Other Mean Streets in Manhattan

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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In addition to his films dealing with criminal gangs in New York, Scorsese has revisited his themes of group rivalry and personal integrity in a changing environment in many of his works, both those set in New York and those set elsewhere. With the pattern set in the gangster films, a brief mention of several of the other films should be sufficient to suggest the consistency of his thematic concerns within a wide spectrum of narrative structures.

Taxi Driver (1972) shows Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) in total isolation within his sordid environment. He refers to himself in his journal as "God's lonely man," and as he sinks further into his delusions, he casts himself in the role of a messiah, commissioned to clean the City streets of "whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."25 Despite his best efforts to set himself apart from this world he detests, as a taxi driver, he is part of it. This is the typical Scorsese tension between the individual and the social setting. Travis appears isolated from the outside world as he rides in the steel-and-glass cocoon of the cab and in off hours as he sits alone in his tiny, cluttered apartment. Even when he is with other cabbies at the Belmore Cafeteria, he stands silently apart from their banter.

Yet his insulation from the outside world is not total. He picks up prostitutes and their customers and talks about cleaning the back seat of his cab after their encounters. He knows how to contact a gun dealer when he decides to take action himself, and he knows how to stalk a presidential candidate, possibly with the intent to assassinate him, and how to track down Iris (Jodie Foster), the child prostitute. He seems unperturbed when he picks up a nameless fare (Martin Scorsese) who seems intent on murdering his unfaithful wife. This passivity in the face of an imminent crime would undoubtedly make Travis a criminal accomplice. As he shops in a convenience store, an armed robber threatens the cashier, but without trying to disarm the holdup man, Travis calmly shoots him in the head. Finally, in the bloody climax of the film, he takes his illegal weapons and engages his enemies within this dark underworld in an explosion of violence worthy of Armageddon.

Although Travis tries to survive in the streets, he becomes aware of another, more genteel world represented by Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde, impeccably tailored young woman working on the presidential campaign staff of Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). When he enters the headquarters to meet her, his awkwardness reveals that he clearly doesn't belong in this world of respectability. Improbably, Betsy agrees to meet him, and even more improbably, she agrees to go into a pornographic movie theater with him. Predictably, she is revolted at the spectacle and storms out. Her world of propriety and refinement produces presidential candidates who exercise real power; his world produces gunmen and drug pushers. Clearly he cannot make the leap into hers, and he decides that he must resort to bloodshed to purify his own by undertaking a suicide mission to rescue Iris and kill Sport (Harvey Keitel), her pimp.

In Taxi Driver the cultural conflict lies not in the struggle between the mob, comprised mainly of Italian Americans from Little Italy and law enforcement agents, who are mainly WASP or Irish, but between social classes. On one side of Broadway lies the underclass caught in its criminal ghetto. On the other side lies the America of privilege, law, and respectability. Again, Scorsese shows his ambivalence about the underworld. For all his edginess, Travis elicits sympathy and even admiration in his mad adventures. Palantine, by contrast, is a pompous, hypocritical phony who feigns interest in Travis's inane opinions when riding in his cab. The letter from Iris's father describing his daughter's return to the life of a normal, working-class schoolgirl has a bittersweet note about it. Her spark has been quashed. When Betsy steps out of Travis's cab in the final scene, she leaves the world of real people and vanishes into her dull world of wealth and comfort, no doubt impoverished by her failure to understand his universe. The future clearly lies with Palantine and Betsy, and that is sad because it will lose the color and excitement of an avenging angel like Travis Bickle, much as contemporary New York now lacks the energy of its founders, Amsterdam and the Butcher.

In Raging Bull (1980) Scorsese revisits the displaced loner in New York. Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) first appears dancing around an empty ring, dressed in his hooded silk robe with a leopard-skin pattern. He continues to appear alone in confined spaces, like telephone booths, small apartments, and a jail cell. He sees himself as the tough guy who stands alone and takes everything the world can throw at him. He invites opponents and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) to hit him as hard as they can. As others try to draw close, he repels them with outbursts of abuse that erupt into physical violence. He threatens and assaults his two wives, his children, his brother, and even those who act civilly toward his wife. In the ring, he did not fight with the idea of besting his opponents in an athletic contest; he fought to destroy them. Like Travis, Jake is the loner who arms himself behind a personal fortress of privacy and steps beyond its walls only to work violence on the outside world.

But again like Travis, Jake is also part of a distinct subculture. Scorsese fills in details of the closed Italian American community around Arthur Avenue in the Bronx in the 1940s. Much of the early action takes place around the neighborhood swimming pool, in the social clubs where neighborhood Mafia bosses conduct business, and on a tenement roof ("tar beach," in New York parlance) during a wedding reception, in the parish hall of the local Catholic church, and in cramped apartments where the neighbors shout insults and threats to one another across the open courtyard, which is little more than an air shaft. Success in the ring allows Jake to move his family to a relatively prosperous area along Pelham Parkway, in the Bronx, but his life still bears the marks of the tenement. Financially prosperous as a major contender, he walks around his living room dressed in his underwear eating a hero sandwich. Even in a luxury hotel room, as he waits out a rain-delayed fight and in the Copacabana, he remains the street thug and surrounds himself with people from the old neighborhood. Civil conversation is beyond him.

When Jake's fighting days end and his body balloons by a full sixty pounds, he moves to Florida to start a new life, but he cannot fit in with larger society. He takes the tenements with him, and even with his rela tive prosperity, he fails to develop social skills. He insults the state assistant attorney general in front of his wife, tells unfunny jokes as a stand-up comedian, and finally faces prosecution for pandering when he serves liquor to underage girls and introduces them to men, an act which in the eyes of the authorities amounts to soliciting. After putting up a frightening struggle with guards, he is confined to a tiny jail cell, where he pounds his head against the stone wall. He has merely moved his world of criminality and self-destructive violence to a new location. Even though he once tried to separate himself from the mob after they forced him to throw a fight, he remains the mobster at heart and has no place in wider society.

After his divorce and conviction in Florida, he returns to New York to try to earn a living on his past reputation.26 His crude comedy routine in a run-down bar becomes an embarrassment as the audience becomes restless and then shouts insults at him. In the final scene, he waits—again alone—in a tiny dressing room before he tries his routine once again, this time in a somewhat better club. He rehearses Marlon Brando's "coulda been a contender" speech from On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) while looking at himself in the dressing table mirror. Although Brando's character, Terry Malloy, blames his brother Charlie for his downfall, Jake knows that he is the architect of his own tragedy. He goes out shadow boxing, ready to take on anything life, or the nightclub audience, will throw at him, ever aware that the outcome is not assured. He remains a creature of the violent world in which he found his moment of success, but that moment is long past for him. Once a champion, he may never make it through the gates of his social and cultural prison into a world of respectability.

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