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Martin Scorsese in 10 Scenes: Taxi Driver

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Excerpt from Martin Scorsese in 10 Scenes
by Tim Grierson
Focal Press, 2016


TAXI DRIVER, 1976

V. THE SHOOT-OUT

The shoot-out scene is memorable not only for its violence, but also for a sense of ambiguity in it. This ambiguity pervades the whole movie, largely due to Schrader’s refusal to shine any solid light on Travis’s past or motivations—the viewer can only guess, follow clues, and interpret why Travis behaves the way he does. In this scene, the ambiguity comes from the combination of a gritty realism with stylization that elevates it to the dreamlike (or perhaps, more accurately, the nightmarish). Through a combination of techniques, Scorsese conveys the horror and ugliness of the situation, as well as the deranged state of mind of its protagonist.

Taxi Driver

Partly, this is due to De Niro’s performance, combined with the way Scorsese shot it. Travis wades in as a hero saving Iris, but it’s hard to view the scene in a heroic light. The murders are not perfectly executed—Travis is shot almost straight away—and the wild and clumsy violence is emphasized by disorienting camera angles, which also highlight the dark, claustrophobic corridors and stairwell of the seedy hotel. There’s also the slow-motion factor: the violent scenes were shot in 48 frames to the second, double the usual 24, so when this is projected at the usual speed the action comes out in slow motion. Scorsese explained this decision:

“[We] wanted him to look almost like a monster, a robot, King Kong coming to save Fay Wray. Another thing: all of the close-ups of De Niro where he isn’t talking were shot 48 frames to the second—to draw out and exaggerate his reactions. What an actor, to look so great up against a technique like that! I shot all those shots myself, to see for myself what kind of reaction we were getting.”

Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese on the Set of Taxi Driver

The lack of music through this sequence is one of the brilliant aesthetic decisions that draw the horror of the scene to its full potential—the repeated cries of “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!” and Iris’s whimpers stark and unavoidable against a backdrop of silence. But some of the decisions were made purely for practical reasons: the color in this scene was desaturated in order to bring the movie’s rating down from an X to an R. The filmmaker says this was “just something I pulled out of a hat” but he was pleased with it:

“Actually I wanted the whole picture to be that way… It took us some doing, but I liked it a lot. It gave it more of a tabloid feel. Maybe more of the film should have looked like that.”
The Shootout

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