On Travis Bickle, American
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a gritty, disturbing, nightmarish modern film classic that examines alienation in urban society. From a postmodernist’s perspective, it combines the elements of noir, the Western, horror, and urban melodrama as it explores the psychological madness within an obsessed, inarticulate, lonely antihero cab driver, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). The plotline is simple: Travis directs his frustrated anger at the street dwellers of New York and a presidential candidate, and his unhinging assault is paired with an attempt to rescue a young prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), from her predatory pimp. Historically, Taxi Driver appeared after a decade of war in Vietnam (1976), and after the Watergate crisis and subsequent resignation of Nixon. Five years later, when it was linked to would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and his obsession with Jodie Foster, it became prima facie evidence for those on the political right who believed that violence in film translates into crime in real life. It is now almost impossible to separate Taxi Driver from this debate. However, Bickle’s antiheroic character is more directly related to a failure of a capitalist system that pits his working-class position as a cab driver against those who have already been disenfranchised according to socioeconomic class, gender, and/or race.
As the film opens, Travis emerges from a forgotten Midwestern form of Americana that appears as obsolete as Travis himself in a big city heterogeneously composed of corporate financiers, political patrons, gun dealers, and prostitutes. In order to survive, he wants to “become a person like other people” as he puts it, but his own disenfranchisement from this nation has left him both intellectually and emotionally bankrupt from the Vietnam War. Freedom, the very nucleus of the American dream, is dependent on individual socioeconomic choices that inform and shape one’s identity. But Travis’s lack of a distinct identity compels him to cut and paste together what he believes is a heroic identity from an external menu of personages such as the “gunslinger” and the Indian. In actuality, what he does is stitch together a postmodern antiheroic identity that is nostalgic and pop culture-oriented, evidenced by the Mohawk haircut that he sports in the penultimate sequences — because he possesses no internal self.
Taxi Driver implies that identity is not genuine but always synergistic, a kind of potpourri of idolatry and maxims drawn from popular culture, especially from violent movies and television news. In this vein, Robert Ray views Taxi Driver as a postmodern “corrected” Right film, the type of film generally aimed at a naïve audience. Ray explains that a “Right” film presents a traditional conservative philosophy that promotes the application of Western-style, individual solutions to complex contemporary problems. He writes, “Taxi Driver‘s basic story followed the right wing’s loyalty to the classic Western formula: a reluctant individual, confronted by evil, acts on his own to rid society of spoilers. As played by Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver‘s protagonist had obvious connections with Western heroes…even his name, Travis, linked him to the defender of the Alamo.”1 Ray’s notion that the film is a “correction” of the right-wing concept of justice is accurate because of its odd plot twist at the conclusion. Normally, such a story would identify Travis’s complicity with these criminals and thereby relegate him to some form of institutional punishment. But the film’s underlying theme reveals how absurd the Western idealistic depiction of heroism is because the news media in the film not only ignores his actions but also glorifies a psychopathic killer as a noble warrior.
In essence, Travis’s discombobulated manifesto about “standing up” to the tyrannical elements that confine and constrain his social mobility reveal his motives to be suspect at best. He seeks vengeance under the guise of heroic violent (and ultimately suicidal) action, thus making his resolve antiheroic because it is more demented than courageous and ultimately places the hero myth itself on trial. We can recognize how his rationale reflects America’s century-old edict of solving problems through rugged individualism rather than a collective effort on the part of citizens, business owners, local police, and ultimately, the government. As the film’s downtrodden continue to become victims of urban blight and be led astray by inauthentic politicians like Palantine, they are rendered vulnerable to the clutches of muggers, junkies, and pimps. However, what distinguishes Taxi Driver from other noir films are the distinct elements of a demoralized New York in the middle of a fiscal crisis and a culture that blindly accepts a disingenuous form of heroism where the city’s agents (the police) are noticeably absent.
Les Keyser writes, “Travis’s quest for identity through armature, action, and violence can be seen in his monologues about a new ‘total organization’ and everything dedicated to ‘True force’ so great that ‘all the kings men cannot put it back together again'”2 Travis’s rationalization alludes to the vigilante justice that, with rising crime and New York City in bankruptcy in 1975 (the year the film was shot), was considered a reasonable alternative to the perceived impotence of government and police officials. Richard Martin remarks, “Taxi Driver … reinvents noir in a context more suited to the sociopolitical realities of mid-seventies America … it is informed by an understanding of political paranoia, economic deprivation, inner-city decay, and the violence of the seventies”3 Travis is actually a grotesque version of a populist because his behavior does not reflect middle-class progressive thought, but rather the frustration of a working-class reactionary who desires to cure the ills of society through violent recourse. In 1976, even President Ford was reluctant to aid New York; he was later quoted by the New York Daily News in a headline that read, “Ford to City: ‘Drop Dead.'” In Travis’s mind, he must co-opt the police’s authority and effectuate justice according to his own means.
