Travis Bickle, seemingly a Vietnam War veteran, gets a job working as a taxi driver in New York City. As he drives around the city he increasingly feels himself to be surrounded by the worst of humanity but manages to find some sort of hope in Betsy, a worker for presidential hopeful, Senator Palatine. He becomes obsessed with her and tries to establish a relationship. When this doesn’t work out he seems to be tipped over the edge of sanity. He arms himself and sets out to assassinate Palatine. Thwarted in this, he then commits himself to ‘saving’ Iris, a child prostitute. He attacks the brothel where she ‘works’, killing three men in a brutal bloodbath. We move forward in time and find Travis has become a newspaper hero and has a letter from Iris’s parents thanking him for saving their daughter.
This film offers an intense portrayal of a man on the edge who spends more and more time detached from the world in the borderlands between sanity and madness before becoming, in his own words, ‘a man who could not, a man would not take it any more’. Often the locations in which we find Travis Bickle mirror his alienated psychological state. Enclosed within his taxi he cruises a dark, noir-like urban realm of dirt and squalor, cut off from that world, observing it in a disengaged, distant fashion. In his bleak, grey flat, again eschewing contact with human society, he exists with few comforts, observing life on a TV screen, unable to sleep and therefore unable to gain any respite. When he is with his fellow drivers he remains disconnected and removed, existing within his thoughts and, ironically, wary of all those who might be seen as outsiders.
We follow Travis constantly, spending much more time with him than any character in the film would ever wish to, and because of this (fulfilling our role as audience) we attempt to identify with him; but the activities he engages in are often alienating, the things he says ominous and doom-laden (‘Some day a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.’), and his looks to camera scary, so that we find it impossible to empathise with him. His presence within the film has been compared to that of the brooding Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (Ford, 1956), a man who lives on the margins of society and yet feels he has a responsibility as a moral guardian for that society. Like Ethan, Travis has returned home as a defeated war veteran: both have taken part in a war that has split the United States into two diametrically opposed camps.1
Our relationship with Travis at the screen interface demonstrates exactly why he is such a loner. He is not easy to be with; monosyllabic and frequently rather embarrassing, we wish to turn away from him as almost everybody else in the film seems to, and yet we cannot because we are held in position as a viewer growing increasingly uncomfortable but also as a voyeur aware that Travis’ repressed anger is certain to erupt at some point. The camera allows us to look away as he phones Betsy, moving to the emptiness of the dull corridor, but still we cannot escape. Our embarrassment in listening to his painfully stilted words becomes if anything more intense since with little of visual note in the screen and with our attention drawn to the words by the obvious camera movement we concentrate on them even more. The glance away that we have been permitted only serves to intensify the extent to which we wish to escape his claustrophobic world. The most intense relationship in the film is thus successfully constructed as being between the main character and the viewer.
This is an examination of an altogether darker mind than that of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), the central character in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), but the focus on a single male character and his search for redemption remains. Here the cross (of the crucifix) which is such a recurring image in that earlier film is etched into the end of bullets by Travis. There is also the same symbolic use of mirrors as a looking into the self but on an altogether more frightening level. Most disturbingly, at one point Travis appears to talk directly to us when supposedly addressing himself in a mirror, positioning us as the outsider who he sees as a moral threat and wishes to violently confront. We are both his mirror image or other self, drawn on with him towards the denouement we know is surely coming, implicated in his actions and unable to escape being part of what is to happen, and also 512 Taxi Driver (1976) the enemy within himself and the world around him that he is (and we know he is) preparing to exorcise. Steadily he cuts himself off from the world and his psychological deterioration is paralleled in the deteriorating state of his room until he symbolically kicks over the television, both his last line of communication with the outside world and the epitome of the cold, faceless world of the city (and of Western society).
For Travis the urban life of New York is a vision of hell; vibrant reds, oranges and yellows flash across the predominant darkness of the screen like the glow from some subterranean inferno. To him the people who live here, the ‘pimps’, the ‘whores’ and all the others, are ‘scum’. The ‘garbage and trash of the sidewalks’ is literally there but this is also his metaphorical summation of the inhabitants of this netherworld. At a further level it is like a jungle: ‘All the animals come out at night’, he tells us. The device of the diary enables him to talk directly to us, further drawing us into his inner world as a confidante, and further reinforcing what the camera has already been telling us that the key relationship in this film is going to be between us and this increasingly deranged character that nobody (and certainly not us) is able to help.
