Only God is original.

– Proverb of unknown origin

The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything.

– Oscar Wilde

The works of Martin Scorsese are rife with instances of allusion. These allusions are particularly in evidence in Taxi Driver (1976), undoubtedly facilitated in part by the film’s careful storyboarding. Scorsese says that because of budget constraints, he storyboarded the entire film, even down to medium-close-ups of dialogue (1). While a number of the references are contributions from Scorsese’s collaborators, and the ultimate result could be viewed as “a tissue of quotations” (2), neither undermines Scorsese’s auteur status. His is always the guiding hand. Moreover, the film’s allusions are so extensive that they can be examined with an eye toward their categorization by function, in the hope of engendering a greater appreciation of Scorsese’s art.

Many of Taxi Driver‘s references are limited in application to the one-time quotation of a specific incident in another film. These isolated references may deepen the film’s meaning, but are essentially little more than a showing of appreciation. They include homages such as the extreme close-up of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) fizzing Alka-seltzer as he sits essentially alone, although amidst his fellow cabbies at a cafeteria table. This disintegrating tablet resembles a galaxy and refers to a similar shot of a coffee cup in Jean-Luc Godard’s Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967). (3) It is a representation of the private universe in which Travis is lost. Scorsese speaks of being influenced, too, by Irving Lerner’s Murder by Contract (1958). (4) In one scene, the hired killer, Claude (Vince Edwards), exercises alone in his apartment, where, furthermore, a clock ticks in the background like a time-bomb. This is much the same as when Bickle is preparing for his assassination attempt against Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris). Taxi Driver also adapts a scene from Murder by Contract in which the protagonist/killer describes the impact of various types of ammunition – a scene acted by Scorsese as a crazed passenger in the back of Bickle’s cab. In addition, Scorsese speaks of watching Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962) to study general visual approaches that might be applied to Taxi Driver. (5) Indeed, both films depict the “scene of the crime” in a markedly similar way, utilizing two shots. One long-shot establishes the location, and another, overhead, shot surveys the carnage. (6) Scorsese simply reverses their order. Although both protagonists become folk heroes, similarities in the two films hardly extend beyond the framing of these two shots.

Salvatore Giuliano Taxi Driver
Salvatore Giuliano Taxi Driver
Salvatore Giuliano Taxi Driver
Salvatore Giuliano Taxi Driver

(The two shots reversed for comparison)

Other homages are mere illustrations of Paul Schrader’s script. Hence, the references to Robert Bresson’s work. Travis eats bread soaked in peach brandy, which is a perversion of Bresson’s saintly priest in Le Journal d’un Curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) subsisting entirely on the Eucharist: bread soaked in wine. This is no doubt a comment on Travis who, Scorsese notes, sees himself as very spiritual, but is a “spirit on the wrong road” (7). Bresson’s country priest ironically dies of stomach cancer and Bickle says in voice-over he suspects he has the disease. Schrader confirms that Travis’ narration through voice-overs from his diary is borrowed from Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959), the title of which, like Taxi Driver, refers to a role and not a man. Also, Bresson’s pickpocket, Michel (Martin La Salle), rehearses his crimes ritualistically. This is the direct inspiration for the deliberateness with which Travis prepares with his guns, in a sequence which was originally much longer. (8) Finally, Schrader includes literary references to Thomas Wolfe’s “God’s Lonely Man” and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the titles of which are quoted by Bickle in his voice-over.

The references thus far are all limited in scope, being unrelated to any recurrent sub-structuring of the narrative. The same cannot be said of the film’s references to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a favourite of both Scorsese and Schrader, which are specified or developed from indications in the script. Briefly, both Travis and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) are outcasts forever estranged from society, veterans from the losing side of a war that ended for the nation three years before. They are both determined to rescue a girl held captive by a group they view as degenerate. In Ethan’s case, his niece has been kidnapped by a band of Comanches, and becomes one of the wives of the chief Scar (Henry Brandon). Iris (Jodie Foster) is likewise, presumably, one of several prostitutes in the stable of her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). She differs from Ethan’s niece, though, in that Bickle only imagines her to have been kidnapped.