Thus, Travis can be identified as a reactive immigrant exiled to an inner city sprawl where he is slowly dehumanized by a postmodern society. Yet the more his isolation leads to psychosis, the more he believes in the American cinematic hero movie myths of innocence and evil; as such he feels compelled to certify these myths through action. As Robert Kolker observes, “Travis Bickle is the odd offspring of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic as each is the obverse of the other, but each equally dangerous”4 Accordingly, his violent solution to the crime in the streets is better than leaving it in the hands of local jurisdiction — another allegorical reflection of the Vietnam War. The genuine tragedy here is that almost no one who returned from Vietnam during this time was considered a hero. However, it is a clever way to suggest that he is an enigma given the public pessimism about government and the military in the mid-seventies. Nicole Rafter, author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, notes, “Travis Bickle, a Vietnam Vet turned cabdriver, can’t stand the ‘filth’ of New York City … Here the state has failed completely: By sending Travis to Vietnam, it turned this man into a pathological monster.”5
Kolker also writes that Taxi Driver is a film that “most violently and ironically works through the problem of the dislocated subject”6 The violence and the irony to which Kolker refers is the source of that dislocation, and hence, Travis has failed to attain his persona because he has failed to become the “hero.” According to Kolker, Travis’s syndrome results from a sense of dislocation, but Rafter concludes that Travis’s behavior is the result of a stint in Vietnam. Perhaps the dislocation that Kolker refers to was Travis’s removal from Vietnam in the first place. The problem with this analysis, however, is that the viewer is never provided with any explicit information that Travis has ever served in combat. The Vietnam War, having ended only a couple of years before this film was shot, still cast a dark shadow over many peoples’ perceptions. However, in Travis’s case, the dislocation more aptly refers to a subject — in this case, a man with a cause but no country to support him in his effort, and as such his attraction to violent behavior is often regarded as pathological, and not heroic, by the audience.
For instance, early in the film, Travis speaks as if the city were actually an extension of his own mind, as he voices-over in his diary: “All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Travis’s monologue continues at a rhythmically controlled pace with no emotion or tension in his voice. Travis and the taxi are inextricably linked — man and machine on a direct and purposeful course. When the rain does fall, it blurs Travis’s vision, and Scorsese suggests many of the character’s ambiguities and complexities with the use of editing and unusual framing. For example, Scorsese uses dissolve sequencing to follow Travis walking the musty sidewalks to distort the viewers’ perception of the character’s place in his world. Kolker writes, “The lap dissolve is conventionally used to signify a lapse of time or a change of place. Here, the effect is rather of a momentary lapse of consciousness, or of a drifting unbound by time, a perception by us of the character’s state of mind.”7 In other words, the lap dissolve creates a deformity that permits the viewer to understand Travis’s consciousness: Travis’s point of view is distorted in that he never seems to get a complete picture of any of the characters he meets, nor is his purpose for being in New York clarified.
Although Travis lives in the city, he stands formed by his own loneliness and trapped by his own isolation because he cannot seem to connect with anyone on a personal level. After military service and some years of drifting, Travis has finally wandered into this very unfamiliar bailiwick for no apparent reason. He drives a taxi because he cannot sleep, but his nightly runs through the city’s dirtiest neighborhoods compel him to act violently. Lee Lourdeaux notes, “Gazing through the taxi’s windshield, he records on his mind’s eye endless scenes of violence: he is the city’s conscience.”8 Travis is indeed a restless but confused urban conscience because he attempts to rid the city of violence by committing the ultimate act of violence — murder. His reasoning is circular and inconclusive, and his solution appears to suggest that violence is the answer to loneliness. As Lawrence Friedman observes, “What is striking about Taxi Driver is its assumption that loneliness and violence go hand in hand . . . Travis’s violence is in one sense purely an expression of individual madness, in another, it is a conceivable expression of the national identity.”9
Travis’s appearance perfectly reflects D. H. Lawrence’s view of the American as “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”10 Scorsese’s film shows individualism, arguably the badge of American identity, devolving into loneliness, and thence into madness and violence. Taxi Driver thus challenges a key American myth, that of the lone hero who rescues and regenerates society through violence. As Robert Ray notes, this myth has also provided “the basis of classic Hollywood’s thematic paradigm, and the traditional American ideology itself.”11. Hollywood’s treatment of this myth reflected simple solutions to complex problems. For example, earlier war films such as The Longest Day and The Green Berets promoted heroism but largely ignored domestic social problems such as poverty, growing unemployment, and antiwar sentiment. Ray goes on to argue, “Taxi Driver allegorized the American experience in Vietnam: detached isolationism followed by violent, and ultimately ineffective intervention.”12 Hence, his sense of purpose is ill-defined at first, but after several encounters with other outcasts, he sets forth a mission.
