Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score is a supporting character in Martin Scorsese’s drama about a dangerous loner.
Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Although Taxi Driver has the reputation of being the moment Martin Scorsese came into his own as a filmmaker, it’s more accurate to describe it as a collection of improbable talents, all at the top of their game. Screenwriter Paul Schrader, editor Marcia Lucas, cinematographer Michael Chapman, and title designer Dan Perri were all young talents who would go on to other great films. The cast, of course, is rightly celebrated for their performances.
And then, of course, there’s the music by Bernard Herrmann.
Herrmann, of course, was not a young up-and-coming talent, but a legend at the literal end of his career: Taxi Driver was the last film he ever scored before his death, and earned him one of two posthumous Oscar nominations for Best Score (the other one was for Brian De Palma’s Obsession). It wasn’t just a sentimental nomination, either: few scores do so much to situate us within the protagonist’s mind.
The whole film is a vessel for the psyche of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), and Herrmann’s score captures him perfectly: a jazzy, vaguely melancholy tune that at first listen seems as anonymous as elevator music, as normal as a man sitting down at a diner with coffee and pie. At regular intervals, it boils up into ominous swells, but always seems to return to the same melancholy saxophone.
As Travis sinks into despair after freaking out Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) during what must still hold the record for the world’s worst second date, the sax melody appears less and less, only coming out when Travis is in his cab. In his apartment, as his insomnia and frustration boil over, the music slows and deepens into something more overtly menacing, the percussion almost resembling the opening notes of Jaws.
After a while, an unsettling atonality seems to appear somewhere in the sax melody, an uncanny quality that I couldn’t quite decide whether I was imagining. Even for jazz, it begins to feel…off, in way that is difficult to articulate. Or maybe it’s not changing, and it’s just the continual repetition of the melody that feels wrong, mechanical, inhuman.
Taxi Driver is, of course, one of Martin Scorsese’s most widely-discussed films, particularly regarding the things that occur outside it: before the events of the film, did Travis Bickle get PTSD in the Marines? After the film, is he alive or dead? In our own universe outside of the film, do Schrader and Scorsese bear any responsibility for John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, considering that Schrader’s screenplay is partly inspired by the diary of another would-be assassin, George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremer?
All this discussion seems to misunderstand the basic point of the film (to say nothing of the realities of filming and editing a creative work), which is to emphasize that Travis is inherently unknowable. We see him in his apartment, read snippets of his journal, and still there’s no telling what makes him tick, what inspires his rage or cuts him off from everyone around him.
The iconography of Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis is so familiar by now as to beggar discussion. We all know about the military jacket, the Mohawk, his desperate gleefulness posing in front of a mirror in his undershirt with a .45 Magnum.
Few scores do so much to situate us within the protagonist’s mind.
What’s perhaps under-discussed (if anything about the performance qualifies) is how De Niro keeps giving new spins to Travis’s mania. Talking to Wizard (Peter Boyle) outside the diner, flooded in red light, he looks painfully fragile as he tries to articulate a despair even he doesn’t fully understand. In his room, posing with his guns, he seems swollen with self-regard. De Niro gives the audience plausible variations on a theme, which makes the jazz score seem even more appropriate.
For a Scorsese film, Taxi Driver is relatively light on popular music: the extensive pop culture quotation that many people associate with his films would come with bigger budgets. The only noticeable instance in the film is a scene where Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” plays as Travis watches American Bandstand. There’s a lyrical reference of sorts in the way that Betsy quotes Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim” to describe Travis: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction/Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.”
But there’s one literal needle drop that is easy to overlook, and it might be the most audacious of Scorsese’s career. It comes in one of the few scenes that does not involve Travis at all, a discussion between the teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) and her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). As he attempts to seduce Iris, Sport puts a record in a stereo, drops the needle, and out comes a slight variation of Bernard Herrmann’s score for the movie.
It’s genuinely jarring when it happens, a postmodern moment thrown into the middle of a movie that to this point has felt grounded in psychological realism. It would be like if The Graduate had a scene where Benjamin Braddock went to a Simon & Garfunkel concert and they played “Mrs. Robinson” for him.
What are we supposed to make of this moment where the score that non-diegetically echoes Travis Bickle’s psyche suddenly appears in a character’s record player? Is this a sign that the scene isn’t actually happening, and we are viewing Travis’s imagination? A suggestion that Travis and Sport aren’t so different? Or did Scorsese just burn through the music budget and need to find something to put there?
I don’t have an answer to this question, and one may not exist. But it’s a sign of the film’s greatness that the unanswerable questions we have about Travis find a way to be reflected in the film’s music.