The Last Temptation of Travis Bickle
Today, Martin Scorsese is considered by the majority of film critics as the greatest living American director. In a survey done in the early nineties, Raging Bull was elected as the best American film of the eighties. But it wasn’t always so. In the seventies, his films had a tendency to upset as much as to be acclaimed. He was mainly criticized for his use of extreme violence, his portrayal of disturbingly unsympathetic and unredeemable characters and his morbid fascination with failure as a dramatic drive. Taxi Driver became the emblem of this negative criticism.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, the film celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year and remains as powerful and disturbing as ever, particularly in regard to the ambiguous ending in which psychopath taxi driver Travis Bickle survives his killing rampage. The years have elevated it to the status of an American classic. Countless hommages and tributes have been made to Taxi Driver in such recent films as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting . There is even a film whose title Are You Talkin’ to Me? is a line taken from Bickle’s famous monologue.
After twenty years, one would think that everything has been said about Taxi Driver . But what if there existed a new approach to the film, especially a new way to interpret the enigmatic ending that still puzzles many viewers? What if this new reading could radically change our perception of other Scorsese films? What if a continuous linkage could be thus created from Taxi Driver through The King of Comedy, After Hours, Goodfellas , all the way to the more recent Casino ? And what if the main clue bringing together all these films could be found in The Last Temptation of Christ ? This is the subject and goal of this analysis of the second ending of Taxi Driver.
A fascinating triangle
I didn’t know that the characters we created in our films were existential heroes; I never studied philosophy. But I always believed in their emotions.
- Martin Scorsese 1
The most recent opus of italianamerican director Martin Scorsese, Casino opens as Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ end : with a kaleidoscopic display of colors equally reminiscent of heaven and hell. The pre-credit scene shows Las Vegas’ Tangiers director Sam Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) getting into his car, turning the key and being blown through the roof by a powerful explosion. As J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion bursts on the soundtrack, Ace’s burnt corpse whirls on the screen in slow motion amid an abstract mosaic of flames, colors and lights. The opening credits start over this show of light designed by the late Saul Bass, who created some of the most amazing title sequences, including Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho as well as Scorsese’s Goodfellas , Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence.
At the end of The Last Temptation of Christ , at the exact moment when a shouting Jesus (Willem Dafoe) dies on the cross shouting It is accomplished!, we see on the screen the equivalent of a film run-out, as if the film had been exposed to light.2 The closing credits burn into the resulting prism of incandescent colors while the passionate rhythm of Peter Gabriel’s music drums on the soundtrack. Taxi Driver concludes with Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in his cab driving off into the New York night. As he adjusts the rearview mirror a strident sound is heard. The camera frames only the windshield and the mirror showing Travis’ eyes. As he adjusts the mirror, Travis disappears and we see only the street lights. The closing credits appear on these blurred images of night colors while the oppressing notes of Bernard Herrmann’s score rumbles on.
This strange parallel between these three films creates a fascinating triangle of narrative possibilities. Although Jesus dies on the cross (waiting for the resurrection three days later, it is true…), Travis seems to survive after the terrifying and unforgettable shoot-out at the climax of Taxi Driver . Ace also survives, it seems, the opening car explosion scene, since Scorsese reorganizes the scene at the end of Casino and shows us Rothstein getting out miraculously unhurt by the flames. The viewer is thus forced to alter their initial perception of Ace’s demise at the end of the film. Rather than death, Ace is condemned to a boring and uneventful life.
The attentive viewer will no doubt be assailed by the following question: do Ace and Travis really survive their ordeals? Since the parallel includes The Last Temptation of Christ , wouldn’t Ace and Travis, like Jesus, experience a last temptation before dying? Wouldn’t all three have fantasized about dreamt destinies? If that’s the case, how could these three films apparently so different in subject matter, style and form be so intricately linked? Does this link, or rather this new hypothesis affect the reading of Scorsese’s other films?
Travis gets a job
I think the ending is thematically immaculate and poetically satisfying.
- Paul Schrader 3 , screenwriter of Taxi Driver
Before going more deeply into the analysis that will enlighten our view on Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, let us recall first the events leading to Taxi Driver ‘s finale. The film opens with Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle getting a job as a cab driver in New York. Unable to sleep, he works nights in the worst places of the city. During the day, he watches television, goes to porno flicks and admires from afar Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful blond woman whom he calls his angel. Betsy works for the presidential campaign of Senator Charles Palantine. One day, Travis finally approaches her and she accepts his offer to go out, only to be repulsed and disgusted after taking her to a porno film. Betsy rejects Travis.
Travis’ nocturnal work exposes him to all of New York’s urban plagues: prostitution, juvenile delinquency, poverty, vagrancy, racism, crime, violence. Although he’s appalled by what he sees, he continues to roam the vile streets. One night a passenger, played by Martin Scorsese himself, graphically describes to Travis his plan to kill his wife and her lover with a .44 Magnum pistol. This disturbing moment pushes Travis to arm himself to the teeth as if he were planning his own urban war. Travis wants to clean up the city but doesn’t really know where to begin. He starts off by killing a young black man during an attempted hold-up. He finds his calling when twelve year old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) crosses his path. He wants to save this little fallen angel and get her out of her private hell, but she refuses his help. Iris rejects Travis.
Troubled by this double rejection, repulsed by the decay that surrounds him and alienated because of his self-imposed isolation, Travis finally finds a release for his frustrations. He attempts the assassination of Senator Palantine, whom he sees as a paternal figure for Betsy. After the failed assassination attempt, he redirects his anger and goes on to kill Sport the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and his entourage in what he envisions as a chance to free Iris from her degenerate milieu. After the rampage is over Travis, with bullet wounds in the neck and right shoulder, ends up in Iris’ room. He tries to kill himself but is spared by his empty gun barrel. He slumbers on a couch, sitting quietly. As the policemen arrive on the scene, he points his blood-drenched left index finger to his temple and mimes three shots: Pgghew… Pgghew… Pgghew… Travis rejects Travis.