Thus his working-class and drifter-like status permits the audience to easily witness how the capitalist system has not worked for Travis. Given his lack of a formal education as he notes in his initial interview as “some — here, there,” he is inevitably relegated to society’s lower rungs. This economic system, which implies an invisible hand to guide people through, clearly lies at the root of the aforementioned urban decay, and the subsequent rise in violent crime for which the characters take note. For instance, when Travis attempts to advise Iris to leave her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel), he emphasizes, “The cops don’t do anything.” Travis takes it upon himself to play the role of her protector, but his obsession with his inability to attain the upscale, political operative, Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), leads to his temporary demise. He is convinced that he has been confined to this Hades-like existence because of a government and social order that has failed many middle-class Midwesterners who make up the conscience of the country. In essence, his heroism, or more accurately, his antiheroic actions, stem from his need to impress and ultimately save two females: Betsy and Iris. He believes that these connections will give his life, as he says “a sense of direction,” but his consignment to a dreg-inundated cauldron make such ties tenuous over the course of the narrative.
Because of his deformed view of New York in general, the audience can identify how Travis also distorts gender, as Betsy and Iris each serve as agents for his behavior. For instance, midway through the film, Scorsese cuts to a shot of Travis driving past Palantine’s headquarters as he watches out for Betsy. He sees that she is not at her desk, even though she is still usually busy at the end of the day. Travis drives along to pick up his usual fares in the same monotonous fashion as night falls when he nearly runs into Iris as she crosses the street. Scorsese’s narrative technique of blurring one scene into the next suggests a subtle relationship between Betsy and Iris as counterparts. Travis has a primary connection to them — Betsy, the one he lusts for, works by day; and Iris, the one he will try to save, works at night. Betsy is the professional, self-assured, and very cosmopolitan woman whom he wants but cannot have, whereas Iris is the girl-prostitute who is completely dependent on Sport and whom he can have but does not want. Travis believes that if he can save Iris, he can make up for the fact that he has completely failed with Betsy, but he is compelled to lump Palantine and Sport together as powerful men who successfully prey on them. And so he chooses to extinguish them vigilante-style, thereby lending credence to his heroic quest.
In Travis’s mind, each is to some degree a victim of this capitalist system, including Betsy, whom he regards as “cold and distant” due to her upper-class status. She becomes a primary catalytic factor behind his cold, calculating resolve; that is why Scorsese pans across the word “her” in Travis’s diary. At first glance, Betsy seems like a polar opposite of the types of women that Travis meets during his nightly runs. R. Barton Palmer notes, “Betsy, he (Travis) thinks is different from the depraved and self-destructive individuals he meets, who are usually his temporary companions; interestingly, she first appears in full sunlight, boldly crossing a street, not hiding at night in the shadows like the other women he sees …”13 In Travis’s own words, “she appears like an angel,” but in response to Palmer’s observation, she does seem every bit as cold and distant as the hookers that he meets. The only immediate distinction is appearance, and ironically, his attraction physical attraction to her, coupled with his fraternal love for Iris, forces him to focus all of his energy on killing both Palantine and Sport.
Travis’s sense of mission and urgency is channeled into the viewer with a direct yet subtle rhythm created by Scorsese’s shot selections and sequencing. Throughout this picture, the endless motion of the camera is a distinct part of the fabric of Travis’s world as it appears to move along at a pace that is directed by him. However, from the audience’s vantage point, it is as if the rhythm and cadence of New York City dwellers are moving in one direction while Travis is moving in the other. Scorsese’s subtle devices permit the audience to identify the irony associated with Travis’s diseased mind because Taxi Driver is not about lowly, disenfranchised street dwellers, but about a man being driven insane by his perceptions. One of those distinct perceptions is Travis’s skewed vision of race: he sees every black man as a potential threat to his safety. Scorsese illustrates every black man in the film as a dark figure who appears ready for a confrontation. For instance, when Travis goes to the local greasy spoon to seek out the advice of Wizard, who is sitting with Charlie T, a black cabbie, Charlie T. points his finger at Travis and says, “Bye children,” in a friendly manner. However, Travis looks at him ominously as if Charlie T’s finger represented a gun. Schrader comments in an interview with Amy Taubin, “There’s no doubt that Travis is a racist. He’s full of anger and he directs his anger at people who are a little lower on the totem pole than he is.”14. Ironically, Travis sees himself as a kind of white minority who is being absorbed by a growing criminal class of non-whites.
