You Talkin' to Me? 'Taxi Driver' Turns 40

As 'Taxi Driver' prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the movie’s long shadow still stretches across much of modern cinema. Here are eight significant ways.
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Tim Grierson
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As 'Taxi Driver' prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the movie’s long shadow still stretches across much of modern cinema. Here are eight significant ways.
Taxi Driver Robert De Niro Photo

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver.' (Photo: Photofest)

When director Martin Scorsese first read Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver, he connected “with the anger and the rage, and the loneliness—not being part of a group,” the director would later tell film critic Richard Schickel. “I was always on the outside.”

The film Scorsese made, which starred Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet driving a cab at night in New York City, helped cement his reputation as one of America’s great directors. Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Taxi Driver was named by Roger Ebert as the best film of the 1970s and is routinely featured on lists of the finest movies ever made. (Plus, it won the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.)

But even if you’ve never experienced this dark look at one man’s tortured, violent soul, in a sense you have. As Taxi Driver prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, the movie’s long shadow still stretches across much of modern cinema. Whether as parody or loving homage, the descendants of Taxi Driver are all around us—in eight significant ways.

The Use of Voiceover

Any introductory screenwriting class will instruct students that using voiceover is a lazy crutch to pass along information to the audience in the most blatant way possible. But Scorsese’s career has stood in defiance of that rule. 1973’s Mean Streets featured voiceover, but it’s incorporated even better in Taxi Driver: Bickle isn’t speaking to us but, rather, writing in a diary (or, in one instance, a letter to his family), and so we become a fly on the wall observing his thought process.

Scorsese would continue to incorporate the technique in innovative ways. For Goodfellas, the main character looks back at his life, justifying his murderous actions to us. But in Casino, there are multiple voiceovers, with different characters presenting their perspective on the action.

Of course, great films of the past had used voiceover—take Sunset Boulevard, for example—but Taxi Driver’s suggested a new way of externalizing the tormented thoughts of a troubled character. Movies like Adaptation and Fight Club let us peer into the psyches of men whose internal drama was just as compelling as what was happening to them in the outside world.

Albert Brooks, Serious Actor

Several of the stars of Taxi Driver already had an established track record by the time Scorsese cast them. But one of the unknowns was Albert Brooks, who plays an advisor to Senator Palantine, Bickle’s assassination target.

Before being cast, Brooks had worked as a stand-up and filmmaker, producing shorts for Saturday Night Live starting in 1975. He’d also appeared on The Tonight Show, but his role in Taxi Driver was his first serious film role, even though he was largely the deadpan comic relief opposite Cybill Shepherd’s cool, beautiful blonde.

Taxi Driver began a movie career for Brooks that would find him writing, directing and starring in some of the best comedies of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, including Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America. (In 1988, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News.) But in recent years, his acting career has come full circle in a way, Brooks delivering dramatic turns in movies such as Drive, A Most Violent Year and Concussion that demonstrate his talent for finding the dark humor in serious scenarios.

Of his work on Taxi Driver, Brooks has said that the character was sussed out through improvisations that happened between him, Scorsese, Schrader and the rest of the cast during rehearsals. At the film’s wrap party, Brooks recalled, “Schrader said to me, ‘I want to thank you. That was the only character I didn’t know.’ I said, ‘It’s the only character that didn’t kill 15 people.’”

“You Talkin’ to Me?”

For all the accolades and awards De Niro has accrued over the years, it’s possible he is most famous for an antagonistic riff he delivers in the mirror during Taxi Driver that culminates in the scene’s most famous line, “You talkin’ to me?”

As Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader once explained, the Oscar-winning actor came up with the line while on set. “In the script it just says, ‘Travis speaks to himself in the mirror,’” Schrader recalled. “Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, ‘Well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.’ So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.”

In subsequent years, the line has become a comedy shorthand to mock a character’s attempts to seem macho. References have popped up in everything from Back to the Future III to sitcoms like Alf and Bosom Buddies. And in the 2014 comedy Neighbors, Zac Efron’s fraternity has a De Niro-themed party in which he dresses like the Mohawk-ed Bickle.

It’s the Loner

Schrader’s script was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, which is structured like a memoir written by its miserable narrator. That technique is mimicked in Taxi Driver, but more importantly the film forcefully introduced a new kind of antihero to American screens. The 1970s had featured other such types—think of Jack Nicholson’s character in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces or Elliott Gould’s gumshoe in 1973’s The Long Goodbye—but Bickle was a dangerous malcontent, his anguish only becoming clearer as Taxi Driver marches slowly forward.

