Taxi Driver (1976)

Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 masterpiece is like a narcotic: the immediate effect lasts for a little under two hours, but it lingers in the bloodstream and you’re left thinking about it for an indeterminable stretch of time afterwards. Insomnia, loneliness, and vengeful insanity are captured so painfully realistically that the viewer wishes to look away, wishes to wrench themselves away from the pitiful life of Travis Bickle, but finds it impossible to do so. Yet upon reflection, having been submerged into the misty streets of New York City, having witnessed violence, prostitution and a tragedy occurring at the hands of our torturous protagonist – we are left asking, what is Taxi Driver? 

The majority of the film’s mystery comes from the content not included; the words not said. Our view of the city is warped, because Taxi Driver is a deeply personal film, it is one with a lens focused on the soul of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the lonely insomniac, Travis Bickle. This is not a film about New York, it is a film about Travis Bickle’s perception of New York. We see the lonely streets and the dimmed lights, we witness the camera panning through empty corridors, and we are only introduced to other characters through their interaction with Travis. Even the weather is chosen to specifically reflect Travis’ feelings towards the life he leads – someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. Taxi Driver is a microscopic observation, a window into the life of just another lonely soul. 

Who is Travis Bickle? The way that the plot – like the mist rising from the city streets – wraps its way around him, conceals sections, barring the audience from full knowledge. We know him as an ex-US marine, an insomniac, a taxi driver. We know he watches pornographic films during the daytime, and that he goes to Wizard (Peter Boyle) for advice. Travis alters during the course of Taxi Driver; his subdued, relentless dissatisfaction becomes active rather than passive, and everything – including his unfortunate attempt at romancing Betsy (Cybil Shepherd) is a catalyst for revenge. After a twelve year old prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) finds her way into his cab, a dollar bill given to quieten him about the incident by Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), haunts Travis.

As an audience, we realise a little late that the plot has changed course. Travis purchases some guns and tapes them to his legs and arms. This follows on from a rejection he received from Betsy; a campaigner for Charles Palentine, after being successful in taking her for coffee – I had black coffee and a slice of apple pie with a side of melted cheese. It was a good choice. Betsy had a coffee and a fruit salad. She could’ve had anything she wanted – Travis then took her to see an adult movie, and she walked out during the film, visibly horrified. After she has rejected him, the camera pans down an empty hallway, and Martin Scorsese is known to have said that this was the most important shot in the film. When questioned, the director revealed that it was designed to show that we, as the voyeurs, can’t bear to watch Travis feel the pain of being rejected. This is in contrast to the well-utilised “bullet shots” that show the later violence in excruciating slow motion. 

What we are essentially watching, although most do not realise it at the time, is a preparation for assassination. Travis goes through various muscle training exercises; he practises pointing the gun and pulling it out from underneath his sleeve. He even watches television with the gun aimed at the screen. He does this silently, and nobody outside his isolated existence is even aware of his plans. When Charles Palentine, the man who is a Presidential Candidate, and whom Betsy spends her working hours supporting, hails Travis’ cab, Travis sees through everything Charles presents himself as to the public. This film is as ardently political as it is biographical; there is an undercurrent of change bubbling beneath the city surface – and it dawns upon the viewer that Travis intends to kill Palentine. Why? It is never explained. Taxi Driver has more to say through unexplored content than what actually plays out on the screen. Was it because he knew that this man, this unknown man, held more of Betsy’s affection than Travis ever would? Or was it because he saw what needed to change, and believed that this man wouldn’t resolve anything? 

Killers are often dehumanised in films. They are dismissed as motiveless; teetering on the edge of insanity. Travis, throughout the entirety of Taxi Driver, is so unequivocally human that we almost struggle to understand the concept that he is intending to shoot someone, that in a later scene, he will be a murderer. It is his traits and his demeanour that cause him to be perceived as such; he is an insomniac, he was in Vietnam, he eats apple pie and writes Anniversary cards to his parents – one day, there will be a knock on your door, and it’s gonna be me. One shot shows Travis sitting watching television, with the gun pointed at the screen as usual, with Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky playing in the background – the anthem of loneliness, the album that represented the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Awake again, I can’t pretend, Jackson sings, whilst Travis points his gun at a couple dancing on the television, and I know I’m alone, and close to the end, of this feeling I’ve known. Wordlessly, Martin Scorsese conveys the loneliness of Travis Bickle, and for the first time, he appears to be pathetic. For the first time, he seems genuinely breakable. 

