Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver is a film about salvation. If After Hours presents
a nightmarish view of New York with a comic slant, Taxi Driver gives a seriously sinister bent of the same city with
a dangerously twisted character. Travis Bickle is literally and figuratively sick and tired: We don't
see how demented he is until he erupts in a blaze of glory, but his tired feelings are shown by his inability to sleep (and
therefore his need for it) and a lethargy which is detected in his monotone voice. Travis Bickle is as
dangerous as a war veteran who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: His military experience is suggested by a
reference to an honorable discharge from the military, his wearing an army fatigue jacket, and his stance when he confronts
a man who stands in his way (Tom); in the second half of the story, he prepares himself for battle (like a soldier when he
hotwaxes his boots and like an Indian on the warpath with his mohawk haircut with the worst elements that, in his mind, are
destroying the city. Armed to the hilt in the final scenes, he uses his killer instinct to rid the area
(New York City) of the enemy.
While Travis thinks that he is the savior,
he ironically is the one who need to be saved. Travis sees the city and its unsavory elements as
an unhealthy influence on his and everyone's lives and therefore his personal enemy. In his first diary
entry, Travis expresses a contempt for, what he considers, the lowest level of humanity:
May 10th. Thank God for
the rain which has
helped wash away the garbage and the trash
off the sidewalks .... All the animals come
out at night: whores, skunk pussies,
queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, venal ...
Someday a real rain will come and wash away
all this scum off the streets.
He refers to
blacks as "spooks". After a john and a prostitute have an encounter in his cab, Travis comments:
“Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the come off the back seat.” When
he writes about Betsy, he notes: “She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mass, she is alone.”
When a politician asks Travis what bothers him about the country the most, Travis replies:
.... clean up this city here because this
city here is like an open sewer, you
It's full of filth and scum. Sometimes I
can hardly take
it. Whoever becomes the
President should just ... really clean
You now what I mean? Sometimes I go out and
I smell it then
I get headaches it's so bad,
you know. It's like, they
just never go away,
you know. I think that the President should
just clean up this whole mess here. Flush it
right down the fucking toilet.
Sickness is also suggested by Travis's reason for Betsy's ill feelings (a “twenty-four hour virus”).
After Betsy rejects Travis' offer at reconciliation, he writes:
I also sent flowers but with no luck. The
smell of the flowers
only made me sicker.
The headaches got worse. I think I've got
Sickness is also implied in his
name: His initials are TB which is short for tuberculosis.)
His rejection by Betsy is devastating and Travis causes a scene in Betsy's workplace:
“You're going to hell and you're going to die in hell like the rest of them!” Sadly,
Travis does not recognize the reason why a former date chooses to avoid him. Instead he blames women for
I realize now how much [Betsy] is just like
the others. Cold and distant. And many
are like that. Women, for sure.
They're just like a union.
There is an unstated, psychological reason for
Travis' desire to kill: His unhappiness stems from the unreality of watching images (men and women making love in porno
films, couples dancing on American Bandstand, and the couple breaking up on the soap opera). Travis has
to wonder why such happiness eludes him. He begins to delude himself and others. He
lies to his parents about his involvement with a woman named Betsy; he lies to Iris about working for the government.
Delusion or fantasy is also evident in Sport's description of the way in which Iris will affect Travis sexually
(which is similar to the female's utterance of pleasuring her partner in the porno film. Travis'
slight by Betsy is followed by a fare who is in similar to Travis.
character, played by the film's director, Martin Scorsese, is obviously deeply disturbed: Because his wife was unfaithful
to him, he announces that he will use the .44 Magnum that he has in his possession. He is excited by the
effect that the impact of the weapon will have when he shoots her face and her sexual area. The fare admits
that the driver probably thinks that he is “sick” which he is and he exults in his sickness. Travis'
reaction is interesting: He is silent in the scene and he studies his passenger who is someone that Travis identified with
since he has felt betrayed by Betsy. If the fare knows that he is "sick" (a word which he repeats
six times), then Travis is sicker because he acts in a similar fashion and has no grasp on his state of mind when he seeks
to kill first Betsy's boss Charles Palantine and when that fails those who enslave Iris. He admits
to Wizard: “I just want to go out and really, really do something .... I get some bad ideas in my
head.” Soon after Travis purchases guns which places him on the wrong road. The
first gun that Travis takes an interest in is a .44 Magnum which shows the influence that his fare (a self-admitted “sick”
individual) had on him. In his June 29th diary entry, Travis writes that he must “get in shape”.
