Yesterday marked Martin Scorsese’s 75th birthday, and to mark the great man reaching three-quarters of a century, what better way to celebrate his enduring contribution to cinema than by recalling one of the rare occasions where his work in front of the camera was just as significant as that behind it.
Ironically, Scorsese was not originally slated to play the role of cabbie Travis Bickle’s most demonic of customers in Taxi Driver (1976), but when Mean Streets actor George Memmoli pulled out, Scorsese stepped into the breach – as much for expediency than for any especial casting merit. What followed was a simply iconic turn by Scorsese, which does a disservice to the term ‘cameo’, and ended up being one of the film’s most symbolically important scenes, in giving an outward articulation of the rage and rank misogyny that its stunted protagonist, Travis Bickle, has harboured not only from us, the audience, but from himself.
The scene begins episodically enough: another one of Bickle’s sorties through the vice-ridden streets of a dank Manhattan. The only sign that this is not a usual customer for Bickle comes at the moment when he reaches his destination. As he pulls the car over and begins to reset his meter and record the journey (this is the analogue period after all), Scorsese’s previously urbane customer starts barking demented orders at Bickle. In that unmistakably sharp and fast-talking New York brogue of his – Scorsese also had the crisper, more fiery vocal inflections of a younger man – he embarks on a septic monologue about the dark purpose of his journey. Juxtaposing Scorsese’s frenzy and buoyancy – replete with sudden psychopathic shifts from laughter, to worry, to demonic stares – is the stillness of Robert De Niro’s Bickle and the portentous ambience of Bernard Herrmann’s exemplary score.
Talking about Hermann, he was Alfred Hitchcock’s musical man of choice for many of his masterpieces, and there is a touch of Hitchcock’s cinematographic virtuosity (think Rear Window) in the brilliance of a tracking shot here that imprints Scorsese’s excellence as the director of this scene too. Taken from the perspective of Bickle, at the crazy guy’s promptings, Bickle vicariously scans the apartment building before settling on the silhouette of a woman whom the customer claims is his wife.
Then, Scorsese embarks on the twisted end-game of his character’s embittered mania. With a wicked cackle he descends into a breathless rant of epically racist and misogynist proportions, delivered in a series of unanswered rhetorical questions to a silently stunned Bickle. Scorsese’s closing gambit about what a “44 Magnum” could do to a woman’s “face” and “pussy” puts the seal on this most Faustian of scenes.
Whether what Scorsese’s character is saying is true or not is beside the point. It’s a purely metaphoric scene – it’s what it symbolises and its position at the film’s midpoint that is so crucial. Previously the audience has been claustrophobically aligned to Bickle, watching as some aspects of his life are beginning to unravel, but unable to contextualise what may be taking place in his head because of that proximity. In this scene, Scorsese’s character almost acts like a classic portent, an emissary of darkness, as well as a release valve for the audience and Bickle. His character seems to answer the previously foggy question of where Bickle might be going on this solipsistic journey of his.
As the scene closes on a demented Scorsese chuckling away in the background, taunting Bickle with the comment, “You must think I’m sick, right?”, Scorsese the director cuts to the back of Bickle’s head. By not making us privy to Bickle’s reaction, his expressionless head acts as a harbinger for the twisted seed Scorsese’s character has planted in Bickle’s mind. It’s an ingenious closing image for an ingenious scene, and fitting testament to the thrilling skill of Scorsese both as actor and director.