This is where the ending takes a different and decisive turn. Looking straight down from the ceiling, the camera contemplates Travis from above and starts moving back into the hall. A series of dissolves shows the aftermath of the shooting (blood on the walls, guns dropped on the floor, Sport’s dead body backed up against a door). The camera recedes back from the entrance of the building, showing the growing number of photographers, journalists, police cars, ambulance men and the neighboring crowd. The scene cuts to Travis’ apartment. Newspaper clippings are posted on the wall revealing that Travis has survived from his wounds and is now considered a hero for having killed a New York mafioso and rescuing a teenager. We hear the voice-over of Iris’s father reading a letter in which he congratulates Travis for having saved his little girl. One of the clippings shows Iris’ parents sitting in their living room. Shortly, we find ourselves back outside the Belmore Cafeteria where we find Travis talking with his fellow cabdrivers. A scar is visible on the side of his neck. A fare gets into his cab and he drives off. It is Betsy. They talk about his ordeal at the hospital and Senator Palantine’s chances at the upcoming presidential elections. With the fare waved, Betsy exits the cab onto the sidewalk. The camera pans from the taxi’s rear window to the front windshield, with Travis quickly adjusting the angle of the mirror…a strident sound heard on the soundtrack. At this point his face disappears from the mirror, leaving a view through the windshield of the mirror in center frame; the credits start.
Travis becomes a hero
The irony of him becoming the hero is in the script.
- Paul Schrader 4
According to conventional wisdom, the ending of Taxi Driver presents a curious irony that makes it almost immoral. In spite of his strange behavior towards Betsy, his killing a black man, attempted murder of Palantine, and the insane blood bath at the pimp’s hangout, the psychopathic Travis Bickle is still a hero, acclaimed by the press, revered by Iris’ parents and cleared of all charges by the authorities. As Scorsese proclaims:” strange things, as we know, have happened in this city.” 5 On the other hand, Scorsese still hints at Travis’ instability by the intriguing looks he directs at Betsy and, most of all, by the strident sound heard while he adjusts his rearview mirror- the sting of a xylophone played in reverse. “I decided I’d put something on that shows that the timer in Travis starts to tick again, the bomb that’s about to explode again,” explains Scorsese.6
This ironic twist was not necessarily perceived by all the critics who reviewed the film at the time or since. Critics had the general inclination to reject the film because they were unable (or unwilling) to understand the implications of this ending. Most reviewers of the period condemned Scorsese for the “immoral” outcome of what they referred to as the second ending of Taxi Driver.
In Newsweek (76-03-01), Jack Kroll expresses this feeling by writing : “(…) in their eagerness to establish rich and moral ambiguities, the Catholic Scorsese and the Calvinist Schrader have flubbed their ending. It’s meant to slay you with irony, but it’s simply incredible.” Charles Michener agrees in Film Comment (March-April 1976): “(…) once the exhilaration of the nightmare is over – once Travis wakes up – Taxi Driver takes a drastically wrong turn. Travis emerges a hero with his face in the front page of the Daily News, his rage exorcised, his violence purged.” “Most crippling is the ending,” adds Richard Combs of the Monthly Film Bulletin (September 1976), “in which the macho movie clichŽ of the heroine who returns to the hero once his capacity for purgative violence has been revealed is crossed with the film’s vaguest gesture of empathy with Travis.” Even on the other side of the Atlantic they question this improbable happy ending. L’Express (76-05-24) expresses this general opinion by saying:” Only the ending of this otherwise wonderfully directed film destroys the implacable logic of the story. The story of a solitude.”
In taking literally the events described in the last sequence, these reviewers assume that the film adopts a traditional happy ending. But such a narrow-minded perception does not take into account Scorsese’s elaborate staging of Travis’ character flaws and questionable behavior. Therefore, the positive reviews of the film were more subtle in their appreciations and saw in the ending a political or social metaphor. Pauline Kael is one of the first serious critics to take Scorsese’s side in the debate. She wrote in the New Yorker (76-02-09) :
“This film doesn’t operate on the level of moral judgment of what Travis does. Rather, by drawing us into his vortex it makes us understand the psychic discharge of the quiet boys who go berserk. And it’s a real slap in the face for us when we see Travis at the end looking pacified. He’s got the rage out of his system Ñ for the moment at least Ñ and he’s back at work, picking up passengers in front of St-Regis. It’s not that he’s cured but that the city is crazier than he is.”
This sociological reading is supported by Michael Henry in France’s Positif (July-August 1976) :
“Never has society showed so much attention to Travis. Having shaved his head like a Mohawk Indian as if to rekindle the purity of America’s aboriginal origins, he finds himself recognized, renowned and in the end assimilated to his contemporaries of the silent majority.”
We see that although these two critics acknowledge the irony of Taxi Driver they still read the ending literally, since they accept Travis’ fate.
One can understand him, but not tolerate him.
- Paul Schrader 7
Something is definitely wrong with this literal acceptance of the ending. It doesn’t fit into the visual motif established at the opening of the film and it is not coherent with the rest of the narrative. This far-fetched ending could possibly be tolerated coming from a hired hand forced to submit to Hollywood’s commercial imperatives, but it surely doesn’t apply to a director renowned for his exemplary cohesion. This means that we must reread the ending according to the cinematic style consistent throughout the film.
With the opening shots of Taxi Driver , Martin Scorsese already prepares the audience for a transcendental experience. As the first bars of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score begin, a yellow taxi cab materializes through the fumes rising from a manhole… like a beast from hell. Then we see Travis’ eyes moving in slow motion through fluctuating light. Cut to Travis’ view through the windshield: in slow motion we see rain, hazy shapes, undefined lines traced by light in the glass and the image doubled. We have already adopted Travis’ point of view even though we cannot know it is him since we only see a close-up of his eyes. We immediately share in a fragmented perception of the existing reality. These are the first signs of the character’s schizophrenia. The music becomes more and more threatening as we see Travis from behind coming out of a thick fog and entering an office. He turns around and faces the personnel manager with a confused look on his face. Welcome to Travis’ lunatic world.
