Taxi Driver: Saint or Sinner?

Film: Taxi Driver (1976)  Director: Martin Scorsese  Genre: Crime/Drama/Character Study


Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Cybill Shepard as Betsy

Jodie Foster as Iris

Harvey Kietel as Sport

“On every street in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody”.

The Plot

Ominous music plays as a car emerges out of steam into a dark and threatening urban landscape. The camera flashes on Travis Bickle’s eyes, which appear menacing. The first scene after the credits introduces us to Travis as he interviews for a job as a taxi driver. He tells the interviewer that he is twenty-six years old, was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1973 (indicating to viewers that he served in the Vietnam War), and that he can’t sleep at night. The interviewer reveals that he had been a Marine as well and tells Travis to come back for work the next day. Travis leaves and begins drinking from a flask in broad daylight.

As Travis’s job as a taxi driver begins, so does his diary, which we hear as a voice-over. Travis complains about how dirty New York is and talks about how he does not discriminate against his passengers. We see him driving around on a typical day. When he gets off work in the morning after driving for twelve hours at night, he immediately begins drinking and attends a porn film. At the entrance he tries to be friendly with the concession lady, a young black woman. She quickly rejects his efforts to reach out, so he spends his morning alone in the porn theatre. Travis complains about his inability to sleep, even after working all night, and talks about wanting to become more normal. He wishes to have someplace to go and to fit in with other people. Travis hangs out with other cabbies sometimes at an all-night diner. He is clearly made uncomfortable by Charlie T, a black cab driver, and by the other black people in the diner.

One day while driving his cab, Travis sees Betsy, a beautiful blond woman in a white dress. To Travis, she stands out from the rest of the people in the crowded, dirty city. Betsy works at the Palantine presidential campaign headquarters in New York. We see Betsy talking to her coworker, Tom, who also seems to be in love with Betsy, while Travis watches from his cab outside.

Travis finally gathers the courage to ask Betsy out. He dresses up and walks into the campaign headquarters, introduces himself, and asks Betsy out for coffee. Charmed and intrigued, Betsy agrees. Travis and Betsy’s date at the diner goes well, and she agrees to go to a movie with him.

Later, coincidentally, Travis gives Palantine, the candidate, a ride in the cab. Travis flatters Palantine, saying he’s Palantine’s biggest supporter, but when Palantine pushes Travis to talk about an issue, Travis speaks inappropriately, saying that he just wants to see the city rid of all its scum. Travis’s next fare is a young prostitute, Iris, who jumps in the cab and tells it to take off. While Travis hesitates, a man pulls the girl out of the cab and throws Travis a twenty-dollar bill, telling him to forget the incident. Travis seems unable to get the girl out of his mind, and he puts the bill in a place separate from the rest of his money.

Travis takes Betsy to a porn film in Times Square. When Betsy realises what the film is, she becomes disgusted and leaves. After this night, she refuses to take his calls and returns the flowers he sends her. Travis becomes angry and eventually storms into the Palantine office to confront Betsy in public, but there he is humiliated.

The next scene shows Travis, back in his cab, pulling over to let a man out. But the unnamed passenger wants to stay in the cab to watch the silhouette of a woman in a window above. The passenger claims the woman is his wife and that she is sleeping with a black man. He goes on hysterically about shooting his wife with a .44 Magnum. Later, at the diner where the cabbies hang out, Travis pulls Wizard aside and tries to reach out to him, saying he’s been feeling down and having bad ideas in his head. The only thing Wizard can tell him is that he is stuck as a taxi driver, that the job will become him. Travis seems to be losing his mind more and more. One day he absentmindedly runs his cab into a young prostitute, the same one who jumped into his cab before.

Travis buys four guns from an underground dealer, saying that he is going to change his life. He wants to turn over a new leaf—to eat and drink more healthily, and to train his body. We see him doing push-ups and holding his fist out over an open flame, as if he is training for combat. Travis begins to stalk Palantine. He goes to his rallies and watches him on television. He arouses suspicion by talking to a Secret Service agent at one of the rallies. Travis’s speech becomes more disjointed and repetitive, especially when he is alone. He practices pulling out his gun in the mirror, saying “You talkin’ to me?” One night he stops at a convenience store. When a young black man comes in and tries to stick up the store, Travis shoots and kills him. The shooting has no consequences for Travis because the convenience store owner just thanks him and then starts beating the dead man. Travis continues to stalk Palantine, and he writes a letter to his parents. They know nothing about where their son is or what he does.

Travis finally searches for Iris, the young prostitute he has seen twice before. He tries to pay Sport, her pimp, for time with her. Iris tries to seduce Travis, but he refuses to have sex with her. Instead, he asks her why she doesn’t leave her job. He has coffee with her the next day and again tries to convince her to leave Sport. She says she’ll think about it, and that she dreams of going to a commune in Vermont. She asks Travis to go with her, but he says he has more important plans. Iris goes back to Sport to tell him she’s unhappy, but Sport is seductive and romantic and convinces Iris to stay.

On the final day of the film’s action Travis prepares to leave the house. First, he burns all the flowers he bought for Betsy, and then he writes a note for Iris, enclosing $500 so she can go to Vermont. He writes that by the time she reads the letter, he will be dead. He goes to a Palantine rally with his hair shaved into a Mohawk. His intention to assassinate Palantine becomes clear. Soon, though, Secret Service agents spot him and pursue him. Since his plan has failed, he goes instead to Iris’s building. There, in a long, bloody shoot-out, he kills Sport, the man who rents out Iris’s rooms, and a man who was about to visit Iris. When Travis tries to shoot himself, he realises that he has run out of bullets. As the police rush in, he puts his hand to his head and pretends to shoot himself.