An overt racism is crucial to the characters of both Ethan and Travis. Sport’s appearance is similar to an American Indian from a Western film. He has long brown hair, and wears a headband in one scene with Travis, whose boots provoke Sport’s taunt of “cowboy” (9). Travis barely conceals his hatred for Sport, the same kind of attitude that leads Ethan to scalp Scar. When Travis returns to kill Sport, he has shaven his hair into a Mohawk, which can be explained in terms of the film’s Vietnam subtext, but also resembles Ethan’s transgression of his own society’s mores in order to “save” it. Later, following the bloody shooting spree where Sport and his associates are murdered, “Pappy” (a nickname of John Ford’s and the title of the biography of him by his grandson) is seen scrawled on a bloodied wall as the camera retreats over the carnage. The parallels between the two films have been treated extensively and now seem fairly self-evident, if they were not at the time (10).

What has not been treated, but is also extensive, is another structural usage of allusion. This is the usage, at times opposed, of references to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and works of Alfred Hitchcock, all of which feature scores by Bernard Herrmann, who also scored Taxi Driver. The shots used are not specified in the script, so are almost certainly Scorsese’s contributions. The allusions are not limited to the shots employed, but in places work in tandem with the films’ score.

Taxi Driver‘s score consists of variations on two main themes, representative of different aspects of Bickle’s character. The first, a simple progression of two descending tones, using brass, woodwind, side drum and cymbal, is associated with Travis’ reaction to the “filthy mass” – the moral corruption he sees around him. (11) Its pounding, incessant rhythm sets an ominous tone. The second theme is a blues development of the first, a romantic lilting saxophone that is equated with Travis’ desire, first identified with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and then Iris. (12)

The schism in Travis’ personality that is reflected by the twin musical themes is analogous to, if by no means as pronounced as, the schizophrenia of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960). Psycho has other basic similarities to Taxi Driver, notably in the doomed journey of Marion (Janet Leigh) to the corrupted world of the Bates motel, where her point-of-view shots through the rainy windshield are accompanied by subjective voice-over. This all evokes Travis’ insomniac, night-time taxi cruises through the rainy streets of New York. (13) As Travis pulls into a bodega one night, Herrmann quotes a three-note motif from his own Pyscho score, used in conjunction with Norman’s madness. (14) This is the first time in the film that Travis kills.

In between Travis’ night-cruising early in the film and the killing in the bodega, Travis meets, dates and loses Betsy. The indications of Travis’ madness in the scenes evoking Psycho contrast starkly with the lyricism of Betsy’s introduction. Over sun-lit street scenes of passing pedestrians, drawing ever closer to Betsy’s office, Travis begins reading from his journal:

I first saw her at Palantine Campaign Headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass.

Betsy appears, crossing over to her office’s entrance in slow motion. With Betsy, Herrmann’s bluesy theme music (not heard since the film’s beginning) returns and expands blissfully, introduced by a harp. Behind her in the frame, Martin Scorsese sits against a wall. As Betsy reaches the door, a dissolve brings a scroll over the words of Travis’ journal with Travis still reading them in voice-over.