As such, Travis cannot seem to gain the respect of people on the street who view him as a misfit easily intimidated by violence. It is important to note that Travis’s racism is indicative of much of the racism in this country where people of color who are victims of economic discrimination are often blamed for the problems that occur in the inner cities. It is critical to recognize the irony here because people of color are usually most at risk of retaliations for violent inner-city crime. Racism is an indelible part of Travis’s makeup, but it is important to acknowledge that this is a film about a racist rather than a racist film. Accordingly, this revelation furthers the indictment of the capitalist notion of rugged individualism because the very entrepreneurs of the street — drug dealers, pimps, and loan sharks — are constantly under the purview of the local police and subject to incarceration. Travis regularly uses narcotics but excoriates “junkies” in his rants. He also employs clichés about women even when he himself is an avid viewer of pornography but feels compelled to come to their aid — advancing platitudes about American masculinity in the process.
Scorsese demonstrates these clichés in a crucial scene when Travis first meets Iris. Scorsese uses a wide angle of Travis pulling over to the side of the road. From the cab’s front view, we witness Iris get in the back. She tells Travis, “Get me outta here.” Scorsese captures Travis turning his head in slow motion to the back seat. She then yells to Travis, “Come on!” when her pimp, Sport, attempts to pull her out of the cab. Travis watches the action from his rear-view mirror as Scorsese employs an extreme close-up of his eyes to elicit his purposeful gaze. Scorsese does not reveal Sport’s face at this point, only his torso and his voice as he walks over to the front passenger’s side of the cab. In this scene, we witness Sport’s masculine body as a caricature of physical power combined with little personality. The audience may sense that Sport is the inverse of Palantine, who achieves power through personality rather than physique. From Travis’s perspective, Sport and Palantine exert a great deal of influence over these two very different women in different ways: in Palantine’s case, he utilizes his power of speech, charm, and charisma, and in Sport’s case, he will also use charm as well as excessive physical force. In essence, Scorsese suggests that a battle is slowly brewing between Travis and Sport over the construction of masculinity.
In a later pivotal sequence, Travis rehearses for the inevitable showdown with a little gunplay. In the first shot, he spins one of his guns around his trigger finger as if he were a gunslinger from the old West. Then, Scorsese provides a medium shot of Travis’s reflection in the mirror, and Travis treats the mirror as if it were a stranger that has antagonized him. In what has become one of the most quoted monologues in film history, Travis says: “You talkin’ to me?” You talkin’ to me? Well I am the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” Travis dispenses his weapon (concealed inside the arm of his jacket) down a metal glider attached to his arm via a removable cast. This mirror shot reflects Travis’s fetish for his guns and provides him the illusion that he can accomplish his objective with violent force. Scorsese’s double take on Travis emphasizes his gaze into the mirror, and it resembles those most commonly found in Westerns, and later “urbans.” Robert Warshow contends that this kind of behavior is reflected in a child’s desire to become a hero. He writes “Watch a child with his toy guns and you will see: what most interests him is how a man might look when he shoots or is shot … a hero is one who looks like a hero.”15
After Travis fails to kill Palantine, but lays waste to Sport — an ironic allusion to the idea that wealthy, powerful men often elude violent justice, Scorsese concludes the film with an overhead slow motion shot (the only truly objective shot in the film) tracking across the room and down the corridor as a way of assessing the damage. The aftermath of carnage is visible as the camera dwells on the blood that splattered on the walls and the floor near Sport’s body. Travis has purged himself by killing this street scum, but his fate is unsettled and his ‘heroism’ is still in question. Immediately following the gunfire, Scorsese’s use of the overhead tracking shot invites the audience to retrace all of the events in slow motion. In effect, the camera permits the viewer to identify the scene in the aftermath where Travis will become a hero. Evidently, this crime scene becomes a blueprint — a blueprint for his heroism, and Travis’s delusion becomes a reality.