The film moves forward by a few months. Travis has become a hero of sorts for saving Iris. We hear Iris’s father reading a letter he has written Travis, thanking him for sending Iris home. The camera pans across all the newspaper articles that label Travis a hero. In the final scene, which is most likely a fantasy, we see Travis standing around with his cabbie friends when Betsy gets into his cab. She is clearly impressed by Travis’s recent success and says she’ll see him around. Travis never looks back at her but stares at her reflection in his rear-view mirror.

What Do I Think About It!

I always thought of Taxi Driver as a character study film. The more I watch though, the more I realise that I really don’t know anything about Travis Bickle. Maybe at the start of the film during the scene where he is being interviewed. He gives the basic information required. He’s 26, he was a marine and good at it, but he isn’t anymore. Oh, and he can’t sleep! Considering that he is the narrator of his diary entries, he still doesn’t give anything away about himself.

The use of narrator in this film gives it the feel of a noir thriller, and one could agree that Betsy and Iris in a skewed fashion can be considered as femme fatales, who in this case have become an ideology that has assisted Travis into such a downward spiral.

Travis is an awfully lonely man. He is awful, and he is lonely. He doesn’t like the degenerate society around him, yet he immerses himself into by conveying such people from place A to place B. He has a perverse fear of black men, but the first person that Travis tries to engage with is a woman of colour in the porn cinema. Even if Travis cannot see it, he has an attraction and a repulsion to his surroundings. The viewer sees it and is taken along for the ride in the mind’s eye of Travis.

The viewer is never far away from Travis’ thoughts and actions. Only twice is there a scene without Travis; the scene of verbal tennis in the campaign headquarters between Betsy and Tom, and Iris and Sport sharing a tender moment before their lives are changed forever. The last narrative voice over is by Iris’ father who was reading the thank you letter that he sent to Travis.

What was interesting was the camera work in relation to denoting Travis’ mental state. The first striking shot was when Travis went to the all-night diner to meet with his colleagues. After lingering a little too long on the gaze between Travis and his black co-patrons across the diner, the camera subjectively follows the journey of the Alka seltzer in the glass, and the emission of bubbles rising to the top of the glass. The viewer is trapped, because the camera is going nowhere, and therefore subjected to the simmering of Travis’ psyche.

The camera behaves as a passive voyeur to the one-sided telephone conversation between Travis and Betsy. He apologises fervently for his faux-pas date, the camera along with Betsy loses interest in the conversation and literally looks away to face the door. The threshold that Travis will walk through when he moves from rational to irrational.

The following shot, an overhead shot, is one step closer to Travis’ breakdown. After the ‘passenger’ has unlocked something as he spews vitriolic abuse about his wife and her lover, Travis decides to buy a gun. It is at this meeting in the hotel, that the desire is born. As the guns are laid on the bed, the viewer is looking straight down at them, just as Travis would be. Again, the gaze is long and uncomfortable, but nothing good will come of this.

The final distinct shot is the overhead during the climax of Travis’ mini massacre. This is no longer Travis’ view, but God’s view, especially since he perceives himself as “God’s lonely man”. It is an observance of a man who could not take it anymore. It is the visceral showing of a man apart. Travis failed to take himself out of his nightmare, and again along with the camera, the viewer becomes the passive voyeur and just as helpless as screaming Iris in the corner.

Throughout the film Travis desperately tries to integrate into society, yet he fails miserably every time as he is constantly in his own head and doesn’t seem to read social cues very well. He writes about morbid self-attention not realising that he is honing that very characteristic. Throughout Travis’ writing, it is revealed that his perspective cannot be trusted, as when he writes such things that “you’re only as healthy as you feel”, and yet it is seen that he lives an unhealthy lifestyle.

Betsy at their coffee date correctly foreshadows Travis’ character, even though she hardly knows him. She likens him to a line in the Kris Kristofferson song, The Pilgrim 33, “He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.”

Why is this character still hailed as an anti-hero 43 years after the release of the film? Of course, the pop reference of De Niro’s soliloquy will live on, and it’s almost sad. Travis is so lonely that he can only confidently converse with his own reflection. Maybe the viewer can empathise with desperate loneliness, but secretly hope that one of these people that he desperately tries to connect with will totally get him and then propel the film into a happy ending.

We don’t get the happy ending, but quite an ambiguous one. Is the true ending in the hotel room where Travis ran out of bullets and can only gesticulate his suicide? Did Travis really take Betsy as a passenger, who has significantly changed her opinion of him? What is plain to see if this is the case, is that Travis has escaped punishment for his “crimes”, he has not been diagnosed with a mental illness (regardless of the time, conduct like that would get someone locked up!), in fact he has been hailed as a hero because of his choice of victim. It would be a different film if Travis had succeeded in assassinating Palantine.

However, Travis is back in the bosom of society, with his second chance to integrate should he have learned anything throughout his episode. He gets a do-over. And yet it is the taxi ride that is the last scene, almost mirroring the opening scene. As Betsy steps out of the cab, he drives away leaving her standing there, but watching her through the windscreen mirror. Again, only his eyes are visible through the mirror, something makes him change his demeanour and cut.

Hailed as one of a Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Paul Schrader great respectively. It is a great watch that gets better whenever I watch it again, because I find clues to allude Travis’ breakdown earlier. A fantastic character study.

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