Travis has, for the film’s duration, become obsessed with the thieves, crooks, pimps and prostitutes that frequent his late night taxi journeys. It is Iris that grabs his attention most fiercely, as reflected when he later finds the crumpled dollar bill given to him by Harvey Keitel. He visits the brothel, paying for time to be with Iris, to try and convince her to stop the prostitution. To his surprise, she rebuffs him and doesn’t wish to be rescued. Well, Iris, I look at it this way – Travis tells her. A lot of girls come into my cab, some of them very beautiful. And I figure all day long men have been after them: trying to touch them, talk to them, ask them out.  And they hate it. So I figure the best I can do for them is not to bother them at all.  So I don’t say a thing.  I pretend I’m not even there.  I figure they’ll understand that and appreciate me for it. Iris tells him that she understands the options given to her in life, and her work as a prostitute. Her calm acceptance is not enough for Travis. Why is it that he wants to rescue Iris? Why is he so invested in something that is none of his business? Perhaps it is because, as an ex Marine, Travis knows what it’s like to be scarred by a youthful pastime. Or perhaps it is more to do with the film’s underlying theme of change, and Travis’ overwhelming desire for it. 

Taxi Driver follows Travis Bickle through his starting appearance, sunglasses and slicked back hair, and finally, a mohawk. Caught before he can assassinate Charles Palentine by heavy security, Travis escapes to the brothel. There, the film reaches its peak. This is the event that, however unknowingly, Travis’ life has been leading up to. This is what has taken an unmentioned amount of planning. Travis first shoots Sport in the stomach. The camera moves painfully slowly, using the aforementioned bullet shots to allow the viewer to see the violence clearly. From the floor, the dying Sport shoots Travis once in the neck, which isn’t enough to wind him, but does cause him to press his fingers over the wound in pain. Iris’ client, a mobster appears and shoots Travis more severely, this time in the arm, but he reveals his sleeve gun and kills the mobster. The bouncer harasses Travis, leading them into Iris’ room. Travis kills the bouncer by shooting him in the head, whilst the camera pans around the brothel, showing the blood splattered walls and floor. Iris cries hysterically, and Travis points the gun to his own head before the police arrive, only to discover that he is out of ammunition. 

While recuperating, the camera shows a letter hanging from the wall of Travis’ flat. It is a letter from Iris’ parents, thanking him for rescuing her. Next to it hang newspaper clippings that hail Travis as a local hero. Travis has finally caused some of the change he so longed for. 

The final scene – because the final scene was never going to be a pile of blood and dead bodies, Taxi Driver could never have ended in a homicide, shows Betsy getting into Travis’ taxi. She tries to talk about his fame with him, but he denies being a hero and drops her off free of charge. The homicide – the planning of which supposedly cured Travis of his need to be with Betsy – may have worn off as the last shot sees Travis glancing back at her through his rearview mirror. 

Taxi Driver is about the deeds not done and the words not spoken. At its most basic level, it is a film about an insomniac taxi driver who has lost all faith in everything, from family life to politicians. At its best, it is the tale of desperation: of a battle with loneliness and wanting to fix the lives of those in the city, of those who are surrounded by the scum our protagonist is fascinated by. This film does insomnia, loneliness and rejection better than anyone. It makes murder a complexity, and doesn’t just dismiss the murderer as a psychopath, but someone who is intently focused on; someone who has not emerged unscathed from war but understands what must be done to change how things are. 

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese were one of the most powerful Director/Actor combinations to ever darken Hollywood’s door, and Taxi Driver, along with Mean Streets, cemented their lifelong friendship. De Niro, who worked twelve hour shifts driving taxis to prepare for the role, is fantastic. He is sparing, showing flickers of emotion as the camera passes over his face, but never revealing everything. We leave the film knowing nothing about Travis’ past, and are better for it. Harvey Keitel effortlessly conveys false bravado and a slimy, unrepentant nature as Sport. Peter Boyle is quick witted and altogether likeable as Wizard – I’m no Bertrand Russell, I’m just a cabbie. Bernard Herrmann wrote the wonderful jazz score which trickles through the film, and it suits the dimming lights and wet city streets incredibly well. But it is Scorsese and Schrader who must be applauded most of all; Scorsese for his camera shots that speak more than the characters themselves, and Schrader for bringing his loneliness and dissatisfaction together so eloquently in a near-perfect screenplay. 

I likened Taxi Driver to a narcotic, because it comes in at one hour and fifty three minutes, and you’ll never quite shed the feeling it leaves you with until you watch it again. You’ll also never quite understand it: was the final scene a dream sequence? Had Travis already killed himself in the brothel? How much of it was in his own imagination? – but it’ll live with you, as it’s a film that stays in the bloodstream. 