Ever since, the cinema has been populated by such figures, whether it’s Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel) or Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler. These movies put us into the shoes of their nefarious characters, allowing actors to explore the more unsettling aspects of their personality.

A Portrait of Madness

Along the same lines, Taxi Driver was an instrumental film in articulating mental illness. Although the filmmakers never say specifically what is tormenting Bickle—including, potentially, his experience in the Vietnam War—some psychologists have suggested that the character suffers from schizotypal personality disorder, which causes those afflicted to “generally [not] understand how relationships form or the impact of their behavior on others. They may also misinterpret others’ motivations and behaviors and develop significant distrust of others.”

To be sure, Taxi Driver isn’t claiming to be an accurate clinical portrayal of any specific mental disorder but, like Psycho before it, the film can be seen as a precursor for other films in which the main character’s loose grip on sanity helps escalate their villainy. Look no further than Jack Nicholson’s demented turn in The Shining or, more recently, Ryan Reynolds as the friendly serial killer Jerry Hickfang in the underrated horror-comedy The Voices. Scorsese himself would return to the theme for Shutter Island, which chronicled the psychotic break of its lead character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Life Imitates Art, Troublingly

Not all of Taxi Driver’s legacies are happy ones. A Texas man named John Hinckley, Jr. became drawn to Jodie Foster’s prostitute character Iris, wanting to do something bold and public to impress her. His attempts to get in contact with Foster, including sending her his poetry, failed, culminating in him shooting at President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C. on March 30, 1981. During the altercation, White House Press Secretary James Brady was shot, suffering partial paralysis, his high-profile recovery helping to set in motion the so-called Brady Bill, which put into national law a five-day waiting period and background checks before weapons could be purchased.

Loved to Death: The son of an oil executive, John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessed with Jodie Foster after seeing her in Taxi Driver.  He stalked her, then shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to get her  attention. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has  been in a psychiatric institution ever since.(WireImage)

Loved to Death: The son of an oil executive, John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessed with Jodie Foster after seeing her in 'Taxi Driver.'  He stalked her, then shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to get her attention. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and has been in a psychiatric institution ever since. (Photo: WireImage)

Hinckley’s actions queasily mimicked Bickle’s, who flirts with the idea of assassinating Senator Palantine. As for Foster, Hinckley’s object of obsession who was a college student at the time, she had no idea of the man’s violent plan. “I was literally skipping across the Yale campus with my friend when I heard Ronald Reagan had been shot,” she later recalled.

Violence With Weight

Because the film is told from Bickle’s vantage point, it can be easy to assume that the film endorses its main character’s violent vigilante perspective. But watch Taxi Driver closely and it’s clear that Scorsese finds Bickle abhorrent, the character’s turning to guns a symptom of a sick man who can’t find any other way to express his pain.

The moral and emotional weight of violence resonates in Taxi Driver, as it does in subsequent films about killing like Elephant, We Need to Talk About Kevin and others. One screenwriter who was profoundly affected by Taxi Driver was David Webb Peoples, who was writing a Western around the time of its release and felt stuck. “When I first started writing, I didn’t want to have anybody get killed in any script I wrote because I was just so put off by the unreality,” he once said, later adding, “In [most] movies, you kill 10 people and then you go have breakfast—it’s as if it didn’t have any impact whatsoever. But all of a sudden I see Taxi Driver and people are getting killed, and the characters maintained how they would be in real life.”

Taxi Driver inspired Peoples to complete his script, which would become the Best Picture-winning Unforgiven, a movie very much about deglamorizing killing.

The Explosive Ending

Taxi Driver’s slow-burn tension finally erupts in a fiery conclusion in which Bickle kills several men, including Harvey Keitel’s pimp Sport, in order to rescue Iris. It’s an outward manifestation of the long-festering anguish residing inside our antihero—and it’s a cathartic, horrifying narrative device still used today.

Last year’s Palme d’Or-winner Dheepan, a drama about a former Tamil Tiger fighter (Antonythasan Jesuthasan) who has moved to France in the hopes of starting over, explores the racism and poverty facing immigrants, but it’s only at the film’s end that the main character finally hits back at the evil he sees around him. The bloodshed feels cathartic and raw, and it prompted several reviewers at the Cannes Film Festival to compare the movie to Taxi Driver. American audiences will be able to judge for themselves when Sundance Selects releases the film later this year.

Tim Grierson is the author of Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.