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver
Betsy’s introduction

This scene reproduces almost exactly the visual introduction of Rosebud in Citizen Kane. The reporter, Thompson (William Alland), investigating the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud”, goes to the Walter Thatcher library to seek enlightenment from the manuscript of Thatcher’s memoirs. Thatcher (George Coulouris) was the chairman of the bank that became Kane’s guardian until he reached the age of 25. A scroll over Thatcher’s memoirs reads: “I first encountered Mr Kane in 1871.” There is a dissolve to Kane (Buddy Swan) as a boy, playing on his sled, Rosebud. With the dissolve, Herrmann’s music is transformed from the dismal atmosphere of the Thatcher library as a harp glissando blissfully expands the Rosebud motif not heard since the film’s prologue. (15)

Citizen Kane Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane
Rosebud’s introduction

Scorsese modifies the borrowing from Kane by reversing the order, introducing the words of the text only after the flashback is shown. But, fundamentally, the two are a very close match. Both films feature a scroll over the handwriting of a personal recollection. Travis’ introductory voice-over wording is very similar to that of Thatcher’s memoirs. Both dissolve: Citizen Kane to Rosebud, and Taxi Driver from Betsy. Both also feature Bernard Herrmann scores, expanding similarly upon a lyrical love theme not heard since the film’s start, and utilizing the harp to do so.

Scorsese elegantly combines this allusion with another simultaneous reference to Rosebud by the choice of Betsy’s white dress. (16) In the scene Scorsese refers to, Thompson, still trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Kane’s dying word, asks long-time Kane associate Bernstein (Everett Sloane), who thinks Rosebud might have been some girl. Thompson is incredulous.

Bernstein: A fellow will remember things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in – and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on – and she was carrying a white parasol – and I only saw her for one second and she didn’t see me at all – but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.

Taxi Driver
Betsy, the girl in white. Scorsese at left.

By employing the same formal devices as when Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud is introduced, it is suggested that, for Bickle, Betsy occupies the same importance as Rosebud does for Kane. Both represent the ultimately failed chance at true love. Kane was removed from Rosebud, and his mother’s love, to have his childhood overseen by Thatcher and his bank. Travis alienates Betsy through his own actions, and Betsy is lost to him (although at the end the possibility for a rapprochement is implied, and immediately abandoned by Bickle). Scorsese further expands upon this by placing himself in the shot, perhaps emphasizing the Rosebud-like importance that Citizen Kane holds for him, like a love letter to that film. (17) This also brings to mind Hitchcock’s brief appearances in his own films, the menace of which implies the duality in pairing references to Welles and Hitchcock.

When Betsy is disposed of as Travis’ obsession, Scorsese refers again to Citizen Kane. Travis appears at Palantine’s rally, where Betsy is also on stage. Bickle is introduced with a shot that tracks past a sign reading “Pedestrians Keep Out”, past a cast-iron fence, and finally tilts up to his literally off-beat applause. He does not follow through with the planned assassination. That part of him ends with this scene. Afterwards, Travis’ interest and related violent impulses shift to become enmeshed with Iris. Betsy is beyond his grasp. Travis stands apart from the crowd, alone. This shot, as with Betsy’s introduction, compresses two scenes borrowed from Citizen Kane into one. Travis and the camera are both trespassing (which is odd given the crowd just beyond the fence), in a reference to the opening of Kane. There, the camera famously cranes past a “No Trespassing” sign, over a series of chain link and cast-iron fences, moving into Kane’s death chamber, where he utters “Rosebud”. Kane’s life-long quest for love, symbolized by Rosebud, ends in failure.

The other scene Scorsese refers to is that of Kane’s applause at the end of the opera starring his untalented wife, Susan (Dorothy Comingore).

Taxi Driver Citizen Kane

Taxi Driver Citizen Kane

Taxi Driver Citizen Kane

Kane has tried to gain love from the public by proxy through his wife, but fails. The audience gives some polite applause, but Kane gets carried away and is left standing alone, the only one still clapping. This emphasizes Kane’s isolation from the crowd whose love he sought, and the obsessiveness with which he has tried to attain it through force of will.

With Travis’ newfound mission to rescue Iris comes an allusion to Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Like The Searchers of the same year, it is a captivity narrative and Scorsese’s borrowing from it reveals a tendency to conceptualise film in generic terms. In the film, Ben McKenna (James Stewart) and wife Jo (Doris Day) are vacationing with their son, Hank (Christopher Olsen), in Morocco, when, by a chance event, Ben becomes aware of the details of an assassination plot to take place at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The conspirators kidnap Hank in an effort to protect their plot. His parents then pursue the kidnappers.

