the hall, shoots Sport and continues to shoot him even when he is dead. His descent into darkness is palpable. He shoots the old man but the old man climbs up the stairs, screaming that he’s gunna kill Travis (with his stump) and then things go into slow motion. The old man’s words are in real time but Travis is moving in slow motion and when they cut to Iris, she turns back in slow motion. As the old man tackles him into Iris’s room we cut from Iris to a close up of the old man to a close up of Travis’s boot to the knife to a close up of the old man getting stabbed in the stump. This is all to convey the scene of the fight and to get the audience into the fight and hope that Travis wins. The cinematography then allows the viewers to take a breather and to see the “overhead slow motion tracking shot” (106 Taxi Driver) which “surveys the damage” (106 Taxi Driver)
Unlike the regular film noir heroes where the hero seems normal at the end of the whole debacle they seem like the good guy, Travis is a psychotic killer who just happened to do the right thing. The only hint the audience gets that Travis is still not normal is at the end of the film there is a sudden boost in speed. As Travis pulls away his eyes quickly turn towards his rear-view mirror, the saturation of the colors brightens and there are weird noises in the background (like radio interference). But this doesn’t take away from the fact that this is indeed a film noir. According to the screenwriter Paul Schrader, film noir is a culmination of different stylistics. “The majority of scenes are lit for night” (Film Noir 235) which most of them are within the movie, “compositional tension is preferred to physical action” (Film Noir 235) which is true seeing that it was a gradual descent in Travis’s mind that brought him to the violence in the end. Before that there was no real physical violence within the movie. Some of the themes that go into film noir that are in Taxi Driver is that the heroes within film noir “emphasize loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, and insecurity then submerge these self-doubts into mannerisms and style” (Film Noir 237). Within Taxi Driver Travis at first is devoid of having love and then loses love when he brings her into the adult movie theater. For a part of the movie travis goes to his friend Wizard and asks if he is in the right place. He doesn’t want to be a part of the taxi driving business for long. He wants to do something else which reflects him not having clear priority. The reason why this movie is such a remarkable one is because it shows the film noir style with modern day conventions and uses the new technology not to hamper his own creativity but rather to enhance his own dark and lusty feel. The movie Taxi Driver brings a genre long neglected and brought it back with a new fresh feel to it.
Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Genre Reader lll (2003): 229-242
Tarantino, Quentin. “Tarantino on Taxi Driver.” Tarantino Takes Over Sky Movies. 16,
Browne, Jackson. Late for the Sky, 1974. Asylum Records, 1976.
Making Taxi Driver. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1976.
Schrader, Paul. Taxi Driver. Columbia Pictures Corporation: 1976