Scorsese maintains this visual cohesion throughout, taking us deeper and deeper into Travis’ tortured psyche. His schizophrenia is precisely defined in the first taxi night. The sequence starts off with exterior close-up shots of the cab: part of the left front wheel with the bumper jutting out, antenna hole on the hood, side mirror on the passenger front door. Then interior shots: back view through the rear window, right side view from the door’s window as Travis’ voice-over is first heard. Cut to Travis’ back, profile, and face. The next shot looks like Travis’ point of view, but the camera is too close to the ground. In fact, it is the taxi’s point of view.
This description emphasizes how in Taxi Driver the two nouns of the title are actually synonymous : the cabbie and the cab fuse together. The taxi car becomes the embodiment of Travis’ schizophrenia. It protects and isolates him from the outside world which he loathes and rejects. Travis compares New York to an open sewer. He wishes that a flood would wash away the filth. He compares Betsy to an angel. He sees himself as God’s lonely man. All the flowers he sends to Betsy for forgiveness are returned untouched and embalm his apartment like a funeral home. All these religious allusions reinforce his torment. In his deceptive nocturnal outings, he seeks without ever reaching a form of obsessive redemption, maybe to exorcise his war experiences in Vietnam.
In his first voice-over, he states: “I don’t believe that someone should devote his life to morbid self-attention. I believe someone should become a person like other people.” He may not believe it but that’s exactly what he does. Travis devotes himself to his own isolation. He admits to hating New York at night, but that’s when he works and in the worst parts of the city. Travis inflicts constant mental torture on himself. He crosses swords with sin and temptation, not unlike the tormented Jesus of Kazantzakis’ book, The Last Temptation . Scorsese directs the scene of Travis going to the porno theater in the same way he will later direct the scene in The Last Temptation of Christ where Jesus watches men fornicating with Mary Magdalene. She is of course the prostitute, the sinful woman, the fallen angel, very much like Iris in Taxi Driver. Should we be surprised to discover a parallel between these two female characters? When Travis enters the building where Iris “works”, bells are ringing and a siren is heard, hailing the transgression of a taboo. When Travis follows Iris into her room, the parallel with a similar scene where Jesus comes to Magdalene is even more obvious: same beaded curtains, same candlelight, same hesitation before entering. It is a true sanctuary, as if a sacrifice were about to take place at the altar.
One of the most disturbing moments of Taxi Driver occurs when Travis takes Betsy to see the porno film. He tries to drag her into his schizophrenic vision of the world. He wishes she would approve of his behavior. But contrary to John the Baptist who accepts the transcendental nature of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ , Betsy refuses to have anything to do with Travis. The incredible naïveté of Travis’ actions upset the audience and makes him appear pathetic. Scorsese forces our identification with Travis through the use of point of view, but he entertains at the same time a sudden distancing process created by the juxtaposition of diverging views on the character (Betsy’s, Iris’, Wizard’s) or by other means: slow motion, jump cuts, elliptical editing, dissolves within the same shot, counterpoint music. Our discomfort arises as much from Travis’ pathology as from the stylized form of Scorsese’s direction. Rarely do we see in films the form fusing so perfectly with the character’s state of mind.
For example, Scorsese betrays the rule of point of view three times. Travis moves his hand in three overhead shots: when he takes the employment forms in the opening sequence, when he pays the candy girl at the porno theater and when he sweeps across Betsy’s desk in a circular movement. Each time Scorsese frames these shots with an angle slightly off, out of Travis’ point of view. It’s as if the camera was hovering beside Travis, or as if Travis was beside himself or his perceptive vision was outside of his body. We could say that the camera becomes in these three shots the schizophrenic vision of Travis, a phenomenon we could call displaced subjectivity.
The shot that best embodies this vision is the one showing a glass of water into which Travis drops an Alka-Seltzer while lunching with his buddies at a diner. He gazes hypnotically into the bubbling water. From his point of view, we see the bubbles as the camera zooms in. The sound of the effervescent water becomes more intense while all other sounds disappear. Travis has effectively cut himself from the outside. He is completely immersed in his own bubble.
This vision is also fed by the strange relationships Travis entertains with many characters in the film, starting with Senator Palantine. When the candidate happens to take Travis’ cab, the two men strike a conversation. Palantine tells him that “some radical changes” are needed and that he thinks he understands what Travis means by his remarks on New York. In the days that follows, Travis still listens to the Senator. He seems to think that Palantine addresses him directly. The campaign slogan is, “We are the people”, with the emphasis on the We, as stressed from the beginning by Albert Brooks’ character. Travis covers his walls with the slogan. Later on television, Palantine proclaims: “the people are rising to the demands that I have laid out. The people are beginning to rule.” Later still, Travis hears Palantine preaching to the crowd:
“Walt Whitman the great american poet spoke for all of us when he said: I am the man, I suffered, I was there”. Today I say to you : We are the people, we suffered, we were there. We the people suffered in Vietnam. We the people suffered and we still suffer from unemployment, inflation, crime and corruption. (…) I say to you : no more will we suffer. No more will we fight a war of the few to the arm of the many».
Travis sets forth upon a crusade to beat this admonition. He takes on the Senator’s plea by becoming a one-man arsenal, by first trying to become a CIA agent and finally by thinking that he actually became one . In the birthday card he sends to his parents (do those parents really exist?), he writes: “the sensitive nature of my work for the government demands utmost secrecy.” He even writes that he has a girlfriend named Betsy but that he cannot say more. He will later tell Iris that he works for the government and that he will have to go away for a while. Travis rearranges the facts in his head, a typical trait of a schizoid mind. In planning to kill Senator Palantine, he wants to sacrifice him to the cause and make him a martyr. Scorsese confirms this idea by framing Palantine with his hands raised like the statue behind him at Columbus Circle, reminding us of Christ on the cross, the Saint of Martyr’s. It is an image Scorsese will often reprise in his films.