The climax carries extreme violence and much of the negative critical reaction to the film focused on Scorsese’s moral stance toward this bloodbath, claiming it was portrayed as a positive, cleansing ritual that redeemed Travis’ character. Indeed, within the context of the narrative the bloodletting does seem to be in some way to be therapeutic. But Taxi Driver is more complex than such a simplistic interpretation would suggest. De Niro appears in nearly every scene and we see nearly everything through his character’s skewed vision, but this does not mean we can necessarily identify Travis’s views and perspectives on life with those of Scorsese or anybody else involved in the filmmaking process.
Public concern with the shock of this powerful visual representation of violence, ironically, gives expression to the confused morals in modern life to which the film draws our attention. The real shock should not be that someone with such a fragile grip on sanity would tip over the edge but that he should then become a hero, heralded in the newspapers for his stand as a vigilante. This is the ultimate expression of the degradation of the society portrayed in the film. The failure to be shocked by this truly disturbing aspect of the narrative while vehemently condemning the visual representation of what is merely an inevitable outcome within such a world crystallises the misguided value system of the society receiving the film.
The power of our experience throughout is produced from the coming together of script, camerawork and performance. For example, the scene that involves Scorsese’s cameo performance as ‘Man Watching Silhouette’ is one in which we seem to be offered a momentary escape from our close confinement with Travis; and yet we find ourselves thrown into an altogether darker perspective on the world than even that offered by the central character. Dressed in black and with black hair and beard, Scorsese offers us a portrait of a human being embodying the cold distance of absolute satanic evil. We are once again trapped within the claustrophobic space of the taxi, as camerawork, performance and dialogue harmonise to create a less than harmonious vision of society. The utter viciousness of Scorsese’s cameo role as the husband who is being cheated on but who is about to exact a terrible vengeance is actually, as a result of its use of a male linguistic code of misogyny, more brutal than the climactic bloodbath involving Travis.
For Travis women are either blonde and beautiful and to be set upon a pedestal as with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) or delicate and vulnerable and therefore to be protected as with Iris (Jodie Foster). Like Charlie in Mean Streets, Travis has difficulty understanding women but where Charlie dances in his imagination with the black stripper Travis takes the idealised female with him to watch the male fantasy of woman in a porn movie thereby associating himself with the very aspects of the street he claims to despise and emphasising the male confusion. Betsy, he says, ‘appeared like an angel out of this filthy mess’, but by the end of their relationship he states, ‘I realised now how she was like all the rest, cold and distant – women for sure’. The difficulties men find in understanding women is a theme for Scorsese, as it is throughout Western (male-dominated) culture: women are either beautiful goddesses to be worshipped or vulnerable Taxi Driver (1976) 513 prizes to be protected, and ultimately usually deceptively cold and deadly. Scorsese’s cameo role in this movie highlights this same theme. But perhaps the most worrying aspect of this strand of the narrative comes at the end of the film when Betsy appears to get into Travis’s cab and is seemingly attracted to this man who has become a hero.
The ending in fact resolves nothing but, with Travis once more cruising the streets, potentially leaves the whole scenario to be played out again in a never-ending loop. Once more, as in Mean Streets but to a greater degree, the final sequences leave us with unanswered questions. In a way there is a classic resolution with the hero winning the day, and yet what sort of hero is this? And what sort of society can create a hero of such a person? The nature of both the city and society would seem to be unchanged. Did Travis lose his sanity and has it now been restored? What is certain is that the film refuses easy answers? In that sense it is true to the noir tradition; this remains a dark world without traditional values that cannot be changed and within which men and women are destined to play out the same scenarios in an unending cycle.
1. ‘Both Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle have returned from war, having fought on the losing or retreating side. For both of them the dividing line between war and peace is a wavering line.’ Lesley Stern, The Scorsese Connection, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 57.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Bill/Phillips, Columbia Pictures and Italo/Judeo Productions. Director: Martin Scorsese. Screenwriter: Paul Schrader. Cinematographer: Michael Chapman. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Editors: Tom Rolf and Melvin Shapiro. Cast: Robert De Niro (Travis Taxi Driver (1976) 511 Bickle), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Jodie Foster (Iris) and Harvey Keitel (‘Sport’).]
Peter Brunette (ed.), Martin Scorsese: Interviews, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Pete Fraser, Taxi Driver, London, York Press, 2000.
Ben Nyce, Scorsese Up Close: A Study of Films, Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver: Screenplay, London, Faber and Faber, 2000.
Amy Taubin, Taxi Driver, London, BFI, 1998.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.