Hank’s parents foil the assassination plot against the visiting Prime Minister and discover Hank is being held in the Prime Minister’s embassy. As the Prime Minister’s guest, Jo sings “Que Sera, Sera (What Will Be, Will Be)” for a gathering at the embassy while the camera moves away from her. In a series of cuts, the camera travels to the upstairs room where Hank is captive. The strains of his mother’s song travel through empty space, becoming gradually muted but still audible to the kidnapped boy, who turns his head in response.

The Man Who Knew Too Much Taxi Driver
The Man Who Knew Too Much Taxi Driver
The Man Who Knew Too Much Taxi Driver
The Man Who Knew Too Much Taxi Driver
“Que Sera, Sera” (“What Will Be, Will Be”) Echoing shots

Taxi Driver borrows this scene, while compressing it from eleven shots to four, as Travis begins his final rampage. The shots of his opening salvo echo over the empty spaces of the tenement, where Iris hears them from her upstairs room and turns her head in alarm. Hitchcock takes his time with the cuts, allowing both the song to play out and its diminishing volume to indicate increasing distance. Scorsese is brief, indicating the gunshots’ volume, Iris’ surprise and her location, but then cutting back to the rampage, still in progress.

Not all of the allusions are to other films, or exclusively so. Some are personal for Scorsese as well, reflecting elements of autobiography by which he associates himself with different aspects of the film. (18) This is seen by his placing himself in the frame behind Betsy as she first appears, and in the mirror scene quotations from Shane (George Stevens, 1953). But, Taxi Driver‘s epilogue also begins with a notable example. An appreciative letter to Travis from Iris’ parents, Burt and Ivy Steensma, is read in voice-over as the camera moves across clippings related to Travis’ shooting spree. In one of the clippings is a photo, ostensibly of the Steensmas, with the headline “Parents Express Shock, Gratitude.” This is no doubt an inside joke by Scorsese, as the parents depicted are actually his own (which can be seen in a still from Scorsese’s Italianamerican, made two years previously). Perhaps he is anticipating their response to the film and his career.

Taxi Driver Italianamerican
“Burt and Ivy Steensma” Italianamerican

This is not the last personal allusion by Scorsese. The epilogue continues as Travis is hanging out in front of the trendy St Regis hotel with a group of cabbies waiting for fares. This offers a rationale for both Travis and Betsy being here. But Scorsese emphasizes the location itself by placing its awning prominently in the frame. This is Scorsese’s hint that it has deeper significance. Scorsese himself stayed here during the shooting of the film, having chosen it because it was a favourite of Orson Welles. (19) Thus, the allusion is both personal and filmic. Through another personal linkage of Scorsese to Welles, the location harkens back to the first time Travis sees Betsy. Indeed, it again seems that something may be possible between the two. After being dropped off, Betsy begins to talk to Travis, apparently in the hope of apologizing for misjudging him and perhaps to make an advance. (20) Travis refuses to acknowledge her, so she changes the subject, asking her fare. Any hope for a rapprochement is abandoned.

Taxi Driver
The St Regis’ awning spans time

At the end of the film, with Betsy gone from his life, Travis’ eyes are seen in extreme close-up, as at the beginning. The suggestion is apparent that, as before, he is a ticking time-bomb that could go off at any time. Herrmann emphasizes this by ending his score, as he does Pyscho, by quoting the three-note motif used in conjunction with Norman Bates’ madness. (21) Once again, the lyricism and hope offered in part through reference to Citizen Kane is passed over in favour of the madness of Hitchcock.

