Taxi Driver is a film about a war veteran who comes to find himself driving a cab in New York City because he is unable to sleep. While driving, he becomes infatuated with this lady Betsy who works for a Campaign office. After taking her on a date to a porno theatre she ends her relationship with him for the inappropriate date. After this, his anger increases and he comes to the realization that all women are cold and heartless. This directly affects his view on the city as he grows more and more disgusted with the filth and scum of the city and believes that he can clean it up. Taxi Driver employs a number of different elements in which assist and contributes to the narration as well as the theme of the movie. This paper will discuss how the cinematographic elements in Taxi Driver greatly enhance the overall affect of the movie and how it adds to the narrative elements to create a world in which this story could take place.
Cinematography is “not only what is filmed, but also how it is filmed”1 and there are three elements to this; “the photographic aspects of the shot, the framing of the shot, and the duration of the shot”2. The photographic aspect consists of the technical features of each shot, such as the filters, speed of motion, the types of lenses and the focal lengths, and the depth of field3. This film employs many of these methods to make the images more exciting and relevant to the theme of the movie.
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A filter is “slices of glass or gelatine put in front of the lens of the camera or printer to reduce certain frequencies of light”4. Taxi Driver uses a number of different filters to enhance the theme of the movie such as in the final killing spree shots where Travis (the main character) is climbing the stairs while shooting and killing the Pimps. This part of the film looks similar to battlefield footage with a blue or grey haze to the shot. He views this as a battle between the scum of New York City and himself. This enhances the theme because it helps create this world where he believes that he will be able to save this girl Iris from prostitution.
Additionally, in the opening scene of the movie was a yellow filter used which makes everything appear to have a yellowy-brown smog-coloured tint to it. Everything that appears on-screen during these shots looks dirty and helps create the world in which we are supposed to believe we are. Another filter that they use is a blue one to make the scenes appear as though they were shot at night for example when Travis is returning his taxi to the headquarters he drives through a fire hydrant that is spraying water onto the road. This is done to allow enough light. This scene is also significant because he is talking about cleaning the scum off the streets as his car passes through the water but he himself does not get wet. After cleaning out his car he goes to a porno theatre to watch dirty movies which build on the theme of his hypocrisy throughout the movie.
Speed of motion is the rate (frames per second) at which the film was shot5. To speed up the movie you decrease the rate for frames. To speed the movie up you increase the frames per second. Taxi drive uses this effect to highlight some of the qualities of the character. For example, when we first meet Betsy she is wearing a white dress and the scene is in slow motion as he describes how perfect she is. Another example of this is when he is first going to the taxi company to get a job he is looking out the window and all the scum of the city are out peddling their wears as he drives by. This is significant because Travis is taking the world in around him absorbing every detail. The slow-motion significantly adds to the effect of being surrounded by this world.
The type of lens and focal lengths can dramatically change what you are able to see in a picture. This is valuable in this movie because many times it is used to show his world being surrounded by the filth of everything around him. An example of this is near the end of the movie when Travis has shaved his head into a Mohawk and is standing at a rally for Senator Palestine. There is a close-up of Travis but then it movies back to reveal how he no longs fits into the crowd of people. He is distant from the rest of the people. Another example of focal length is the use of a telephoto lens in many scenes where we hear people talking however the focus is really not on them but on others in the background. This is done many times when Betsy is involved in the conversation. It adds to the theme of the movie because Travis solely focuses on her throughout the movie and becomes obsessed as he drives by her office just to catch a glimpse.
Depth of field is “the range of distances before the lens within which objects can be photographed in sharp focus”6. This element of the film added a great amount of variety to the shots that were chosen. An example of this is when Travis kills the robber in the store. His taxi is in the centre of the shot in the background while he, the store owner and the dead body are at the front of the shot. Another example of this is when the camera pans from Travis’s conversation with Betsy after the bad date to the long hallway with his cab at the end. This shot adds to the narrative by showing that the only thing that Travis has in his life is his taxi driving which is reiterated by his nickname.
The framing of the shot “imposes a certain vantage point into the material within the image” and is important because it defines the image for us; what is in the shot and what is not is important7. Framing consists of the size or shape of the frame, angle, level or height of the shot, and mobile shots or framing, and the use of space on the screen. A great example of framing is in the beginning of the movie when Travis goes to the porno movie theatre. While he is ending his conversation with the girl at the counter he walks through the shot while it zooms in the projector eyepiece to reveals the porno that is showing in that theatre. This is a great transition technique to tie one scene to another. It also illustrates how depraved Travis’s character is and that he really has no right to judge the lives of other people. Many times throughout this movie the Taxi is framed by doorways that lead to his cab. For example, during the robbery, or when he is trying to reconcile with Betsy on the phone his car is framed by the door almost as his only escape.