Furthermore, Travis follows the advice of one of his passengers (the one played by Scorsese). This man asks Travis if he knows what a .44 Magnum can do. The first weapon Travis will purchase is a .44. There is also the bizarre speech delivered by Wizard (Peter Boyle), the only cabbie Travis respects. One night Travis approaches Wizard with his troubled thoughts and irrational urges. It is a dramatic cry of despair that Wizard cannot possibly grasp, so he mumbles this sermon: “A man takes a job, you know. That job, that becomes what he is. You do a thing and that’s what you are. (…) You get a job, you become that job.” Though Travis may not have understand at the time, by the end he embraces this twisted philosophy.
But above all, Travis listens to himself. He talks to himself. He talks to us. He talks to his mirror. In the most famous scene of Taxi Driver , Travis looks at himself in the mirror asking: “Are you talking to me?” But is that what’s happening? If we analyze the scene more closely, we find that it is not so. Travis wears the sliding pistol on his right arm, but when he delivers the speech, the pistol is on his left arm . Therefore, it’s Travis’ reflection that we are watching, it’s his reflection which is asking him, and asking us :
“You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell are you talkin’ to? You’re talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talkin’ to? Oh yeah? Huh. OK.”
It is the mirror which speaks to us and Travis. Travis’ schizophrenic vision is displaced onto the mirror, detached from himself. The effect being the accomplishment of his mental dissociation. When he writes moments later in his diary, “Here is…,” his schizoid other (the reflection in the mirror) can proudly announce: “You’re dead!” 8
From then on, the events move along quickly. Travis has breakfast with Iris, hoping to get her out of Sport’s grasp. When she refuses, he decides to kill Palantine. But before leaving his apartment, which is covered wall to wall with Palantine’s posters and campain slogans, a gag sticker Travis is fond of (“One of these days, I’m gonna get ORGANIZ-IZED”), Manhattan road maps, and unidentified newspaper clippings, Travis wraps money into a piece of paper on which he writes :
Dear IRIS, THIS MONEY SHould Be ENOUGH FOR YOUR TRIP. BY THE TIME you read THIS I will be Dead. TRAVIS
The fact that capital letters appear randomly in a message written mainly in small print is another indication of the schizoid nature of Travis. He’s actually planning his own death. He sees himself already dead.
The revelations of The Last Temptation of Christ
I don’t think there is any difference between fantasy and reality in the way these should be approached in film.”
- Martin Scorsese 9
Here we come again to the end of Taxi Driver . Those last sequences can be best understood if compared to the discourse defined by Scorsese in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ , a film the director took sixteen years to make. His interest arose while shooting Boxcar Bertha in 1972 when its star, Barbara Hershey, gave him a copy of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation , and said: “if you ever make the film, I want to play Mary Magdalene.” She couldn’t anticipate that Scorsese would keep his word after all these years.
The revelation of this book was to become a milestone in Scorsese’s career. Raised as a Roman Catholic in New York’s Little Italy, the director has been fascinated by the Passion, especially by the crucifixion of Christ. As a teenager, he already saw himself as a future filmmaker and storyboarded his own version of the Life of Christ. His first features already establish the theme of Catholic guilt associated with sins and the redemption of those sins by the character’s own sacrifice, often taking the visual motif of the crucifixion. Even as early as 1967, with his N.Y.U. short The Big Shave or : Viet ’67 we could see the kernel of his future style and concerns. We see a young man looking at himself in the mirror of an immaculately clean bathroom while repetitiously shaving until his face is covered with blood. Every aspect of Scorsese’s univers is here : elliptical and nervous editing, contrapuntal use of pre-existing music, sacrifice of the main character, redemption by bloody violence and, lastly, surreal and fantastic atmosphere of the whole (the young man seems to survive his ordeal…).
In Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1969) and Mean Streets (1973), Harvey Keitel plays similar characters showing the same guilt-ridden behavior. Both films contain a scene in which Keitel is laying naked on a bed, arms stretched, hands gripping the bedposts, mimicking the position of Christ on the cross. Both films feature religious images at their outset. In Knocking, a church candle and a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus are seen on a chest of drawers; a woman (Catherine Scorsese) hands out pieces of bread to the children around the table. After the opening credits of Mean Streets , we witness the Feast of San Gennaro in Manhattan’s Little Italy. But most telling are two scenes where Keitel’s characters go to church to confess and pray. Scorsese insists in both cases on the iconography of the Passion and the Crucifixion, on the suffering and the bleeding wounds inflicted on Jesus. In Knocking , Keitel gazes at the statues, kisses the blessed feet, cuts himself on the lip and starts to bleed. In Mean Streets , made after Scorsese read The Last Temptation , Keitel looks once again upon those icons but this time he puts a finger over the flame of a candle, burning himself while discussing in voice-over the difference between physical and spiritual pain. “The worst of the two is the spiritual,” he concludes.
It is not surprising to find that the first graphic depiction of the crucifixion in a Scorsese picture coincides with his first reading of Kazantzakis’ novel. In Boxcar Bertha , David Carradine’s character is nailed by the hands on a train car and bleeds to death. The train starts rolling and Bertha runs after him crying at his feet, anticipating an identical scene Barbara Hershey will play in The Last Temptation of Christ . Although the motif of the Passion has always played an important role in the early work of Scorsese, the novel would give him a more cohesive vision to organize his stylistic and thematic concerns.
In the novel as well as in Scorsese’s film, Jesus is tormented by the temptation of the flesh, much like Keitel’s characters in Knocking and Mean Streets . The battle between the physical and the spiritual rages on in Jesus, on a moral level : the outcome of this battle will dictate if he deserves to become the Resurrected Christ. On the psychological level, this duality between the divine and the human could be assimilated to a schizophrenic split, in which the visions of Jesus alter his perception of reality. Ravaged by self doubts and confusion, the Jesus conceived by Kazantzakis comes to defy God by making crosses for the Romans. He seeks to push aside his divine self linked to the schizoid visions. In the film, an example of a vision can be demonstrated by the scene where Jesus (Willem Dafoe) goes into the river to meet John the Baptist (Andre Gregory). As he proceeds, all the surrounding sounds (primitive music, lamentations, chants, John’s preaching voice) disappear, except for the sound of running water, the symbol of life and baptism. Alerted by his presence, John turns around and baptizes him. Precisely when the water hits Jesus, the sounds come back. Thus, the reality of the physical world has been modified by his divine presence.