The film’s allusions are a compound of contributions from Schrader, Scorsese and Herrmann of varying depth and meaning. Scorsese allows the works of others, through borrowings, to make an impress upon his film. Yet he re-arranges these borrowings to simultaneously put his own stamp on them, and by extension their sources. In this way, Taxi Driver becomes the centre of a complex web of interrelationships. Ultimately, the most important function of the film’s allusions is to provide cues by which its solipsistic narrative becomes “readable”. At the same time, ironically, they work as a commentary on the depth of Travis’ madness. For Travis, even if he does so unconsciously, can only relate to his own life by making reference to films. Scorsese, for his part, by his conscious use of intertextuality, underscores the validity of the concept of authorship, and the importance of authorial intentions. Contrary to one Frenchman’s notion, the “auteur” is not dead.

Endnotes

  1. Quoted in Ian Christie and David Thompson (Eds), Scorsese on Scorsese (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 54.
  2. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, reprinted in Stephen Heath (trans.), Image – Music – Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 146. Barthes writes: “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
  3. Quoted in Richard Goldstein and Mark Jacobson, “Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!”, Village Voice, 5 April 1976, reprinted in Peter Brunette (Ed), Martin Scorsese Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1999), p. 67.
  4. Quoted in Christie and Thompson, p. 66.
  5. Quoted in Christie and Thompson, p. 60.
  6. Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver, screenplay (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 85. The overhead tracking shot is in Schrader’s script, but in a sketchy form. Scorsese, of course, chose the actual framing.
  7. Quoted in Christie and Thompson, p. 62.
  8. In Richard Thompson, “Screen Writer, Taxi Driver‘s Paul Schrader”, interview, Film Comment, March-April 1976, p. 11. Schrader’s film criticism previous to his career as a screenwriter includes the book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California, 1972).
  9. Subsumed within the The Searchers pattern is a further development of Travis as cowboy, made by Scorsese through two references to Shane (George Stevens, 1953). Taxi Driver, The Criterion Collection Laser Disc, Santa Monica, Voyager Company, 1990. On the laser disc commentary track, Scorsese explains that the dissolve eliding the middle of Travis’ walk outside the cab company is a borrowing from Shane. The result implies a momentary lapse of consciousness. Leighton Grist, The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1963-77, Authorship and Context (New York: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 141, 213. Grist makes two valuable points here, citing Shane as the inspiration for the improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scene, worked out between Scorsese and De Niro. The dialogue between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Calloway (Ben Johnson) makes this clear. Shane: “You speaking to me?” Calloway: “I don’t see nobody else standing there.” Grist also relates this to Christie and Thompson, p. 42, where Scorsese says a lot of his mirror scenes are inspired by his boyhood impersonations of actors done before a mirror. He specifically mentions Shane.
  10. David Boyd, “Prisoner of the Night”, Film Heritage, Winter 1976-77, pp. 24-30. Robert Koelker, A Cinema of Loneliness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 237. Amy Taubin, Taxi Driver (London: British Film Institute, 2000), pp. 19-20, 60, 62-5.
  11. Graham Bruce, Bernard Hermann: Film Music and Narrative, Studies in Cinema No. 38 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985), p. 65.
  12. Bruce, pp. 68-9.
  13. Grist, p. 133.
  14. Grist, p. 142.
  15. Bruce, p. 47. Interestingly, Bruce uses the term “rapturous” to describe the scores introducing both Rosebud and Betsy. He does not, however, identify the connection between the two.
  16. Schrader, p. 13. Scorsese makes a change here from the script, which specifies Betsy in a “stylish yellow dress”. Martin Scorsese, “In the Streets”, in Peter Occhiogrosso (Ed), Once A Catholic: Prominent Catholics and Ex-Catholics Discuss the Influence of the Church on their Lives and Works (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 98. Scorsese clearly put thought into the dresses to be used. He relates a middle-school fascination with girls’ parochial school uniforms, consisting of a blazer and plaid skirt. He says that, in Taxi Driver, he had Cybill Shepherd wear an outfit like this “as a kind of joke”. Obviously, Betsy is wearing something else entirely when she is introduced.
  17. Taubin, p. 43. Taubin writes that Scorsese claims this is a borrowing from Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963). Yet, the thematic context is entirely unrelated, and formally too it is a far cry from Taxi Driver‘s nearly exact match with Citizen Kane. Godard crosscuts between the farewell note of Camille (Brigitte Bardot) to her husband, and the car she is riding in.

