Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” staring Robert De Niro portrays New York City as a cesspool of filth and scum; an open sewer that needs to be flushed away. This poses an interesting question about the reputation of New York in the 1970’s. Was it a dangerous and violent city, or do movies of this time period simply take advantage of small town America’s fear of the big city? This question can be investigated by looking at three films. “Taxi Driver” (1976), “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974), and “Escape From New York” (1981). They are very different movies in some aspects but follow the same underlying theme.
“Taxi Driver” tells the story of a war veteran, Travis Bickle who fills his nights driving a taxi cab all over New York City due to his inability to sleep. Bickle played by De Niro has a deep dislike of what the city has become. He writes in his journal how he likes it when it rains as it helps to wash the trash and garbage off of the sidewalk. This is as much a metaphor of the types of people on the sidewalk as the physical trash. The camera shots highlight Bickle’s thoughts on the city by showing the streets of New York from his point of view. It seems that no matter where Travis drives his cab the city is the same, the streets are filled with garbage, hookers, pimps and johns. Scorsese had a camera attached to the outside of the cab to capture this drive-by effect.
As the film progresses Bickle becomes more and more overwhelmed by the degradation of the city culminating in a violent mental breakdown. The insinuation of the movie that New York City drove Bickle to violence certainly plays into the fear that small town Americans would be corrupted in a big city. The secondary character of young prostitute Iris, played by Jodie Foster (and her older sister Connie for the more mature scenes) is another example of a small town girl with grandiose ideas. Like Travis Bickle, she is soon drawn into the darker side of the city. The movie attempts to draw us into this dark world by the use of its style and its action. Bickle is a very isolated character. When he is not driving a cab he is in his apartment alone. His attempt at getting a girlfriend has disastrous results due to his social awkwardness. The camera shot in extreme long shot and long shot show how Bickle blends into the big city; just another face in the crowd. It is plausible that audiences would be sympathetic to the plight of a lonely and troubled war veteran, despite his homicidal rants and fantasized attacks on strangers who are looking at him. This in fact comes true in the movies finale as Bickle is announced as a hero for killing pimps and freeing underage prostitute Iris. The overlooked scary factor is that if the city drove him to violence once what is to stop him going over the deep end again?
John Sargent’s “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is an effective look at the city of New York from a more political and bureaucratic standpoint. Pelham One Two Three, a hijacked subway train on the cities number six line allows us to explore the underground system in New York. Rather than the filth and scum existing on the New York streets in “Taxi Driver”, the negative focus is on the crime taking place in the subway. While the major crime taking place is a terrorist hijacking plot, the subway car is filled with passengers of all social backgrounds. This casting leads viewers to believe that a hooker and a pimp are present on every subway car at any given time in New York. This is a scary proposition for small town Americans used to clean living. The movie also introduces a new type of New York criminal. The four hijackers are much more organized than the pimps and prostitutes we have previously seen. Their meticulous taking of the train is an unnerving as the Harlem teenagers attacking Bickle’s cab.
While “Taxi Driver” mocks people with low morals and criminals, Pelham One Two Three mocks various organizations in New York. Being from Jersey City, NJ, Director John Sargent likely had numerous experiences of New York City public transport. From the first scenes of the film the underlining jokes are poked at the Transit Authority, Transit Police and NYPD. None of the organizations believe that a hijacking of a subway train would happen. The transit agencies specifically sit around without a care in the world. This proves to be an incorrect assumption as New York again shows it is a pioneer in odd events. The viewer of the movie is drawn into the plot of how they can possibly escape from the subway system, when it is effectively an underground circle system.
Action shots used in Pelham One Two Three allow us to ride in the subway train and see the inside of subway tunnels. This is similar to the use of Scorsese’s camera on the cab that allowed us to travel the streets. This is especially effective as the unmanned train hurtles through green lights towards South Ferry. In keeping with the film many of the on location shots are at subway stations between 59th and 23rd street. There are street shots of New York as the police attempt to track the train; however the obligatory aerial Manhattan skyline shots are missing. Low lighting is used to shoot the longer range shots of the subway train in “Pelham One Two Three”. This makes the tunnel dark and ominous. The only lighting seems to come from dim red emergency lights on the roof and in the cab. While clearly able to see people in the train, it is impossible to identify characters or see who is lurking in the shadows.
The hot topic of New York City politics is also addressed and mocked in the film. The Mayor of New York at the time was “machine” politician Abraham Beame. His time in New York was spent cutting the city workforce in an attempt to stave off city bankruptcy. This allowed the city to become Travis Bickles cesspool but also allowed the hijacking of a subway train due to undermanned operations. The film portrays the Mayor as a weak man afraid to make a decision when needed.
In 1981 after successful movies such as “Halloween” and “The Fog”, John Carpenter released his science fiction action movie “Escape From New York”. The movie starring Kurt Russell as a renegade convict Snake Plissken focuses on a futuristic New York City. Manhattan is no longer a mixture of socialites and lower classes in a world class cultural center. Manhattan Island is a maximum security penitentiary servicing the entire United States, with no guards and no rules. Carpenter took the idea of an out of control New York City with increasing crime levels and took it to the extreme. Everyone on the island of Manhattan is a criminal serving life without the chance of parole.
Carpenter’s vision of New York takes pieces of both “Taxi Driver” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”. The rundown sidewalks seen from Travis Bickle’s taxi cab are evident in the lawless streets of the New York prison. The abundance of sleazy people in New York is also evident. Pelham One Two Three is honored in the movie by the crazy’s who come out of the subways at night. This can be directly linked to the references made in Sargent’s film. As with “Taxi Driver” most of Carpenter’s film takes place at night. This adds a menacing tone to the style of the movie. There are many shots of New York shot from the air and from Staten Island. This shows the impressive skyline. Many of the buildings are dark causing more of a silhouette of the skyscrapers.
Carpenter was born in the New York town of Carthage, and then moved to Kentucky at a young age. It would be fair to expect that New York City was seen in both upstate NY and the Midwest as a breeding ground of criminal activity and everything that was wrong with American society in the 1970’s. This film is effective in portraying New York City as the villain. The primary idea was to put walls around the city to prevent it from poisoning the rest of the United States. While Isaac Hayes is the Duke of New York A-Number One, he has merely adapted to the decay of New York with the most success. This is a different approach than the previous films that partly embrace the craziness of New York.
The lighting used to create an uncertain dark tunnel in “Pelham One Two Three” is duplicated in all three movies. The use of dark spaces and shadows is very effective at creating an instant emotion in the viewer that New York is an untrustworthy place to be.