But for him, this is preparation for a bloody catharsis. When Travis states that “too much
abuse has been going on for to long”, it is understood that this is the rest of a lack of exercise, pills, and poor
diet, but this “abuse” is the toll that influences have had on his psyche. This is followed
by an explosion of gunfire on the firing range. Travis' narration continues: “The idea has been
growing in my brain for some time. True Force. All the king's men cannot put it
back together again." The last reference is to the children's book character Humpty Dumpty who,
like Travis, is cracked. Another indication of insanity is Travis' talking to himself ("You talking
to me?”). Travis writes: “Listen, you screwheads: Here is a man who wouldn't take it any
more, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth .... “ In a card sent to
his parents, Travis lies to them about Betsy who he claims that he is seeing; it can be deduced that he also lies to them
about his state (“I am healthy and well .... “). When Travis listens to a scene from a soap
opera which concerns a romance turned bad, he destroys the television set because it is reminiscent of his own failed romance.
Travis gets to shoot and kill his first victim who himself is looking to kill a strainer who, in turn, beats the dead
body. Travis tells Iris: “ .... you can't live like this. It's a hell.”
When Travis describes Sport as a killer, Iris replies: “Did you ever try looking at your own eyeballs in the
mirror.” With this, the use of mirrors in the film becomes clear (i.e. when Travis poses with his
handguns and when Travis looks into the cab's rear-view mirror): Travis sees his reflection, but it
does not convey to him how ill he is. Travis continues:
[Sport's] the lowest kind of person in the world.
Somebody's got to do something to him. He's the scum of the earth. He's
the worst ... sucking scum I have ever seen.
By defining Sport in such a way, this allows Travis to act accordingly. Following
Sport's admission of love to Iris is Travis practicing at the firing range. Travis writes: "Now
I see it clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. I see that now."
The direction is a place where a rally is being held where Palantine voices similar sentiments: "We meet today
at a crossroads. Columbus Circle .... where many roads and many lives intersect." Palantine
refers war and suffering - both of which Travis will cause. Travis' second intended victim is the politician
- the presidential aspirant Palantine who ironically promised Travis that he would help fulfill Travis' wish.
When his attempt to kill Palantine fails because he is protected by government agents, Travis turns to another place
where he causes a bloodbath. The manager of the motel correctly calls Travis as “crazy”. Travis
is noble in that he wants to save people, but his means (murder) does not justify the ends (death). He
tells Iris: “I'm going to get you out of here.” He adds: “I want to help you.”
She refuses to take his good advice - leaving her pimp. She suggests that she can go to the police,
but Travis deters her: “Cops don't do nothing.” He believes instead in vigilante justice
which is a perversion of a politician's campaign slogan: “We are the people.” Where were
the cops when Travis' grocery store owner was robbed? Not far behind. As they are
after Travis takes matters into his own hands. Another support group, an ambulance service, arrives immediately,
and this saves Travis' life. Because Travis saves Iris from prostitution, he is hailed as a hero by
the press, the public, and Iris' parents: “Needless to say, you are something of a hero around this household.”
Even worse, Travis is admired by Betsy who reenters his life. What is frightening about the final
scene: Not only is Travis' action celebrated, but he is back out on the street in the same job (and probably having the
Travis approaches Wizard for salvation. Wizard
is the elder statesmen, the philosopher of the garage which is not saying much. Travis presents himself
as being troubled and asks Wizard for advice. Wizard, who is racist and homophobic which he doesn't
recognize, himself needs help. To compound the problem, Wizard states that he doesn't understand what
Travis is talking about and dismisses Travis' with reassurance: “You're all right.”
Iris defines Sport as her savior. “When I'm not stoned, I got no place to go so they just
protect me from myself.” Alone with Sport, Iris is encouraged to stay with him when he describes
in romantic terms the effect that she has on him:
.... I'd be lost without you .... You know
at times like this I know I'm a lucky man.
Touching a woman who wants me and needs me.
It's only you that keeps me together.