    This brings to mind Scorsese’s comments on The Age of Innocence (1993). Gavin Smith, “Martin Scorsese Interviewed”, Film Comment, November-December 1993, pp. 15-6. Scorsese tells Smith that the key scene in the film for him, which inspired him to make it, is that between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and wife May (Winona Ryder) where she refuses to allow Newland to drop his law practice in order to travel. Archer wants to pursue his love, Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has just left permanently for Europe. May makes it apparent, without stating it openly, that she has long known about Archer’s love for Olenska and, moreover, was instrumental in getting her to leave by lying to her about being pregnant. Newland realizes that he has underestimated May and Olenska is lost to him forever. To make the scene indelible, Scorsese depicts May’s rise from her chair with three separate shots (and a fourth, if Newland’s reaction shot is counted). What Scorsese does not mention is the incredible stylistic similarity this and other parts of the film bear to François Truffaut’s Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent (Two English Girls and the Continent, 1971). Both films are literary adaptations of period romances with the male protagonist caught between two women, featuring an omniscient voice-over narration by a non-character. They both end in an epilogue many years after the main action of the story. This in itself may have been enough to provoke Scorsese’s reviewing of the picture before shooting The Age of Innocence. But, it is the shared stylistic peculiarities that point to a real connection. Both films make repeated use of an unusual device where one character reads the letter of another. Conventionally, a letter may be seen in an insert and then heard in a voice-over by its writer. This is replaced with scenes where the letter writer is cut to and speaks the words of the letter, with an eye-line just askance of the camera.

    Also, in an early scene, Truffaut has Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud) deliberately linger behind the unattainable Muriel (Stacey Tendeter), with whom he is in love, as they ride bikes down a country lane. The voice-over reveals that “Claude liked to look at Muriel’s neck because he could look at it without being seen.” The Age of Innocence features a prominent shot where Archer’s point-of-view of the back of his desired Olenska’s neck is cut to. They are in the company of others and in this way Newland can avoid being seen looking at the Countess.

    Once, while playing tennis with her sister, Anne (Kika Markham), Muriel imagines in the glare of the sunlight that she is playing her beloved Claude instead. This is similar to the epilogue of The Age of Innocence, in which Newland imagines Olenska in the glare of her window, in a flashback to a sunset of long ago. She turns to him as she did not in life.

    Finally, the scene Scorsese singles out has a forerunner in Truffaut’s film. Anne reveals to Muriel, who is still in love with Claude, that she had an affair with him, which triggers a violent reaction from Muriel. Muriel instantly becomes sick, hits her head and passes out. Anne rises from her bed to go to Muriel. Truffaut shows Anne’s rise with four quick shots.

    Given Scorsese’s vast knowledge of film, and the research he acknowledges doing to plan the shooting of his films, it is almost inconceivable that these are a series of coincidences. It seems that Scorsese is generally very open with his interviews, if not always entirely forthright. Perhaps he does not want to give away his whole game.

  18. Martin Scorsese, quoted in Christie and Thompson, p. 54. Scorsese says “The whole film is very much based on the impressions I have as a result of growing up in New York and living in the city.”
  19. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 300.
  20. Schrader, p. 89. The script makes Betsy’s turnabout more explicit. Her last line to Travis is “Maybe I’ll see you again sometime, huh?”
  21. Bruce, p. 72.

About The Author

John Thurman is co-director of the short pseudo-documentary, Triple A Town: Tucson, USA (31 mins), and is currently working on a book about Terrence Malick.