New York Grit
Taxi Driver (1976)
In 1967, one year after graduating from New York University’s film school, Scorsese produced a six-minute short that’s popularly known as The Big Shave. The concept is simple: a young man (Peter Bernuth) shaves away his facial hair and then starts in on his skin, stripping it off in bloody ribbons while observing himself nonchalantly in the bathroom mirror. It’s not easy to watch, but the self-mutilation serves a purpose. Scorsese intended the short to serve as a metaphor for America’s self-destructive involvement in the Vietnam War; he even thought of using the on-the-nose title Viet ‘67 to hammer this point home.
So what does all this have to do with Taxi Driver, a feature-length film that arrived a full nine years later? Let’s start with a better question: “You talkin’ to me?” Scorsese began laying the brickwork for his signature style long before Taxi Driver, which many consider to be his best and most characteristic film.
Parts of this style were established in the 1973 crime film Mean Streets, which took place in a gritty New York City locale and featured a lot of tough-looking guys acting tough. But parts of it showed up even earlier, in shorts like The Big Shave. This was where Scorsese began to employ his unflinching camera in an exploration of the American male’s psyche. The film’s self-mutilating protagonist is a lonely, lost, and damaged soul, traumatized by something unnamable and thus compelled to act out violently. Hmm, sound familiar?
After nearly 50 years of Scorsese films centered on insecure males, it’s safe to say that Travis Bickle (played iconically by Robert De Niro) is the director’s crowning achievement in that regard. An honorably discharged US Marine working as a New York City taxi driver to cope with his insomnia, Bickle embodies all the traits of the prototypical Scorsese protagonist — in fact, he is the prototype. He is isolated, unsure of himself, and driven to violence as a means of confronting what he perceives as corruption.
All of these qualities are extrapolated from that young man we see in The Big Shave, and decades later they would appear in characters as varied as The Departed’s Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Gangs of New York’s William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bickle’s slow descent into madness ends with his plan to publicly assassinate Senator Palantine, but it starts in a place that was crucial to Scorsese’s early career: Vietnam.
It’s fair to say that most of the director’s early films are about war and its effects on the male psyche. Mean Streets simply translates the locale of that war to New York City, but Taxi Driver does something more interesting in making Bickle an actual Vietnam vet. The film’s most iconic scene, in which he stands in front of a mirror and repeats that question — “You talkin’ to me?” — shows that while he may be thousands of miles from the war, it continues to rage inside his head. This mirror scene evokes The Big Shave, and it says something about male self-reflection. Whenever men attempt to confront their emotions in a Scorsese film, it usually ends in an act of bloody violence.
On a more superficial level, Taxi Driver also establishes Scorsese’s tendency to bring the best out of his lead actors — and then hold onto them for decades. The director returned to working with De Niro after Mean Streets and would go on to make seven more films with him after that. DiCaprio, as we all know, is in the midst of a similar run.
The bottom line: if you’re looking for a film that encapsulates pretty much everything that makes Scorsese Scorsese, Taxi Driver is the place to start.