In Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo, which opened at UK cinemas last week, the chief protagonist is a classically effervescent cabbie, and consequently much of the film's key dialogue occurs in his vehicle. These segments form the latest instant of a bulging cinematic canon: the taxi scene. At its best, this can be a sequence as significant as any sex scene or phone call.
At their most emblematic, taxi sequences stand for narrative progress, transporting car-less figures to the next part of the story. Witness the two cab rides that Roger Thornhill takes in the early stages of Hitchcock's North By Northwest; this pair of cross-town rides help lend the thriller a little of its immediate urgency, with Thornhill's precarious situation rapidly established. In other instances, a lack of taxis causes just as much duress. Remember Colin Firth's smitten novelist in Love Actually having to let a spinster take the first car? He's urgently on his way to propose, in hastily assembled Portuguese, to his housemaid and the delay is agonising.
He's not the only one in a hurry. Countless film characters have beseeched their driver to speed up, while "follow that cab" is even more of a cinematic cliche, a request uttered by passengers from Inspector Clouseau to Daffy Duck. It's never one made in real life, though; upon hearing the demand, a hack in Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown cutely replies: "I thought this only happened in the movies".
Even more improbable is the all-taxi chase in Octopussy: with Gobinda's car in pursuit, 007 clings onto the rear as Vijay steers their super-charged tuk-tuk through the crowded, camel-ridden streets of Delhi.
Careering tuk-tuks are an extreme example, but it's these interactions between driver and passenger(s) which truly define the taxi scene. The intimacy of a cab ride represents a chance for directors to engineer conversations, and thus reveal more about their characters.
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle's car becomes almost a confessional chamber for Martin Scorsese's cameo passenger, who relays plans to soon murder his wife. Similarly, the cab journey in On The Waterfront allows Terry and Charley to conduct their famous verbal exchange, in a moving scene from which we glean much more knowledge of each.
Sometimes the taxi is still more prominent, diverting the plot in a new direction or altering a character's destiny. It's during such a journey in Belle de Jour that Catherine Deneuve's Severine decisively learns of the Parisian brothel where she will later work.
As well as tipsters, taxi drivers can prove vital witnesses as well: Steve McQueen's detective tracks down his quarry in Bullitt thanks to the memories of a sharp cabman (an early role for Robert Duvall). And of course, as seen in countless films including Taxi!, Collateral, The Fifth Element and even the saucy Adventures of a Taxi Driver, cab drivers can be a movie's chief character.
Alternatively, the taxi scene can exist more on a symbolic level. How many big-screen protagonists have dived into a cab and simply demanded: "Just drive"? That's the airy command of George Clooney's redeemed bagman at the subtle conclusion of Michael Clayton, the camera settled on his slowly-relaxing face as the ambiguous journey begins. Taxis not only deliver heroes and villains off into the sunset, but occasionally to darker places too. Christopher Walken's crime lord concludes King of New York by climbing into one with a fatal gunshot wound; the car is almost certain to be the lonely venue of his death. On the plus side, at least he won't have to pay the fare.
1. ON THE WATERFRONT
ELIA KAZAN 1954
"I could've been a contender..." The daddy of all taxi scenes, this cracker sees Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), having a powerful, fluctuating conversation about Terry's life, which peaks as the former boxer comes to lament his lost career. This was Brando at the height of his powers; the intensity with which he delivers his damning self-analysis is fiercely affecting. Yet this was a scene the later Oscar-winner was reluctant to film; only when the emphasis on Charley's gun was lessened did Brando consent to the cameras rolling. Rarely can one life have been so honestly analysed during a solitary cab ride.
2. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S
BLAKE EDWARDS 1961
In the closing scene of Edwards' tender comedy, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) flings her cat out into the wet night, and then looks set to lose suitor Paul (George Peppard) too. He orders their driver to pull over and sadly denounces his sweetheart for never letting anyone into her fenced-off world - the closeted surround of the carriage seeming allegorical, with its low roof and claustrophobic feel. What follows is the sort of tissue-box finale rarely seen in modern films, as Holly hurriedly departs the taxi, sprinting after and retrieving her man to the tune of rousing strings. She finds her spurned feline in the process and then nearly squashes it to death as the pair embrace passionately.
3. UNE FEMME MARIEE
JEAN-LUC GODARD 1964
One of Godard's lesser-known films, this black-and-white movie upsets a standard love triangle, with a woman for once torn between two men. As she ponders her choice, a taxi transports Charlotte (Macha Meril) across a suddenly cosmopolitan Paris. Massive capitalist icons compete for her attention; huge billboards, bright shop adverts and multiple commercial outlets loom out of the window. The taxi appears to carry Charlotte across ages and times.