When on the cross after the crucifixion, Jesus almost wins the battle but Satan comes to tempt him one last time. Disguised as a little girl, he looks like an angel to the tortured victim. This angel offers him the normal life of an ordinary man, married with wife and children and no worries until he dies. But Jesus doubts until the very end when he finally rejects this common destiny to accept completely his fate as a Messiah, actually becoming a hero by dying on the cross. The Christ is victorious : the spiritual wins over the physical. The schizophrenic dissociation is accomplished.
Scorsese surely recognized the sublime originality of The Last Temptation since he didn’t alter the initial concept. Thus, The Last Temptation of Christ is the only film adapting the life of Christ wherein Jesus is not resurrected . He dies on the cross at the end of the film. 10 The personal beliefs of the viewer dictate whether Christ resuscitates or not after the fact. If one is Christian and a believer, then according to his faith Jesus lives on. Atheists or followers of other religious belief systems might take this ending at face value, with Jesus dying. The Last Temptation of Christ is therefore a true profession of faith. With this conclusion Scorsese forces the viewer to pass both a moral and a spiritual judgment on the film’s final meaning, whether it is acceptance or rejection. No biblical film has ever been so generous towards its audience, so respectful of their beliefs and of their social and cultural background.
The same generosity and respect are found in the ending of Taxi Driver. To demonstrate this, let’s put together all the pieces of the final sequence and let’s analyze them in the light of the teachings given to us by The Last Temptation of Christ.
Travis and the purgatory
The whole film takes place inside that man’s [Travis’] head; that’s why it’s not a realistic movie.
- Paul Schrader 11
Travis lay slumped on the couch in Iris’ room, one bullet in the neck and one in the right shoulder, though he may have been shot elsewhere by Sport or the gangster who came out of Iris’ room. In any case, Travis looks like the young man at the end of The Big Shave . He also looks like Jesus Christ on the cross. Travis does not want to live anymore. He puts his left index finger on his temple and mimes three shots : Pgghew… Pgghew… Pgghew…
From then on, we step back into Travis’ mental dissociation. We have crossed over to the other side of the looking glass. We see Travis in an extreme overhead shot laying immobile with his head resting on the couch. Travis has left his physical body and is looking at himself dying . We have adopted the point of view of his schizophrenic vision, his spiritual self or astral body engaged in a kind of transcendental voyage. As if in a purgatory, he witnesses the consequences of his actions: blood dripping everywhere, three dead bodies, Iris his fallen angel crying and desperate. Still moving outward, he leaves the scene of the crime.
What follows is Travis’ schizoid fantasy. He moves through his old room, left unchanged . The television set that Travis destroyed is seen anew (is it the same or a better model?). The paper clippings on the wall could very well be those we couldn’t make out earlier. A reviewer from the Canadian Forum (May 1976) made an interesting point: “The clippings, however, are cold type phonies without the typographical stamp of N.Y. dailies. Besides, such a story just would not be played in such a way.” It’s precisely the case here: those dailies wouldn’t, but Travis’ deranged alter ego certainly would. He sees himself becoming the traditional hero, the movie cliché decried by the press. Further proof can be found on the first article stuck to the wall; we notice two graphic sketches of the scene of the crime which reproduce exactly the same perspective as seen in the overhead shot!
Travis even fabricates the letter supposedly written by Mr. and Mrs. Steensma, Iris’ parents.12 For the first time in the narrative, the first person voice-over motif has been broken by introducing a new voice: Mr. Steensma reading his letter posted on the wall. But this is a strange voice indeed. It reflects a lot of the mannerism, inflictions and speech pattern of Travis’ own voice when he reads the birthday card addressed to his own parents earlier in the film. Furthermore, the writing styles closely resemble one another. For example, Travis wrote: “I hope this card finds you all well as it does me,” a strange wording echoing this sentence in Mr. Steensma’s letter: <(…) we have taken steps to see she has never cause to run away again.> Even the typography of the birthday card, the note left for Iris and this letter is the same.13 This letter even refers to Travis being in a coma, a coma he probably is in while Mr. Steensma reads on…
In as much as he considers himself the traditional hero, it is fitting that Travis should be acclaimed and congratulated by the police, the press, Iris’ parents, his collegues, even by Betsy.14 But for film critic Jack Kroll of Newsweek (76-03-01), “it is simply incredible when Travis is hailed a hero after the slaughter, despite the fact he’d been armed like a weapons platoon and had previously been spotted, Mohawk haircut and all, by the Secret Services.” It doesn’t make sense if the ending is to be taken literally, but it does fit perfectly within Travis’ schizoid delirium in which he must be the hero.
For the fantasy to be completely satisfying, Travis must again meet his Muse, his angel Betsy. She appears hence as a vision amongst the lights in the cab’s rearview mirror. En route, she seems to express regrets and sympathy towards Travis, as if she could have forgiven his weird behavior. When she gets off the cab, it seems as if she wants to ask him out. This attitude upsets everything we know of the character. Could she really forget and forgive that easily? For one, Travis forgives her. Flipping the taxi meter, he absolves her completely. Of what? Did she commit any sins? The “macho movie cliché of the heroine who returns to the hero” despised by Richard Combs in the Monthly Film Bulletin (September 1976) is fully integrated by Travis into his Hollywood fantasm.15
For the entire duration of this sequence, starting with the overhead shot, one could assume that Travis is bleeding to death while in a state of delirium. So as the taxi cab leaves Betsy behind on the sidewalk and the camera pans inside the car to frame the rearview mirror, perhaps Travis is about to die. If this prologue is to be taken as a dreamt destiny, the delirium of a dying man, then Travis won’t make it. This thus explains the reverberation of the xylophone heard when Travis adjusts the mirror. This sound could be linked to the tone of an electrocardiograph’s warning signalling the stopping of the heart. This would explain why Travis has disappeared from the frame. We are left with his schizoid vision. Travis has finally achieved the penultimate goal dictated by Wizard’s twisted philosophy: he has become a taxi driver for eternity. In Freudian terms, his Id overpowered his Ego and destroyed his Alter Ego. In death, Travis has joined Jesus at the conclusion of The Last Temptation of Christ in a similar tunnel of light as described in near-death experiences. The spiritual has ultimately transcended the physical.