 

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame: Victor Hugo’s Love Letter To Medieval Paris

Novels, if written properly, exist to cause the reader to either love or hate a time, person or place. Joyce’s Ulysses leaves those who are brave enough to finish the journey longing to visit Dublin; to be a part of the cobbled streets, the small highstreet shops and the bustling, fresh atmosphere which correlates with the Irish way of life. Who can say that they have read Fitzgerald’s illustrious classic, The Great Gatsby, and never once longed to see Long Island in the 1920s, to explore it with Nick Carraway’s ocular perspective? Martin Amis collects the dregs of the Manhattan underworld in Money, shaking the city’s brittle reputation; Philip Larkin relives his mortifying experiences as a undergraduate at Oxford in the subtly autobiographical Jill, and Emily Bronte caused the expanse of the Yorkshire Moors to become a literary minefield, visited by those in fear (and perhaps hope) that an unsettled spirit may press her hand against their window. Many novelists have taken their readers, lackadaisically, into constructed worlds of capital cities. If there is one book that shall remain a pillar of medieval Paris, that is a martyr to the city’s architecture and way of life in the ancient world, it is Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, translated, rather unusually, as The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. 

The Anglicised title is unusual for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the direct translation from French (and certainly the most accurate) is Notre Dame of Paris. The great structure of Notre Dame remains a stony, unchallenged metaphor in this slowly-unfurled tragedy of change and discovery. Secondly, Quasimodo, although often mistaken as such, is not the novel’s central character, but one of a select few. His story is explored at length alongside those of La Esmerelda, the sixteen year old gypsy, Claude Frollo, a scholar who took pity on Quasimodo when he was abandoned as an infant, and Pierre Gringoire, a playwright, who is married (albeit unconventionally) to Esmerelda. These characters have their own lives to live, and each run blackly through the pages, alongside each other in parallel streaks. 

The novel opens in 1482, with the joint celebration of The Feast Of Fools and Twelfth Night. The Feast Of Fools, designed inexplicably for the people of Paris to laugh at the deformed, disabled and unfortunate citizens, sees the deaf, one eyed, hunchbacked Quasimodo, named after the weekend that follows Easter Sunday, being paraded through the streets like an animal. I have explained previously that tragic novels offer their readers a different kind of sadness – and Notre Dame delivers an unexpected blow, with sharp stabs of pain being offered amidst jocular sentences. There is a scene whereupon Quasimodo is being openly mocked, and as he is deaf, and unable to lip read under such extenuating circumstances, does not understand. He responds to the remarks by telling them his name, and is immediately shouted down by those who brand him as ‘scum.’ Perhaps the most devastating part for the reader is Quasimodo’s calm acceptance that he is hideous, an outcast, and too disgusting to be spared a glance. His cool comprehension of this is delivered, by Hugo, in eloquent paragraphs. The author makes no apology for the tragedy unfolding before him, for that is what Notre Dame is, a tragedy. For those that come to Notre Dame expecting instant gratification and a rewarding, mutually agreed, love story – select Wuthering Heights instead. Or Pride and Prejudice, if you wish for something less tumultuous and have a penchant for double weddings. It is a slow burning novel with an ending that shall make your unknowing soul plummet, filled with malevolent characters that have been previously damaged. 

There is only one love story contained within the pages of this novel, and that is the one that exists between Victor Hugo and medieval Paris. The narrative is consciously put on hold for a few chapters at a time so that Hugo can indulge himself by lamenting about a time once had, and now lost forever. The novel opens with the best description of the Notre Dame that literature has to offer: 

Above our heads, a double Gothic vault, with carved wood panelling painted sky blue with gold fleur de lys; beneath our feet, a pavement of alternate black and white marble. A few yards away, an enormous pillar, then another, and another; in all, seven pillars along the length of the hall, supporting the springings of the double vault at its mid-point. Around the first four pillars, the stalls of tradesmen, sparkling with glass and tinsel; around the last three, oak benches, worn and polished by the hose of litigants and attorneys. 

The love between Hugo and the city of Paris is, like most feelings in the novel, wholly one sided. La Esmerelda, the aforementioned gypsy of Notre Dame, finds herself in the unfortunate state of being loved by three men, and loving a fourth who cares nothing for her. The first is her husband, the playwright Pierre Gringoire, who has never touched her and cares more about his own interests than paying attention to his wife. The second is Claude Frollo, Quasimodo’s paternal figure, who used to be relatively sane before power corrupted his morals. The third is the only one that is known outside the novel, and outside the films, referenced regularly as a great Parisian romance by those who have misunderstood the essence of the story – the tender love of Quasimodo, which although never reciprocated, is the only love that matters. 