4. TAXI DRIVER
MARTIN SCORSESE 1976
There are a few to choose from, but "Taxi Driver" has one cab scene that really sticks in the memory. Scorsese himself plays the worst of many New York nasties that we meet. As the passenger's wife apparently commits adultery in the building above the cab, the husband calmly reveals his plan to slay his cheating spouse. With the camera focused mainly the back of De Niro's head, his passenger's vows genuinely unnerve with their combination of anger and placidity. This violent example of everyday life resurges constantly in all Scorsese's New York films, but rarely as menacingly as in this vision.
DARIO ARGENTO 1977
The opening scenes of Argento's horror resonate with power. Young American Suzy (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany and quietly crosses an airport floor eerily filled with both relentless bustle and sudden slow-motion. Outside, in the torrential rain, Suzy fails to stop a cab until she stands in front of one; after the driver refuses to help with her luggage, the pair set off on a despairingly quiet journey. The tension is acute; Suzy is in a foreign limbo, beyond the aid of language or common culture. It's one of those potent early moments that perfectly establish a film's scary tone and atmosphere, and just as terrifying as the witches and deaths that follow.
6. DRESSED TO KILL
BRIAN DE PALMA 1980
During one day, Kate (Angie Dickinson) loses her gloves, gets rejected by her shrink, fails to excite her husband, gets insulted, contracts a sexual disease and is slashed to death. Within this destruction, though, she does manage to meet an apparently nice guy in a museum; so nice that the pair hop in a cab and indulge in a little cross-town nookie, as their driver takes care of the traffic. It's a seriously erotic scene, lodged inside a seriously strange film. De Palma is trying to pay homage to Hitchcock through his movie; but while Hitch did use cabs often in his films, it's hard to envisage Cary Grant being quite this antisocial.
7. GHOST DAD
SIDNEY POITIER 1990
Elliot Hopper (Bill Cosby) exits a building, and unwittingly walks straight into the clutches of devil-worshipping leadfoot Curtis Burch (Raynor Scheine). Soon the pair are slaloming through city traffic - Curtis revealing his bad teeth and Satanic principles - before they wind up suspended on the edge of a coastal road. There the car wobbles until Curtis reaches for his fare's Gucci wallet, tipping the balance. "It's an imitation!" screams Elliot, as they plunge to a watery grave. This most terminal of celluloid taxi rides is hilarious, but the rest of the film truly isn't: watching Elliot's released spirit torturously right his life's wrongs is enough to convince anyone of Satan's existence.
8. NIGHT ON EARTH
JIM JARMUSCH 1991
Jarmusch's exploration of night cabbies around the world offers up five taxi scenes, but this one is the stand-out. It's in Paris again, as a dejected Beninese driver (Isaach De Bankole) kicks out two Ivory Coast diplomats after they racially insult him and instead picks up a blind young French girl (Beatrice Dalle), who seems to pose no threat. But the girl is sassy and perceptive, increasingly upsetting the curious driver's calm. She seems unwilling to talk; he can't help but ask questions. Both are on the edge of Paris society and inwardly vulnerable as a result. As the intrusive camera explores every angle, an improbable, touching bond gradually builds between the pair.
9. PULP FICTION
QUENTIN TARANTINO 1994
Fresh from ending the career, and life, of opponent Floyd Wilson, grisly boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) drops into a garbage bin and flees his crime-lord boss in a pre-arranged cab. Along the way, nosy driver Esmarelda Villalobos (Angela Jones) wishes to know how it feels to end a life; Butch barters for a cigarette, changes his sweaty garb and spills the beans. This isolated scene contains all that's brilliant about Tarantino's mural of LA crime life; fantastic conversation; a clash of unreal characters; and simmering tension. Esmarelda drives off into the night, while Butch chases after a watch; their journey stands as a moment of calm in a stormy story.
10. THE BIG LEBOWSKI
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN 1998
In a film full of stand-out scenes, this cab ride is in fact less memorable than most. But still it's wildly funny. Drugged and humiliated by Jackie Treehorn and fresh from a beating by an irate Malibu police sergeant - "a real reactionary" - the Dude (Jeff Bridges) finds his evening soon gets worse still. Agonised by the placid strings of The Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling", he asks his cabbie (Ajgie Kirkland) to change the music, little suspecting the man's love of the California rock legends. One screeching swerve to the pavement and a girly grapple later, and El Duderino has been deposited on the highway to reflect on his lack of taxi etiquette.Reuse content