By Tabitha Burnett, L6CEF
The film’s opening frame focusses on a cloud of smoke, before this begins to dissipate as something moves into shot. It is revealed to be a classic New York taxi. The camera angle is low, so that the viewer is forced to look up, making the taxi seem more threatening and ominous. We cannot see the driver, which almost gives the impression that the taxi is driving itself. This direction and technique helps to personify the taxi; this, coupled with Bernard Herrman’s dramatic crescendo-building score, which seems to move at the same pace as the car, leaves the watcher wary of it, and what it may come to represent.
There is a marked change in the mood of the film when we cut to an extreme close-up of Travis in his car, backed by the slightly sleazy 1970s jazz music. The choice of shot allows the viewer to see his eyes in detail, and we are immediately forced to engage with him, to see the world from his perspective. His eyes seem to move about in a bizarre mixture of boredom and fascination (later highlighted by a neon sign depicting that very word), never blinking. The red lighting used during the extreme close-up also helps to create a portentous atmosphere. His view of the street, out of his windscreen, is a colourful and distorted one, leading us to believe that he does not see things as most people do.
The shot of Travis in the taxi office is taken at a low angle, which serves to make him more threatening, and also creates an association between him and the taxi we see in the opening. When the personnel officer asks him about his driving license, he replies by saying “It’s clean, real clean. Like my conscience.” This is a strange thing to say, as we know he was honourably discharged from the marines; we can assume that he was a soldier in the Vietnamese war, and that he had to kill people. This could be said to, in part, foreshadow his ability to kill people without feeling guilt or remorse later in the film.
When Travis leaves his job interview, Scorsese chooses to use a 270 degree pan of the taxi station as a type of establishing shot. Interestingly, instead of following Travis, the camera moves away from him and focusses solely on the parked taxis and the other cabbies. This technique would almost lead us to believe that the camera has temporarily forgotten him, and this heightens his sense of isolation. It makes it seem as if the parked taxis are more important than the story’s main character. This technique of panning away from Travis is used later in the film, in what Scorsese calls the most important scene of Taxi Driver, and so becomes a motif, isolating him from the rest of society, and even from the watcher. Following the scene in the taxi station, Travis walks out of the building and onto a busy street. Scorsese tracks his progression, though allows Travis to walk towards the camera, rather than moving the camera with him, before using a jump cut. This style creates a moment where Travis literally fades out of existence, on our screens. This could be said to show his absent-mindedness and links to those moments where the camera temporarily forgets about him. He then reappears further up the street, drinking, in plain sight, from a brown bag. This tells us something more about his character, in that he doesn’t care about other people’s opinions of him. He doesn’t know how to act when out in public, and this isolates him from the rest of society.
Travis’s apartment is very jumbled, and this could be said to reflect his own mind. The panning shot of his room goes past a mirror, where we can see Travis sitting at his desk, writing. The window behind him is barred over, giving the impression that he is trapped, and helps to further enforce the isolation we have come to associate with him. Other shots of his apartment reveal large quantities of medication, which he takes at moments throughout the first half of the film. He has no physical ailments, which leads us to believe his condition is purely one of mental instability, resulting in extreme insomnia, possibly as a form of post-traumatic-stress-disorder from his days as a marine. One of the stage directions in Paul Schrader’s original script states that “He speaks as if his mind doesn’t know what his mouth is saying”.
When Travis first sees Betsy, the shot of her is his perspective, also used to focus on black people moving about the city. Travis describes her as appearing “like an angel. Out of this filthy mess.” This could hint towards Travis’s racism. It also highlights the fact that Betsy is the only person he has engaged with. His description of her sets her above everyone else; everyone else in the shot becomes irrelevant, as he only has eyes for her. The camera tracks her movement through waves of people, in a way that it sometimes fails to do with Travis. She is always kept in, or near, the centre of the frame. The speed of the frame is also slowed down, to mark her importance, almost as if she were lingering in Travis’s mind, in the same way that she does on the screen. He says that “they…cannot…touch…her.” The pace of his narration moves in time with the slow-motion in the movie. The camera itself is amongst the people, which could suggest that it is also a point of view shot (Travis’s).
We see Travis’s mental instability in the moments where he becomes lost in thought (especially in the POV shot over the glass of fizzing liquid, in which dialogue and background noise is faded out entirely), and in the moments where he is excessively forward in his conversations; “I never would have had the courage to talk to you. And with him I felt there was nothing and I could sense it. When I walked in, I knew I was right. Did you feel that way?” It seems as if, though surrounded by thousands of people, in one of the biggest cities on the planet, he is completely alone. When Travis and Betsy have coffee and pie in the café, there is a two shot. The table has been carefully placed, as if to separate them, and there is a large black line cutting down the window behind them, isolating Travis further. This type of shot occurs again when Travis is in another café with his fellow taxi drivers; they all sit on one side of the ‘window line’ and he sits on the other, not really engaging with them.
The choice of shot is interesting when we are first introduced into Palantine’s office. It is very classically framed, with no wide angle or fancy lighting technique; what you see is what you get. This choice helps to highlight the normalcy of the scene, to the point where it becomes almost tedious, and we start wishing Travis would make an appearance. Again, during the conversation between Betsy and Tom, only classical shot-reverse shots are used, heightening the sense of normality that the two characters seem to represent. The ease of conversation between them is never even mildly replicated between Travis and Betsy; it is always slightly awkward. She and Tom seem to act as contrasting characters to Travis; their normality makes him seem even more alienated, in the way that he is bad at holding conversations, never knows what to say and is not familiar with modern-culture references.
The use of narration, in the form of Travis’s diary entries, allows us to see more of New York from his point of view. One such entry allows us into his thoughts, on the world beyond the metal body of his taxi; ” All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” This religious imagery reveals Travis in a new light, because here is a man that sees only the bad in the world, and wishes for an apocalypse; his only solution to the problems he sees is death. This is when we really begin to see the man with a messiah complex, capable of, and willing, to kill people for a ‘greater cause’. As a result of Scorsese’s direction, we begin to see New York, trough Travis’s eyes, as hell on Earth.