The sentiments are
sick since Sport is using love to corrupt and enslave a teenager. Iris tries to save herself and in the
end one of her captors. She tells Sport that she does not like what she is doing and in doing so tries
to extricate herself from the business. Later she tries to save the manager of the hotel where she works.
As Travis fires repeatedly at the manager, Iris screams: “Don't shoot him!”
other female that Travis thinks that he needs to save is Betsy. Travis' assessment of Betsy surprises
even her: “ .... you're not a happy person and I think you need something. And if you want to
call it a friend, you can call it a friend.” What Travis is doing is projecting his own deficiencies
onto another person. Travis is unhappy and alone. In the restaurant, he comments that
"there was no connection" between Betsy and Tom, the person that she was most comfortable with at work.
In truth, Travis is a person who has no connections. His closest companion is his diary.
When he socializes with fellow cabbies, he is has to be brought into the conversation by Dough-Boy; a policeman has
to twice get his attention to move his cab when Travis is lost in his private thoughts. His call to reconnect
him with Betsy reveals that he does not even have a telephone in his apartment (indicating that a line of communicating is
outside of his immediate sphere and as the camera pans to his right, the hallway is as empty as his social life).
When he does talk in confidence to someone (Wizard), he has to preface his remarks with an apology (“I know you
and I ain't talked too much ....”).
Scorsese's portrayal of Travis Bickle
as a time bomb set to explode is shown in other ways. The story is set in late spring (with Travis'
first diary entry) and when he begins to stalk Palantine, the month is July. Like the season of summer,
Travis is coming to a boil - which is also shown visually when the Alka Seltzer that Travis drops in a glass of water begins
to fizz; another more potent metaphor is the television set in Travis' apartment which he ends crashing to the floor and
implodes upon impact. It is established that Travis is looking for trouble: He looks menacingly at his
employer; his twice repeated line (“Anytime. Anywhere”) suggests belligerence; he, as a white man, accepts assignments
in black neighborhoods at night; when he leaves a restaurant to confer privately with Wizard, he stares down a black man passing
him; he goads an FBI agent. He calls attention to himself at the political rallies even though government
security and the police are present: The bizarrely engages an FBI agent; he appears with a mohawk and advances
menacingly toward a presidential candidate. Sport assures Travis that having sex with Iris will cause him
to “explode”. Like the lit cigarette that will burn to the filter, Travis also requires a short
period of time before he ignites. He tries to kill himself and gestures to the police that he would like
to shoot himself.
Protection is associated with salvation. Travis reassures
Betsy: “I'm there to protect you.” A pimp and the hotel manager protect the prostitutes;
Iris explains the people in her life: “They just protect me from myself.” Sport appears to
hand protection money to another party before Travis arrives in the end. FBI agents are assigned to safeguard
the presidential candidate Palantine. Protection/salvation is offered by the police (who are a constant
presence throughout the film and a character in a story that one cab driver relates), the medical profession (that arrive
at the scene of a bloodbath and save Travis' life), and fire department (with a fire truck in the background as Travis
and Iris talk in a restaurant). Weapons are used as protection: Guns are carried by the cabdrivers in the
restaurant, the FBI agent, the cab fare, the salesman, Travis, the thief, Sport, the hotel manager, the police; the store
owner has a bat behind the counter. Other clues indicate the film's theme of salvation.
The word “saved” is used by a pimp who tells a potential customer: “If you want to save yourself
some money, don't fuck [the prostitute].” Travis hinting to Iris that he has nothing better to
do with his money when he offers it to her suggests that he saves his earnings. If Taxi Driver
represents the anger and frustration that New Yorkers have with their city, then Scorsese does not see politics making an
impact in affecting changes. The only politician in the story Charles Palantine is more concerned with
his image; he is effectively compared to mouthwash. He offers slogans which play upon the emotions of listeners,
but have little substance. There has to be black humor in the filmmaker having a character one to kill
a politician; this would elicit some sympathy from the viewer.
Change is implied
in salvation. Wizard relates a story about a woman who began to "change her pantyhose" in the
backseat of his cab. Dough Boy asks Travis if he has “change of a nickel”. Palantine
informs Travis that “radical changes” have to be made. After making payment, Palantine's
assistant tells Travis to “keep the change”. Travis writes in his diary that "suddenly
there is a change" in his life.