Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver is a staple of film courses everywhere and has been analysed it to death over the last four decades. However, the film’s 40th anniversary re-release (or should that be 41st?) presents an opportunity to reflect on the often overlooked theme of contradiction. It’s a theme runs through Schrader’s script like murderous rage flows through Travis Bickle’s veins. Similar to the final act’s tooled-up avenger, Taxi Driver utilises every cinematic weapon at its disposal to hammer home the contradictions of its protagonist and the wider society that he inhabits; including character, narrative and score.
A Walking Contradiction
Betsy’s musings on Travis’s personality during their ‘date’ provides our first insight into his contradictions. She remarks how he reminds her of a lyric from the Kris Kristofferson song Pilgrim; ‘he’s a prophet and a pusher / partly truth and partly fiction / a walking contradiction’. Betsy’s analysis of Travis’s character is spot-on. He is a man wrapped in a barbed-wire of contradictions. He condemns the city and all who inhabit it. Yet he spends every night stalking its sketchiest streets for a fare. He makes awkward attempts to exorcise the loneliness that haunts him. Yet he sabotages a potential relationship with Betsy by subjecting her to the most disturbing aspects of his personality.
‘I don’t follow music too much…’
Bernard Hermann’s iconic score further provides an illuminating accompaniment to Travis’s contradictions. In the film’s iconic opening scene Travis prowls the rain-soaked streets in his cab. He glares at the world outside his windows through a blur of hellish, fire-red neon lights. The score’s opening theme plays underneath these shots as it transitions jarringly between two distinct melodies. A calm and relaxing jazz tune is shot through by a foreboding, military drum rhythm. Popular consensus among film scholars holds that Herrmann’s opening theme represents the two sides of Travis’s personality. The jazz melody evokes his friendly, charismatic side. The charming smile he flashes at others during his doomed attempts to pass for a normal person. The militaristic drums symbolise his psychosis. A warning of the murderous rage building up beneath the surface of that same grin.
Yet the thematic role of Herrmann’s score during the shootout scene has been overlooked. As Scorsese’s lens pans over the carnage, a kettle drum belts out another ominous rhythm while a group of horns strike up a dark and eerie interpretation of the jazz melody. No longer does the score transition from lounge jazz to military might. They are now united, playing together as one. They symbolise the fusion of both sides of Travis’s personality; his transformation into God’s Lonely Man, raining bullet-riddled judgement down on the scum of the streets. Our mohawked anti-hero’s massacre has both satisfied his own deranged fantasies and paradoxically delivered goodness to the world by saving Iris.
The People’s Hero
Travis’s society is not without it’s contradictions either. Everywhere he goes he’s followed not only by loneliness, but also by the empty, meaningless slogans of consumer culture. The pointlessly tedious phone call over where to place the emphasis in Palantine’s rally cry of ‘We Are the People’, the ‘One of these days I’m gonna get Organizized’ sign, or Travis scrawling in his diary that ‘You’re only as healthy as you feel’. His reference to the ‘Organizized’ slogan over lunch with Betsy doesn’t just provide an ominous foreshadow of his later tooling-up, but also further emphasises his inability to connect with others. At first, Betsy doesn’t get the joke. Once Travis explains it she then retorts with one of her own but it falls flat, creating an awkward silence between the characters. All the slogans he encounters are devoid of any real significance, existing only to manipulate and comfort in a cold and uncaring world.
Yet it’s the media and public reaction towards Travis’s massacre that exposes the most glaring contradictions afflicting his society. Newspaper reports on the incident hail him as a ‘Hero’. But his ‘heroic’ rescue of Iris comes about only because he botched his assassination attempt on Senator Palantine. Had he succeeded at the rally then the very same media would have thrown him to the flames. He would have been condemned as a villain, a threat to democracy itself. Ironically, by relaunching his suicide mission in the direction of Iris’s apartment Travis gives the media cause to refashion him from would-be assassin into an American hero. It seems that for the society he inhabits the end justifies the means. Just as long as the blood-soaked rain washes the right scum off the streets.