Sylvester Stallone and Rocky might have taken the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1976, but it's Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver that's remembered not only as the best movie of that year, but of the entire decade. Taxi Driver is also Scorsese's towering achievement, his greatest film, his dark, expressionist masterpiece.
Scorsese's follow-up to Mean Streets is the portrait of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a lonely man driven by his failures to make human connections (in his words, to become a person like other persons) and sexual frustrations to a violent, orgastic rampage that ironically leaves him a hero to the public.
De Niro as Travis is so disturbing, so real, he hardly seems to be acting at all, and this is the performance (after Mean Streets and Godfather II) that put De Niro on the map as one of his generation's greatest actors. De Niro so embodies Travis that if you were to see him on the street after watching the movie, you might run the other way. He's that good, that intense.
Travis is a New York City cabdriver who, due to insomnia, has begun working both day and night. In the opening shot, Travis's checker cab (among other things, Taxi Driver provides a glimpse of a pre-Giuliani Manhattan) emerges from a cloud of steam, and we're immediately aware that this is the taxi from hell.
Bernard Herrmann's jazzy soundtrack (which he completed the night he died) adds to the sense of isolation and pessimism that surround the film.
The opening sequence also sees the first of several close ups of Travis's eyes in the rearview mirror, and at many points in the movie we are seeing things not as they necessarily are, but through Travis's subjective point-of-view.
Travis claims to have been a Marine, but aside from what could be symptoms of post-traumatic stress, there's no corroborating evidence of his service; he certainly has no interest in firearms until the thought is implanted in his head as he's already begun breaking down mentally.
We see Travis walking the city streets, alone. He seems to have no friends.
While driving a cab, Travis is willing to travel anywhere and pick up anyone, including "spooks."
That's as explicit as Travis's racism gets, although his body language during other scenes implies that Travis does not like black people.
There's almost a sense of Travis as God's (or Satan's) avenging angel, and Travis foresees a "real rain" -- something of Biblical proportions -- coming to wash the "scum" off the streets. By the end of the movie Travis will be seen by himself and others as that metaphorical rain.
Travis spends his off hours going to porn movies. He tries to flirt with the concession stand attendant, who blows him off strongly, wanting nothing to do with this porn theater patron.
Travis watches the movie, but achieves no sexual release. This is an important detail as Scorsese has discussed what he calls "Deadly Sperm Build-up" ("DSB") in relation to Taxi Driver.
The DSB theory assumes that a male unable to find sexual release will explode violently. The massacre at the end is therefore Travis's orgasm (there's what amounts to a pre-ejaculation earlier in the movie, when Travis shoots and kills a would be robber).
Travis meets with other cabbies on break getting coffee at a diner, Travis sitting at a bit of a distance from the others. One of the cabbies suggests to Travis that he arm himself with a gun. While the cabbie makes the suggestion, we see Travis's drink bubbling, as he begins to lose his mind.
Travis has been watching (not in a healthy way) a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) who works on the Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) presidential campaign
We never learn Betsy's last name, which keeps an air of unreality about her, and we usually see her through Travis's idealized point-of-view. Shepherd offers a sly performance, with subtle hints that Betsy is a snob. For Travis, she's the Madonna portion of the Madonna-whore complex.
Travis works up the courage to walk into Palantine campaign headquarters and ask Betsy out. Travis tells Betsy she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, and although there's a sweetness in how Travis goes about this, there's also something obviously off about him.
Betsy is flattered, and either intrigued by Travis or slumming, she agrees to go out with him.
Travis jokes that he's there to protect Betsy. Betsy laughs. The joke won't seem so lighthearted come the end of the movie, when Travis "saves" Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old child prostitute.
Travis and Betsy meet for coffee, and Travis makes odd conversation, expressing hostility towards a male colleague of Betsy's from the Palantine campaign (Albert Brooks). Betsy agrees to go to a movie with Travis on his day off.
Travis picks up Palantine for a cab ride, and something is again obviously off about Travis, which Palantine picks up on.
Iris then briefly enters the cab, we get a close up of Travis's eyes, and her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), pulls her out of the taxi. Palantine and Sport are now linked in Travis's mind.
Travis takes Betsy to a porno, and when she walks out of the theater, into a cab, and out of Travis's life, he doesn't understand what he did wrong.
Travis has no social intelligence, and as ridiculous as it is to take a date to a dirty movie, this was the era when Deep Throat was a mainstream success. When Travis tells Betsy he sees couples at these movies, it's probably the truth.
Travis uses a payphone to call Betsy to apologize, but she's through with him. As Betsy rejects Travis, the camera turns from him to a long hallway, much like a shot we'll see at the end during Travis's massacre. Viewers watching this scene can't help but feel sympathy for Travis.
With Travis's failure to make a lasting connection with Betsy, he becomes completely unhinged.
Travis picks up a passenger (played by Scorsese) who has been spying on his cheating wife, and the passenger speaks of what horrors a .44 magnum can do to "a woman's pussy." Sex and violence are linked again.
Travis turns his sights on Iris, the literal and also figurative whore of the Madonna-whore equation. Travis has idealized Iris as well (we don't learn her last name until post-massacre), and wishes to rescue her from prostitution. (This part of the plot is borrowed from John Ford's The Searchers.)
Travis buys several guns from a black market seller, with the camera eyeing the phallic guns as if they were penises.
Travis is seen getting into tremendous physical shape and taking target practice.
He goes to a porn movie and pantomimes firing a gun, again stressing the nexus between sex and violence.
In one of the most famous scenes in cinema history, Travis eyes himself in the mirror and delivers the "You talkin' to me" monologue.
De Niro improvised here, probably borrowing "You talkin' to me?" from the movie Shane, which contains similar dialogue.
Travis watches television while holding his gun fetishistically. He pushes the tv stand with his foot back-and-forth as if performing sexually, until the tv falls over and breaks in a metaphorical climax.
Travis buys time with Iris, who Sport explains is available for any sexual act Travis might desire. Travis does not want time with Iris for sex, but rather wishes to talk her into leaving Sport.
With Iris's blonde hair she looks like a younger version of Betsy, and Travis wants to remake Iris from whore to Madonna. Iris, however, wants to stay.
Travis shaves his head into a mohawk and heads to a rally to assassinate Palantine, but is thwarted by security.
Unable to get close enough to kill Palantine, Travis instead sets off to kill Sport and "rescue" Iris. Travis kills Sport and several others in a bloodbath, while suffering serious wounds himself.
Travis then tries to kill himself but the chamber is empty. Leaning against the wall, Travis pantomimes shooting himself in the head.
What follows is something some viewers interpret as Travis's fantasy, but I believe the better interpretation is literal.
Iris is returned to her parents, who write a letter of gratitude to Travis, who has become a public hero for rescuing the 12-year-old hooker.
Travis, who had been in a coma, recovers and returns to cab driving. He picks up Betsy as a passenger. Betsy's aware of Travis's "heroism" and seems to flirt with him, but Travis does not respond.
Betsy exits the cab and we get a final close-up of Travis's eyes.
Those eyes inform us that maybe not tonight, maybe not tomorrow, but one day Travis will go on another killing spree, because for this lonely, disturbed man, it's the only release he knows.