The last temptation of Travis
Never once did I feel that [the ending] was in any way questionable.
- Martin Scorsese 16
This new interpretation of Taxi Driver ‘s ending is deeply rooted in moral standards and ethics. It arises, of course, from the belief system of the viewer, but it also asserts the crucial importance of Roman Catholicism in Martin Scorsese’s work, as I have tried to demonstrate herein. Many religious concepts left their mark on him during his formative years, such as confession, redemption, sin, forgiveness, sacrifice, the Passion and the Crucifixion. Early in his career, many preconceived ideas on the life of Christ were put into perspective by the novel The Last Temptation in which he found a well defined structure to organize his thinking, while by the same token it tested his faith. Therefore, Taxi Driver ‘s ending cannot be fully understood unless it is enlightened by the knowledge put forward by Scorsese’s screen adaptation of Kazantzakis’ creation. The Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s personal profession of faith around which all his films revolve. In truth, Scorsese is a very moral filmmaker, in spite of surface discrepancies. His genuine concern for violence, gangsters, moral and social decline and psychological pain never becomes gratuitous, because he seeks to jolt the audience and to test its capacity for forgiveness at the worst of times. And after all, those deficencies are part of society’s fabric. The visual and emotional impact of his films is designed to put to the test as much the altruism and the faith of the public as his own doubts.
Like most of Scorsese’s pictures, Taxi Driver deals with the main issue of Christianity: loving forgiveness. The film confronts the viewer with his/her own capacity for forgiveness, even towards the worst sinner. Both the fate of Travis (whether he dies or not) and the moral choice of the viewer (Travis deserves to die or not) offer a double combination, each one involving two different ends, in a kind of mathematical permutation. By his intricate use of film language, Scorsese illustrates Travis’ psychosis and puts forth several visual clues attesting to the ambiguous cure or survival of Travis. Scorsese thus has made his moral and ethical choice regarding Travis’ fate. The viewer must now make up his own.
- Four possible alternatives may determine Travis’ fate in the mind of both the public and the critic:
- 1.The viewer adheres to the literal ending (Travis lives) and forgives him, thus accepting his fate.
- 2.The viewer adheres to the literal ending but doesn’t forgive Travis, thus refusing his fate. There is a moral conflict in the viewer’s mind.
- 3.The viewer adheres to the schizoid ending (Travis dies) but he cannot forgive him, thus accepting his fate because Travis must be punished for he is not forgiven.
- 4.The viewer adheres to the schizoid ending and forgives Travis as well, thus rejecting his fate or being saddened by it.
Most of the film critics must have opted for the second alternative, which could explain their negative reaction to Taxi Driver . Their moral sense told them that Travis should have died to assume the consequence of his violent actions. They therefore found the ending unbelievable and unsatisfying. From a moral standpoint, the third and fourth alternatives are then the most satisfying, the fourth one proving the most deeply Christian: the punishment absolves the sinner, but since he was forgiven his death saddens. But it is in truth the first one which raises the most disturbing dilemma: can one forgive Travis’ behavior though he remained unpunished? Which of these four alternatives represents Martin Scorsese’s point of view? Did Scorsese forgive Travis? Being so driven by Catholic principles deeply rooted in his psychological makeup, could it be possible that unconsciously Scorsese let Travis die, as the previous demonstration tends to prove?
This hypothesis is fascinating, for it taps directly into the unconscious creative instincts of the auteur. More fascinating even is the fact that many of the film’s key moments, which happen to be necessary in supporting the death of Travis, do not appear in Paul Schrader’s original screenplay: the opening credits with the taxi cab coming out of the fumes up to Travis emerging from the fog as he enters the office; the crucial “Are you talking to me?” soliloquy and when Travis’ reflection in the mirror says “You’re dead!”; the sketches of the overhead shot on the paper clipping; the moment from when Travis adjusts the mirror and disappears up to the last image on the credits. All these are therefore the result of Scorsese’s input on the set and at the editing stage. Both Scorsese and Robert De Niro worked enormously in shaping the script into final form. But it is amazing that both Schrader and Scorsese always publicly promoted the literal ending in which Travis, if he is not really cured, lives on. If then, even for them, Travis survives, why are there all those clues pointing to the contrary?
The most miraculous aspect of the collective effort put in the film concerns the way the “Are you talking to me?” soliloquy was conceived. In Schrader’s screenplay, one reads only: “Travis stands in the middle of his apartment, staring at his Palantine wall. His eyes are glazed with introspection; he sees nothing but himself17 But De Niro felt that he should say something, and Schrader told him: “Well, at this point in the film, you know the character better than me. If you feel like it, do it.”18 And so he did. Scorsese decided to shoot it in front of the mirror and to frame only the mirror. The scene was then edited by Tom Wolfe, one of three editors supervised by Marcia Lucas. The turning point in the proof of Travis’ schizophrenic dissociation was therefore the resulting collaboration of many creative people. Should we deduce that Scorsese lost control over this crucial scene, that he was unaware of the fantastic impact of the ending, that the artistic outcome of his film was totally lost on him? One must not forget the obvious, that in the best circumstances, the person who decides what finally goes into a film or not is the director.
The disciples of Travis
All that anger, all the rage that was in the character that you hoped to work out for yourself in making the film stays with you ! Making the film helps, but it’s not enough.
