Taxi Driver (1976)—Scenes from the Last Transition

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

If I could travel back in time, visiting any period of time, one period I would want to visit, walk in, and try to experience is the 1970s.

I was there, sort of. I was a young child, with no awareness of the extent to which American society was suffering through turmoil then. Thus it would be personally meaningful to understand what I barely missed, or what barely missed me. It would be interesting to relive that time as an adult instead of a child, to know what the particular color and chaos of that time felt like while it was happening.

As David Frum described in his book, How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse), this was the decade in which many of the building blocks of the experience of the decades that followed all appeared. Computers as commonplace elements of the workplace started here. ATMs began training consumers to make transactions directly with automation. Wage stagnation began then, though no one knew it at the time. One generation after the end of World War II, its combatant nations recovered to become global business competitors. None of these things were features of the landscape in 1969, but they were present by 1979. No one would argue that the years from 1980 forward were stable, but for better or worse (as Frum says), a different status quo took hold during the 1970s and it prevailed through the decades to follow. This decade was thus a time of transition. But of course, while it was happening, the decade must have felt like a time of unraveling.

The 1976 film Taxi Driver is a reaction to the unraveling. Of all the movies I have watched so far as part of my 20th Century Film Project, this one is the most embedded into its period. For a 21st-century viewer, the plot touches so many of our own modern pain points that just to summarize the plot is to induce wincing (a reaction that became more pronounced for me when I just recently learned—I hadn’t known this—that the film held a fascination for attempted presidential assassin John Hinckley). Here is a synopsis:

An emotionally troubled man who deals with his insomnia by working as a taxi driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) becomes romantically drawn to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a woman who works for the campaign of a senator running for president. Bickle also experiences a moment when a juvenile prostitute (Jodie Foster) flees into his cab to try to escape her pimp (Harvey Keitel), but the pimp captures her and lures her back. Betsy rebuffs Bickle, and in his distress and loneliness combined with his conviction that crime has become rampant, he purchases various firearms from a black market dealer, and works to become proficient not only at using them but at concealing them. The viewer assumes he might be plotting against the presidential candidate. But ultimately he makes a solo raid on the hotel serving as the pimp’s headquarters, killing various people in a bloody gauntlet that ultimately results in his being able to liberate the child prostitute. Letters from this girl’s parents later tell us she has been restored to them and has returned to a stable, safe and healthy life. Hearing about the taxi driver’s victory, Betsy comes to visit him as a passenger in his cab, clearly now favoring him over the candidate as one able to respond to the problems she has been working to address. In some sense, though, Bickle has found peace, a peace independent of her, and he lets her out of the cab and drives away without pursuing a relationship.

From our perspective four decades later, a number of objections to this plot seem obvious, related to problems with the story’s premises that apparently were not noticeable to the moviemakers or the audience at the time. All of the following statements are so obvious (it seems to me) that it feels absurd to present them in the way that I am about to, in a numbered list. For us, this movie disagrees with what the sad tragedies of commonplace news events have taught us in all of the following ways:

1. Dealing with depression by obtaining firearms and pursuing a violent plan is the work of a dangerous man, not a potential hero.

2. For lone individuals to unilaterally choose the enemies of society and act to dispense with them is the way of horror, not justice.

3. The runaway trapped in the life she had come to (no doubt trapped in drug abuse as well) would have faced a fight to resist being drawn back into the world that had captured her the first time. The people who love her would face this fight, too. A letter in essence saying, “Everything is OK,” seems too pat as an ending to the problems of this tragic character.

4. A man known to have carried out multiple killings could not simply return to his life without consequences, as Bickle did in the movie. Hopefully the justice system would haunt him to establish whether the killing was justified. Presumably emotional consequences would haunt him even if it was.

Perhaps the most disagreeable point of all is Bickle’s peace and contentment within that resumed life. The implication is that an episode of righteous mass killing was the therapy this troubled soul needed to end his pain.

Yet this illogical movie apparently made perfect sense against its illogical time. The escalating crime rate then seemed as though it would continue escalating. Extreme solutions must have seemed a sane response to the prospect of society-wide insanity.

That escalation did not indefinitely continue. Certain types of violent crime would go on to crest in frequency and now have been in decline. But then again, the level to which the national violent crime rate has now fallen is not that much lower than the level to which it had risen in Bickle’s time. It might be argued that we have acclimated to that crime rate now, accepted it as another element of what is normal, and moved on to other concerns. If so, then the kind of street crime portrayed in this movie (making parts of the city “an open sewer,” says Bickle) is another element appearing between 1969 and 1980 that became an established feature of the world to come.

We have our own society-wide problems to loom before us now. Indeed, what this movie makes clear with its very datedness is that we ourselves, right now, are living through another time of transition. If the 1970s were the period in America bringing social turmoil and instability on a level that had not been seen since the 1930s, then the period we are in right now is the next great time of turmoil after this. The movie is dated because it deals exclusively and entirely with the social issues of the previous transition.

Today, it is not the safety of the streets but the effectiveness or relevance of institutions that has come undone. The abilities of the public and private sectors to carry out their most basic expected roles related to preparing citizens and providing for them seem in question. In fact, we see a measure of what has changed in the very first scene of the movie. Bickle does something in the movie’s opening scene that the movie takes for granted as a possibility not in question. That is, Bickle walks into a place of employment seeking a job—a full-time job able to comfortably provide for his needs—and the employer has this to offer, and chooses to give Bickle the opportunity he is prepared for and the one he seeks.

The society down whose streets I walk seems to have lost the trick of this matchmaking. Stores, restaurants, and other businesses show help-wanted signs in abundance, while the ranks of unemployed swell with the uncounted many who are unemployed chronically or long-term, and somehow one is not a match for the other. The citizen with no job and the job with no prospective hire somehow do not see what they need in one another.

To be sure, Bickle had to prove himself to the employer. He had to reassure him he is available to work as needed. “Anytime, anywhere,” he accommodatingly says. But the employer in this scene was readily looking to employ, and on terms they both understood and agreed upon. Perhaps the streets of the 1970s were as miserable as the movie’s main character claims, but the scripting of this opening scene seems to assume that people were walking in off those streets seeking jobs and finding jobs—jobs they could do, jobs that followed the logic they expected, jobs they had been prepared for, jobs that paid their way. Is that assumption still valid?

We are going through a time of change, and the nature of jobs and work is a part of what is changing. The basic elements of what will be the new status quo are appearing now, and likely have already appeared, whether we yet recognize them or not. New people are among us who don’t fit the old roles. New roles have appeared even though we are not yet the people to fill them. Could Travis Bickle’s story make sense in this world that is coming into being; could it make sense from the very opening scene? That is, in a world of Uber, could he have found work as a taxi driver?