Amy Taubin concludes that “the hallucination that Travis enacts in that scene — which results in real death — is the hallucination of masculinity … it’s the search for the ideal masculine wholeness that subtends the entire history of the movies.”16 Taubin is correct in her conclusion about Travis attempting to achieve his masculine wholeness through violence. But actually, throughout the film, Travis’s visions, and ultimately, his actions of violence, could more aptly be described as “delusions” rather than “hallucinations.” A hallucination indicates that a person is seeing an object or a person that is not there, whereas a delusion indicates that a person has been misled or deceived by the very image that he saw. Travis has been deluded by his visions of African Americans, Betsy, Palantine, and the poor. Scorsese deftly illustrates these delusions by employing slow motion or oblique framing when he is in their presence. However, Travis is not at all deluded by the danger of Sport and his cohorts. But his solution is delusional because his retribution reflects an incoherent notion that his action will earn him a heroic mantle (sadly ironic though it does) in a city, seemingly devoid of nobility.
Just prior to Travis killing Sport and his underlings, he voices-over that his form of violence is a kind of requital for all of the ills of society that the lawmakers can’t seem to cure. Reflect again on the earlier voice-over, “My whole life has been pointed in one direction. I see that now. There never has been any choice for me.” Travis curiously sees himself as a victim. His desire for a violent resolution would certify his status as a vigilante who shall carry out a swifter, more satisfying degree of justice in order to establish his heroic placement in America. However, his suicide attempt is a kind of recognition that his supposed bravado is an act of vengeance and not of heroism, placing him in a self-serving class similar to hoodlums like Sport, who use violence and intimidation as a means of entertainment and advancement.
In the penultimate scene, the audience sees newspaper clippings about the massacre tacked to the wall. One headline reads “Taxi Driver Battles Gangsters”; a diagram maps out the scene the camera has just traced at Iris’s building. Bella Taylor notes, “The sequence is reminiscent of the sensationalistic crime coverage of city tabloids.”17. The news media has embraced Travis Bickle after his act of vigilantism. There are no specific details about his motivations or how he got involved with these pimps in the first place. There is no mention at all that he attempted to assassinate Palantine. This failure of the media to effectively research this man prior to going ahead with this story evidences its priorities. Scorsese maintains a frighteningly real portrayal of both the news media and the federal government for their collective failures in making certain that Travis’s actions will be perceived as nothing less than heroic. This concept implies, if not ensures that women, Blacks, and the working class will continue to be quarry to other criminals who can make their mark without intervention from the establishment.
This penultimate scene is shot with a slow camera pan across an article on Iris and her parents as her father reads a letter to Travis in voice-over that praises his dubious distinction and thanks him for sending Iris back home. The media headlines have thus provided Travis with a distinct subjectivity that he has sought all his life. In essence, by becoming a hero through postmodern imagery, the masses will now accede to a falsely constructed icon, and Travis, to facilitate his already odd personage, gains a coherent identity through the incoherence of violence. However, the audience is acutely aware that this is a rouse when the climactic shot of his deadening stare through the rearview mirror implies that his syndrome will simply be repeated over and over again. Ironically, this kind of tabloid hype was used to catch a deranged killer, the “Son of Sam,” when in 1976-77 he was made into a nightly news event by the all of the major New York papers. If David Berkowitz had killed a few pimps and drug pushers along the way, would the public have regarded him a hero and given him a pass for murdering innocent women? The answer to that is obvious, but the news media’s interpretation of Travis leaves little doubt about how cultural icons and myths can be artificially created — like the illusion that the American dream can be attained by everyone.
- Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, 351. [↩]
- Keyser, Les. Martin Scorsese. New York: Twayne Publishing, 1992, 80. [↩]
- Martin, Richard. Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: the Legacy of Film Noir in Contemporary American Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1999, 81. [↩]
- Kolker, Robert Philip. A Cinema of Loneliness, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 194. [↩]
- Rafter, Nicole. Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 212. [↩]
- Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, 181. [↩]
- Ibid, 191. [↩]
- Lourdeaux, Lee. Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America: Ford, Capra, Coppola, and Scorsese. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990, 250. [↩]
- Friedman, Lawrence. The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. New York: Continuum, 1997, 77. [↩]
- Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923, 68. [↩]
- Ray, A Certain Tendency, 350-60. [↩]
- Ibid, 360. [↩]
- Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: the American Film Noir. Toronto: MacMillan International, 1994, 42 [↩]
- Taubin, Amy. Taxi Driver. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2000, 16-17. [↩]
- Warshow, Robert. The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre, and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. New York: Atheneum, 1979, 151-52. [↩]
- Taubin, Taxi Driver, 21. [↩]
- Taylor, Bella. “Martin Scorsese,” in Close Up: The Contemporary Director, edited by Jon Tuska Jr. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981, 358. [↩]