- Martin Scorsese 19
There is certainly a part of the unconscious at work in making a film, as in all forms of artistic creation. However, following Taxi Driver , Scorsese continued to explore this ambiguous narrative trait in his work, offering both his characters and the public a last temptation. Being able to detect this recurring theme in subsequent films, from New York, New York to Casino , tends to prove that the thesis of Travis’ death is not an isolated occurence but rather an ongoing thematic motif underlying most of Scorsese’s oeuvre.
As early as New York, New York (1978) in its original release length of 164 minutes, we find hints of a second ending . This hommage to the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio Era of the Forties concluded with a large musical number called “Happy Endings,” although the couple played by Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli ended up being driven apart from each other. In this case, the reality upstaged the fantasy.
This motif of the second ending becomes clearly defined in The King of Comedy (1983).20 Far from the comedy announced by its misleading title, this audacious and ferocious psychological drama tells the story of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a failed stand-up comic without an ounce of talent who kidnaps the famous talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Rupert forces the producers to let him appear on the show to deliver the opening monologue. After the taping of the show, Rupert is taken away by police officers who permit him to watch the show in a bar with his would-be girlfriend. Following the broadcast of the entire delivery, there is a cut and we find ourselves watching a news report on tv telling us by means of a voice-over what happened to Rupert. We learn that 87 millions viewers saw him on the show. He became famous and made the covers of Time, Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone and Life . He got one million dollars for his autobiography entitled “King for a Night” which made the bestsellers’ list. A cardboard cut-out of a full-size Rupert is features in a library display of his book. Lastly, Rupert has his own talkshow and a voice-over (still the same voice) introduces him. As he appears, the camera starting from the back of the audience moves up to frame him in medium close-up while he salutes the audience. THE END. ROLL CREDITS.
As with Taxi Driver , this is a subversive view of the typical Hollywood happy ending. It is also an extremely critical and perverse view of the American Dream. But once again something is afoot. Like the paper clippings on Travis’ wall, how can Rupert appear on all the magazines of New York at the same time? How could he achieve such a level of fame when he is not even funny, much less talented? The answer of course is found in Rupert’s fantasies. In his basement, Rupert has made cardboard cut-outs of his favorite performers (Liza Minnelli amongst them, supreme irony), and plays out guest appearances with them. He fantasizes all the time about talking, lunching, having fun with Jerry Langford. He hears the crowd applauding and laughing at his dull jokes, although he is only staring at a wall paper audience. Rupert envisions himself becoming famous, as much as Travis sees himself becoming an avenger. And so at the end Rupert is famous. But the cardboard cut outs at the library are the same as his. He took over the Jerry Langford show, however unlikely. Whether he is in prison or in an asylum, Rupert has made his dream a reality. His temptation for success and the American Dream overpowered him. In The King of Comedy , the dream upstaged the reality.
The dreamed realities of both Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle belong together because they both modified them from the inside out. But in the case of Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), the sacrificed hero of After Hours (1985), his reality will be shattered from the outside in. He will be engulfed by his own private urban nightmare in Manhattan’s SoHo District. Scorsese masterfully demonstrates how to personalize a project on which you are a hired hand. He accepted the task when Paramount stepped out of his first attempt to produce The Last Temptation of Christ in 1983. All the tension, anger and anguish suffered by Scorsese on this failed deal got channeled into After Hours.
Charmed by Marcie (Rosanna Arquette), an attractive woman he met in a café, Paul decides to pay her a visit at her SoHo studio apartment. As soon as he leaves, things go wrong. The taxi cab seems possessed by Bickle’s spectre as it travels at such a surreal speed that Paul loses his sole 20-dollar bill.21 Thus begins his perilious journey into SoHo hell. It culminates with half the neighborhood chasing him around after he’s wrongly accused of robbery. Paul ends up in a basement where a lonely artist (Verna Bloom who played Mary mother of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ ) covers him completely with plastered paper. Paul becomes a plastered human crucifix, with his hands stuck to his forehead and an expression of terror on his face. He is stolen by the real thieves and put into the back of a van. As the van rides away at the same lunatic speed as the previous taxi cab, the doors open and the statue breaks into pieces on the pavement. Paul is unhurt. He gets up and finds himself in front of the office building where he works as a computer analyst. He gets up, enters the building and slumps down into his chair, eyes gazing blankly as the camera rushes around him completing several elliptical circles. THE END. CREDITS.
Did Paul truly survive his own Way of the Cross? Is the nightmare accomplished? After all, did he really go to SoHo last night? Reality once again oscillates between dream and death. One thing is certain, Paul’s yuppie universe has been shattered with the statue’s pieces on the tarmac.22 His temptation for Marcie and her world of marginal artists has tested his faith for the good.
In The Age of Innocence (1993), Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) also becomes victim to his own temptation. His passion for madam Olanska (Michelle Pfeiffer) makes him the romantic hero, but his marriage to Mary Welland (Winona Ryder) solidifies his standing in 19th Century New York’s upper class. He will live a pleasant and comfortable life without any worries, passion or drama, for he is unable to hold on to the one true love of his life. This unwelcomed and forceful settling down could be seen as an ironic twist on The Last Temptation of Christ , since it is exactly the kind of life with which Jesus is tempted on the cross. But Jesus finally accepts his heroic destiny, whereas Newland refuses his, or rather worst, it is taken away from him by the mischief of his peers. His passion will only exist in memories that he will cherish more than anything else, more than life and reality themselves. Therefore at the end of his life, Newland will prefer to refuse seeing Madam Olenska one last time so as not to disturb his memory of her.
This denial towards ordinary life becomes in a way the temptation of the common man who uses the means of cinema to escape from reality and fulfill his heroic fantasies. Money, fame, power and glory, the trappings of the American Dream, can therefore become theirs through escapism. In the nineties, Scorsese has been more and more concerned with this form of temptation typical to Hollywood’s pursuit of on-screen happiness. He has further deepened his comprehensive criticism of the American hero in personal films like Goodfellas and Casino as well as in more commercial outings like The Color of Money and Cape Fear.