Many shots in this film are also framed by the taxi cab windows. For example, one rally for Senator Palentine is framed by the window. We can only see what Travis is able to see. Another way in which this movie frames its shots is through the use of the rearview mirror. This is used almost every time someone gets into the taxi. For example, at the end of the film, Betsy gets into his taxi and we see the conversation between them occur mostly with the rearview mirror. We are able to see what Travis is seeing and his point of view but we also get the opposite, what Betsy is seeing in Travis. Another element is angled or height shots which increase as we move through the movie. Angled shots occur more frequently during the scenes with the Pimp when he is attempting to save Iris the prostitute. This is to illustrate his distorted perception as well as to provide a more visually entertaining film.
For example, there are a number of low angled or hero shots used during the scenes with Iris because Travis perceives himself as her saviour. There are many lows angled shots as Travis and Iris walk up the stairs of the hotel where he tells her that he will help her leave her life and go back home. There is also a number to low angled shots of the building because he believes that he needs to rid the city of all the dirtiness that is in the building. Another unconventional angles that are used are the overhead (high angle framing) shot.
This is used during bother the robbery scene as well as the shooting rampage; both overhead shots highlight what has just occurred in the room. There are bodies on the floor and there is destruction. This shot provides an overview of what has occurred and it is God-like because it feels like the audience judging the scene and the people in it. There are also a number of mobile shots that add a great deal to the scenes themselves and allow the audience to get involved in judging the scene. An example of this is the dolly through the store which is being robbed.
We follow Travis to the back of the store with a dolly moving through the racks and there is also one when the robber begins to rob the store which moves much slower than the first shot. It allows the audience to see how calmly Travis reacts to the robbery situation as well as the killing of a black man and how is able to get himself into a position to defend himself. Another example of a mobile shot is when we first see his apartment, there is a pan following the room around as Travis talks about how dirty and disorganized the city is. This shot adds to the theme of Travis’s hypocrisy or self-righteousness. His house is completely dirty with pots and dirty dishes everywhere.
The final element of framing is the use of on and off-screen space is important in this film because it illustrates Travis’s state of mind but also what is really important to him. This is generally different than what he says is important to him; he is “a walking contradiction”8. Most of the time in Taxi Drive Travis is off to the side of shots to show what is in the background. The background of this movie plays a vital role in how Travis views himself with respect to the rest of the city. For example, his apartment is a metaphor for Travis’s life. Much of what goes on in his everyday life ends up on his wall, surrounding him and his obsessions. There are posters of Senator Palentine all over his apartment reminding him of Betsy and everywhere he goes she is on his mind because the posters are placed throughout the movie.
The Final aspect of cinematography is the duration of the shot. The duration of the shot is the amount of time that is spent on a scene. For example, a long take slows the pace of the movie and can make the scene more intense. Combining many of these features allows for a visually appealing shot. In Taxi driver, there are a number of great duration shots that add to the theme of the movie. An example of this is during the killing spree when the shots are shot at a fast pace. The accelerated pace allows it to conform to the conventions of a war film.
The choppy short takes also illustrate what is happening to Travis; his madness has come to a peak. Another example of duration is when Travis is in the coffee house with a number of his co-workers and there is a slow pan to a group of black men that are dressed as pimps. This shot illustrates Travis’s fear of not only black people but also the scum. Duration shots are very useful when a director is trying to illustrate the character’s state of mind. There are many examples of this throughout his movie such as when Travis visits the shooting range near the end of the movie. Only his head and upper torso are shown in the box that he is firing from. The rapid succession of shots allows the audience to know that Travis is going to use his weapons to rid the city of the scum around him.
In conclusion, much of what is placed in the shots and how they are shot provides a great deal of information to the audience about a character’s state in the mind as well as the world around them. The duration of the shot can change the mood or theme of any character. The framing of a shot can provide valuable background information that is visually appealing. In this movie, there is a progression on the wall of his mementoes.
Even at the end of the movie, he is proud of all he did and posted the articles about himself on the walls. This information was important in understanding what he was going to do and why. The types of shots chosen in Taxi Driver tell you a great deal about how important the character is or how plain their personality is as well as Travis’s feelings toward them. It also tells you what is important about the character’s life.
1 Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 7th ed.
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