Travis Bickle is practising with his guns in front of a mirror in one of the most-quoted scenes in modern cinema. The film is Taxi Driver. The actor is Robert De Niro. One of the last scenes to be shot, the dialogue is improvised by De Niro who borrowed the ‘signature line from a stand-up comic’ according to Amy Taubin in the BFI Film Classics guide for the movie.
The exact identity of this comedian, curiously, remains unrecorded. Scorsese’s follow-up film was to be King of Comedy – his exorcism of the information that John Hinckley had become obsessed with Taxi Driver prior to his assassination attempt on Ronald Regan. Scriptwriter Paul Schrader had in fact used the case of Arthur Bremer – who had tried to assassinate presidential candidate George Wallace – as a template for the Travis Bickle character.
Paul Schrader, who had only seen his first film at the age of seventeen, was an ex critic turned top-dollar screenwriter. He was a protégé of Brian de Palma, for whom he had written the semi-autobiographical Taxi Driver (drawing in fact on his LA experience of a nervous breakdown). With De Palma’s blessing (and some nice percentage points) Scorsese took over the script with De Niro in the lead. Despite De Niro’s recent Godfather II Oscar win the Hollywood establishment made clear its antipathy for the film at an early stage – the budget was hard to raise at a paltry $1.3 million.
The film’s story is simple enough. It’s a mood piece, a love-hate letter to New York in the era of 1970’s urban decay and chequered cabs. De Niro plays the alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (his name a homage to Malcolm McDowell’s character in If…) who drives a taxi for a living; enraged by the spectacle of Jodie Foster as an underage child prostitute, he decides to arm himself with a small arsenal of handguns and ride to her rescue. In the famous mirror scene here he is, stripped to the waist, practising his moves. The mixture of jump-cuts, reverse angles and 180-degree swish pans make it hard to differentiate the man from his mirror image.
Accorsing to Scorsese, Bickle’s fluid moves are inspired by the filching scenes in Bresson’s Pickpocket. And the reason Bickle keeps repeating the line ‘are you talkin’ to me’? If the camera had panned down you would have seen Scorsese himself lying on the floor, mere inches from the actor, wearing headphones, mouthing to De Niro ‘say it again’ out of earshot – worried that the street-noise from bustling New York was ruining the take.