In The Color of Money (1986), Scorsese’s follow up to Robert Rossen’s 1961 The Hustler , the sudden Ascension of Fast Eddy Felson (Paul Newman), who returns to professional pool playing (with his improved “vision” after a 25 year absence, is shown both as a miracle and as a profession of Eddy’s faith, since the game is akin to a religious experience. Eddy’s heroism arises from self-indulgence and the sense that his life is going nowhere fast. On the other hand, we step into a huge grey area in Cape Fear (1991). None of the main characters are without reproach. Psychopath recidivist Max Cody’s (Robert De Niro, who else?) relentless quoting of the Bible as well as the mystical tattoos covering his entire body disturb the viewer by their sacrilegious use of the Holy Scriptures. Cody makes himself the exterminating angel willing to judge as well as to condemn Sam Bowden, the lawyer who committed an ethical fault to insure the incarceration of Cody 14 years ago. Good and evil muddle up into the torment of the ending that turns into a formidable Deluge. Good guy Sam Bowden, representative of America’s conservative Right, seemingly living an ordinary life with his ordinary family, is not so clean and ordinary after all. The traditional hero icon is indeed at stake in Cape Fear.
The temptation of the gangster
Gaining Paradise and losing it, through pride and through greed – it’s the old fashioned Old Testament story. (…) Ultimately it’s a tragedy. It’s the frailty of being human. I want to push audiences’ emotional empathy with certain types of characters who are normally considered villains.
- Martin Scorsese 23
Common life boredom is rather what is at stake in 1990’s Goodfellas and 1995’s Casino . Scorsese explores in both films the decline of the American Way of life through the extraordinary undertakings of immoral characters devoted to the mob. Gangster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is finally arrested at the end of Goodfellas and is condemned by the FBI’s witness relocation program to live, in his own words, “the life of a schnook..” He does not repent; in fact, he’s bitter because he will now lead an ordinary life. For him, being a gangster was a fast road to the American Dream. He was somebody when he was outside the law. Becoming a common citizen is the worst punishment, even worse than going to prison. This is another variation on The Last Temptation of Christ . Jesus’ wish for a standard human life is Henry’s purgatory.
Casino is the moral flip side of Goodfellas . Sam Rothstein welcomes the uneventful life granted to him at the end of the film. Scorsese consciously uses religious metaphors and biblical imagery. Las Vegas is Rothstein’s Paradise on Earth. “For guys like us, Las Vegas washes away our sins,” he tells us frankly. But the city is also surrounded by the Nevada desert in the middle of nowhere. It compares easily to Sodom and Gomorrah cleansed by the holy fire, symbols of corruption and lust. It’s the temptation of the Golden Calf that ensnares the Hebrews before Moses comes down from Sinai with the Tables of the Law.
It is fitting therefore that Casino should open with an explosion, with the gangster hero engulfed in flames mixed with multicolored lights coming from the neon signs of the casinos and the hotels, modern symbols of the seven sins. This opening sequence is pitted against the religious overtones of “St Matthew Passion” by J.S. Bach, a prelude of things to come. Right away Rothstein must expiate for his future crimes. After the fashion of William Holden’s character found drowned in the pool in the opening scene of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard , Rothstein will guide us through the maze of his world in spite of the fact that we witness his death at the outset of the film.
Clearly, this explosion killed off Rothstein. It’s only at the end that Rothstein himself explains to us how he got out alive, or rather how he would have liked to survive his ordeal. Scorsese reprises the scene three times to convince us that we were misled by the opening sequence. Rothstein’s explanation is wishful thinking, both dream and fantasy. His following well-ordered existence offers a modern version of the temptation of Christ: Ace lives peacefully by going back to his first love, gambling. As Travis was born to ride a cab, as Rupert Pupkin believed he was born to become a comedian, so Sam Rothstein was born to gamble and he will die this way, damn it!
In the final analysis, the motif has been inverted in Casino ; the ending moved back to the beginning, the temptation became synonymous with the hero’s fall. Scorsese still pushes the public to test its beliefs, its ethics, its judgment. Eventually, Scorsese does forgive the characters of his films, so we now have to find the strength and the moral inclination to do the same. So next time, knowingly let yourself experience the temptations of Martin Scorsese.The phantom of Travis Bickle
And when Travis adjusts the mirror at the end, that’s when he dies.
- David Wellington, director of I Love A Man In Uniform
It so happens that Taxi Driver was not one of my favorite films. I had seen it in 1978, but at fifteen years old, I was much too disturbed by it and deeply distressed by the ending to find the need to see it again. David Wellington felt otherwise about it and he invited me at a screening of the film at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, back in 1983 when we were both students in Film Production at Concordia University in Montreal. After the credits stopped and the echo of Bernard Herrmann’s hauting music finally disappeared, I went out of the theater as shaken by the experience as the first time, when suddenly David broke the silence and said: “You know, I have this crazy idea for the ending.” We started discussing it, elaborating as we went along a really far-fetched interpretation of the ending that seemed to make sense only to both of us.
In fact, something crucial was missing from our analysis. Scorsese’s previous works didn’t support our theory enough. But as the years passed and the films accumulated, I was starting to see a recurring pattern in the endings, especially in The King of Comedy and After Hours , although the true revelation really came with The Last Temptation of Christ . This film, more than any other, formed a direct link with Taxi Driver and revealed much more about its ending than even Scorsese or Schrader had ever admitted or recognized. What surprised me the most is that nothing was ever written about this unique reading anywhere. Some critics came close but never suggested the possibility of Travis’ death. For example, in the March 1979 issue of Le Cinématographe (no. 45), François Cuel is the only one who almost touched it:
The burnt flowers, Travis’ message to Iris] rather indicate a suicidal ritual that precedes the meticulous preparation for a killing; and in the middle of the blood stains in the hotel actually dies the old Travis, whose wounded leg already gives a cadaverous rigidity. (…) [The overhead shot] negates the ceiling and opens the sky for Travis’ flight.>
But Cuel only sees it as a symbolic death and comes back to the traditional literal approach to the ending. He would have needed David’s help to further his analysis. Lucky for me nobody knew David at the time!