Allow me to explain this further. The idea for Notre Dame was conceived when Victor Hugo was exploring the great Cathedral alone, and found the word ANANKE, which is Greek for fatality, etched into the wall. This left Hugo to ponder what sort of twisted, unfortunate creature would scrawl this word in such a hidden place, and eventually, curiosity got the better of him; thus, the novel was written. The subject is first broached on page 276: 

The student looked resolutely up. ‘Brother, would you like me to explain in simple French that Greek word written on the wall there?”

‘Which word?’

‘ANANKE.’

A faint blush spread over the archdeacon’s yellow cheekbones, like the puff of smoke which is the outward sign of the secret connotations of a volcano. The student hardly noticed it. 

‘Well, Jehan’ stammered the older brother with effort, ‘What does that word mean?’

‘Fatality.’

It must be noted that Quasimodo and Esmerelda’s fates are intertwined. The two were swapped at birth, with Esmerelda being taken by her loving, unmarried Mother by gypsies, and replaced with a deformed child – Quasimodo. Esmerelda’s mother was so horrified by this that she rejected the infant, and he was brought up by Claude Frollo, a priest at Notre-Dame, and had dutifully been the bell-ringer ever since. Fate aligns the two, so it seems that Hugo may decide to unite them. But alas, Notre Dame is a tragedy, and tragedies do not end with mutual happiness. Esmerelda, for her part, has hopeless, childish devotion to a man who shall never care about her: the Captain of the King’s Archers, Phoebus. Phoebus is engaged to be married and has no interest in the gypsy girl. Claude Frollo, overcome with jealousy due to his psycho-erotic obsession with Esmerelda, stabs Phoebus, but Esmerelda is blamed for it. Her execution is ordered, as she believes in and admits to having used forms of witchery and sorcery in the past. She is fated to die, but the characters in the novel have not yet learned that fate cannot be avoided, and so Quasimodo rescues her just before she is due to be executed. 

This is the section of the novel that the film makers dote on. They ignore the tortured feelings of Gringoire and Frollo, disowning the troublesome Phoebus. The focus, particularly in the Disney version, is between the friendship between Esmerelda and Quasimodo, which never truly occurs. Esmerelda is a teenage girl. She is frightened and repulsed by Quasimodo’s ugliness, and is too youthful and naive to overlook such things to see that he truly loves her. The hunchback, for his part, does not wish to be looked at. It makes him deeply uncomfortable. The two have minimal interaction; Quasimodo cares for Esmerelda, right up until he inevitably leaves her unguarded, and she is (also inevitably) executed. Fate has intervened, as the reader, loathe as we are to admit it, always knew she would. Who is in Esmerelda’s heart when she dies? We shall never know. It is probable she still harboured ridiculous feelings for Phoebus, but may have felt gratitude towards Quasimodo. This is not Esmerelda’s story. 

The final paragraph leaves you feeling something slightly short of disappointment. You believed, against the inevitable, that love would outdraw fate. Yet it’s also a beautiful passage, and you find yourself sighing softly as you close the book, reflecting on the memory even though you’ve barely finished. 

One of the two skeletons was that of a woman and still wore a few shreds of a robe of what must have been white material, while round its neck could be seen a necklace of margosa seeds, together with a little silk sachet, decorated with green glass beads, which lay open and empty. These objects were of such small value that the executioner had doubtless not wanted them. The second skeleton, which had enfolded the first in a tight embrace, was that of a man. They noticed that its spinal column was curved, that its head was between the shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. But the vertebrae of the neck showed no fracture, and it had obviously not been hanged. The man to whom it belonged must therefore have come there and have died there. When they tried to release him from the skeleton he was embracing, he crumbled into dust. 

Why did Quasimodo go and die alongside Esmerelda? The scene, although appearing to draw inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, draws no parallels. Their love was no desperate, or reckless, or even reciprocated. There is no doubt he found life unsatisfactory, having never been loved; mostly feared. Nietzsche’s theory on love is plausible: that compassion helps humans to exercise the nicest part of their psyche, and is something altogether necessary. The admiration of Esmerelda that he felt was the closest Quasimodo had come to love, and without her, he crumbled, like his skeleton, into dust. 

I have stated that Notre Dame is not Esmerelda’s story. Nor is it Quasimodo’s, or Claude Frollo’s, or his brother Jehan’s, or Pierre Gringoire’s.This is fate’s story. Victor Hugo was violently in fate’s grip since he saw that word on the wall, as if it were waiting there for him. It is also Paris’ story; the cathedral’s, the medieval way of life’s, to be forever immortalised in his novel. 

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, or the more accurately titled Notre Dame Of Paris, is a book that has a long lasting impact, not just on the masses, but on the individual. Perhaps when next visiting the cathedral itself, you’ll crane your neck in search of a small, crooked man, desperately ringing the bells at the top of the tower.