Fear in His Eyes: Travis Bickle as the Voice of an Uneasy Conscience in ‘Taxi Driver’

A still from 'Taxi Driver'. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is pictured standing on the roadside in front of his taxi. The New York City streets are covered in graffiti. He is wearing a green military jacket, his head shaved with nothing but a dark strip on hair down the middle, he face is pulled into a scowl.
Columbia Pictures

The moral ambiguity of human psychology, where all kinds of fears are crystallized, especially at night, is found in Martin Scorsese’s seminal, groundbreaking Taxi Driver.

“I can’t sleep at night” is the pivotal snatch of dialogue and it is the basis of protagonist Travis Bickle’s internal world: just as the moonlight or city lights become uneasy sources of illumination in which a survey of the negative sea of humanity is realistically contrived by screenplay writer Paul Schrader. Travis, you see, is holding onto the horrors of his army service in Vietnam, and the futility of that war in which fears of torture and deep-seated violence were condoned by stiff state decrees. Irreconcilable resolutions have sparked the flint of his cynicism regarding the modern world. In a way he is the everyman, and its uneasy conscience rests in his internal breakdown. There is a scene where water is sprayed on his taxi – a symbol of his livelihood and all-surveying eye – which can be placed parallel to his tempers being cooled down. Robert De Niro’s intense equipoise between maintaining his long festering anger and a cool exterior meant to not break into full blown action is a masterclass, in the kind of fearful symmetry we all tend to avoid adapting for ourselves in throes of bitterness. He expresses the desire to wash the scum from the earth, and his taxi being washed by a spray of water acts as a powerful visual. There is seething rage in his body language and in the contours of his face.

The sinister background score by Bernard Herrman, with the prominent saxophone instrumental, further has a sensual charge, tiptoeing around fear of an amoral city’s sweltering atmospherics. City streets are dank and wet with primal desires of the flesh, and blood and neon lights eclipse terrors of the big city syndrome at face value, a veneer the individual conscience comes out of eventually, to realise the truism of a ‘big, bad world’ archetype. The green and red traffic lights symbolically point out permissible moral limits and the transgressive nature of humanity, respectively. As such, the city is the real character in Taxi Driver, carving out Travis’ identity. There are night-time terrors that fundamentally feed our horror paradigms and Taxi Driver lets the camera become eyes of the soul and a potent narrative tool. That is the power of the imagery and the screenplay, in general. Among other things that threateningly go bump in the night is the spirit within that is punctured and desolate. That is why this could be any big city in the world, not just the nocturnal underbelly of New York.

An arresting gist of this city is seen in Travis’ dialogue, “all the animals come out at night: whores, buggers, junkies, queens, fairies.” Also, I sensed a novelistic technique here through his writings. He writes about his immediate misgivings and draws us towards his “morbid self-attention”; expiation through writing is hence sought after. His observations make him question his role within the sphere of his immediate surroundings which I, as a writer, can identify with. I grasp that because our immediate environment naturally fills us with socio-cultural emissions from the larger world. That first person voice adopts the dialogic identity at the heart of Taxi Driver with acute precision. The city, to him, is like an “open sewer”; psychological fear is funneled through the taxi rides conducted by Travis Bickle. He effectively then becomes our inner voice.

A still from 'Taxi Driver'. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is stood centre frame, shirtless, holding a gun of which he is looking down the barrell. His expression is almost a smirk.
Columbia Pictures

An excellent scene involves the film’s director Martin Scorsese enacting the part of a mentally disturbed man who tells Travis to halt outside an apartment. He asks him to view the silhouette of a woman appearing through the upper floor curtain who, he claims, betrayed him and now he wants to kill her. His aggression and febrile state are etched in the tone of his voice. He can do anything in that moment and the fear and discomfort of being in that unpredictable situation registers itself on Travis’ face. He is called ‘Cabbie’ by the man and is forced to comply with the man’s voyeurism. Where is he now? What does he signify in the human chain? What has this world come to? All these questions seem to course through his face. The unseen man’s voice itself conveys a larger moral attitude towards women that is shaped by skewed gender norms and male self-aggrandisement in the face of rejection. Twisted masculinity per se. This is further reflected in Travis’ own aggression in the face of rejection by a woman he admires. So basically, the society around him is a mirror image of his own impulsive behaviour.

There is a scene where he becomes mouthpiece of the common man and airs his grievances in a matter-of-fact manner to one Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) who is running for the city’s mayor. It is a direct reflection of the earnestness he accords to his civic responsibilities as a citizen. The script’s volte face occurs when he evaluates the general apathy of political classes and attempts to shoot Palantine at one of his rallies. The issue of vigilantism and inner churning of public outrage finds a channel in his motivations. Cue the scenes where he buys a gun – the ultimate power symbol for men like him, given his stint in Vietnam – and then when he surfaces at the site of the mayoral candidate’s pit stop, his eyes hidden under sunglasses and tonsured head becoming a symbol of his own fearful descent. He doesn’t shoot him, but there’s a characteristic power that wielding the gun gives him that is symptomatic of society. He sums up the conscience of society. The dregs of society he has been privy to leads to an infestation of righteous spirits in which he dares to bring wrongdoing to justice and this inner anarchy challenges semantics of the pruned culture that looks the other way.

Self-appropriation in his solo scenes show him rehearsing in front of the mirror while he assumes his vigilante stance and this is akin to practice for the movie scenes. He wields the gun with flourish, takes a no-nonsense stance and we watch with an admixture of awe, horror and anticipation, the progression of his alter-ego. “YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?” is a classic summation of his febrile mind. The close-ups capture that. Hence when Travis looks at his reflection, the man in the mirror is a terrifying antithesis to mute witnesses to larger horrors out there.

The real turnaround for him happens when he vows to rescue a child prostitute out of this seedy undertow. The appearance of Iris (Jodie Foster), merely a twelve-year-old girl, posits fear for the fate of future generations and the motif of children living amid moral squalor reappears in this social din. Taxi Driver‘s climax holds the horrifying tenor of its screenplay as bloodshed ensues when Travis battles with Iris’ pimp and hotel manager, in a risky and by then desperate attempt to bring her out of this infernal circle. The noir-ish mood creates layer upon layer of fear. Though Travis is vindicated in the bargain and succeeds in taking her out of the murk, even hailed by the media as a heroic figure, the haphazard contours of the mind leads him to dangerous alleys where sin can only be vanquished by undertaking extreme measures. It tells us that socio-political unrest bristles our innermost being. Taxi Driver is a true auteur film, its original voice creating an extremely realistic pitch for our subconscious. Foster herself essayed the difficult inner journey of a vigilante who takes up a gun to clean up the slime off New York City streets after a brutal experience in 2007’s The Brave One. The gender role reversal there and parallels with Taxi Driver then bring out an element of fear in memorable modes of interiority. Fear of becoming who we aren’t and what society eventually can turn us into then comes full circle to register its permanence.

by Prithvijeet Sinha

Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile. 

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