Travis Buckle Analysis Essay

The steam billowing up around the manhole cover in the street is a dead giveaway. Manhattan is a thin cement lid over the entrance to hell, and the lid is full of cracks. Hookers, hustlers, pimps, pushers, frauds, and freaks—they're all at large. They form a busy, faceless, unrepentant society that knows a secret litany. On a hot summer night the cement  lid becomes a nonstop harangue written in neon: walk, stop, go, come, drink, eat, try, enjoy. Enjoy? That's the biggest laugh. Only the faceless ones—the human garbage—could enjoy it.

This is the sort of thing that Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) might make note of in his diary. Travis, a loner who comes from somewhere else, drives a Manhattan cab at night. In the day he sleeps in short naps, pops pills to calm down, swigs peach brandy, which he sometimes pours on his breakfast cereal, and goes to porn films to relax. At one point he is aware that his headaches are worse and he suspects that he may have stomach cancer.

Travis Bickle is the hero of Martin Scorsese's flamboyant new film, Taxi Driver, which opened yesterday at the Coronet. He's as nutty as they come, a psychotic, but as played by Mr. De Niro he's a riveting character inhabiting a landscape that's as much his creation as he is the creation of it.

Taxi Driver is in many ways a much more polished film than Mr. Scorsese's other major Manhattan movie, Mean Streets, but its polish is what ultimately makes it seem less than the sum of its parts. The original screenplay by Paul Schrader, one of Hollywood's new young hopes (writers' division) imposes an intellectual scheme upon Travis's story that finally makes it seem too simple. It robs the film of mystery. At the end you may feel a bit cheated, as you do when the solution of a whodunit fails to match the grandeur of the crime.

But until those final moments Taxi Driver is a vivid, galvanizing portrait of a character so particular that you may be astonished that he makes consistent dramatic sense. Psychotics are usually too different, too unreliable, to be dramatically useful except as exotic decor.

Travis Bickle—the collaboration of writer, director, and actor—remains fascinating throughout, probably because he is more than a character who is certifiably insane. He is a projection of all our nightmares of urban alienation, refined in a performance that is effective as much for what Mr. De Niro does as for how he does it. Acting of this sort is rare in films. It is a display of talent, which one gets in the theater, as well as a demonstration of behavior, which is what movies usually offer.

Were Mr. De Niro less an actor, the character would be a sideshow freak. The screenplay, of course, gives him plenty to work with. Until the final sequences, Taxi Driver has a kind of manic aimlessness that is a direct reflection of Travis's mind, capable of spurts of common sense and discipline that are isolated in his general confusion. Travis writes in his diary, "I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention," and then sets about to make a name for himself by planning a political assassination.

Travis is an accumulation of self-destruct mechanisms. He makes friends with a pretty, intelligent campaign worker, played by Cybill Shepherd (who here recoups the reputation lost in At Long Last Love), but wonders why she is shocked when he takes her to the porn films he likes so much. His mind is full of crossed wires and short circuits.

The point of the film (which I can't talk about without giving away the plot), is, I feel, questionable, but the rest of it works. The supporting performances are fine, including those of Jodie Foster (whom I last saw as Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer) as a teenage hustler, Harvey Keitel as her pimp, and Peter Boyle as a muddle-headed Manhattan cab driver.

You may want to argue with Taxi Driver at the end, and with good reason, but it won't be a waste of time.


Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by Paul Schrader; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Marcia Lucas, Tom Rolf, and Melvin Shapiro; music by Bernard Herrmann;  art designer, Charles Rosen; produced by Michael Phillips and Julia Phillips; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 112  minutes.

With: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Jodie Foster (Iris), Harvey Keitel (Sport), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine), Albert Brooks (Tom), and Martin Scorsese (Passenger).

Relationship Story Throughline

Betsy’s a believer in law and order, and change through electoral process—committed enough to be organizing canvassing efforts—and believes society will be better once Palantine is President.  Travis doesn’t follow political issues much.  He believes that a President should clean up and flush out the mess in the city, and even prefers vigilantism—taking the law into his own hands.  He believes porno movies are relaxing; she has a hard time looking at them.

Relationship Story Concern

Betsy’s immediate response to Travis’ taking her to a porno movie is shock, which in turn triggers confusion in him:
BETSY:  But these are dirty movies.
TRAVIS:  No, these are the kind that couples go to.  They’re not like some others.  All kinds of couples go.  All the time.
(Schrader, p. 44)
These differing points of view prompt Betsy’s impulsive response:
BETSY:  Taking me to a place like this is about as exciting as saying “Let’s fuck!”

Relationship Story Issue

“Betsy handles her job with confidence and ease.  Whether answering phones, giving instructions or directing traffic, she remains the calm center of her hurly-burly world.  Nothing threatens her.”
(Schrader, p. 16)
Her confidence is, however, shaken a little by the strange Travis, who reminds her of:
BETSY:  That song by Kris Kristoferson, where it says, “he’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.” 
(Schrader, p. 34)
Travis approaches Betsy confident that she, like him, is a lonely person who needs a friend.

Relationship Story Counterpoint

Betsy’s worried enough to wonder about Travis:
BETSY:  Why has that taxi-driver been sitting across the street without moving, staring at us?
(Schrader, p. 18)
Travis diffuses Betsy’s concern about going for coffee with him by offering to protect her; Betsy’s apprehension about Travis’ choice of movie proves to be well-founded.

Relationship Story Thematic Conflict
Confidence vs.Worry

Betsy’s confidence that Travis has the extraordinary qualities she desires in a man causes her to ignore her concerns brought about by Travis’ assumptions:
“TRAVIS:  I thought maybe you could play it for me on your player.
Betsy’s face backtracks a bit.  This is the first indication she has had that she may be getting in a little too deep with this fellow she does not know.”
(Schrader, p. 43)
Letting her confidence take the upper hand over her worries gets her into trouble at the movies.

Relationship Story Problem

Betsy’s fascinated by Travis without being sure why:
“Betsy doesn’t quite know what to make of Travis.  She is curious, intrigued, tantalized.  Like a moth, she draws closer to the flame:”
(Schrader, p. 29)
BETSY:  Travis, I have never met anybody like you before.
He expects to go to her place, to play the record, on their first date:
TRAVIS:  I thought maybe you could play it for me on your player.
Betsy accepts Travis’ assurances that the movies are not dirty:
TRAVIS:  No, these are the kind that couples go to.  They’re not like some others.  All kinds of couples go.  All the time.

Relationship Story Solution

If Betsy listened to Travis’ answers to her questions, she would realize earlier that:
BETSY:  We’re just two very different kinds of people, that’s all.
He doesn’t know the person or politics of Palantine, the man he’s volunteering to help; Travis agrees with his stand on welfare, whatever it is; he claims his stereo is broken; etc.

Relationship Story Symptom

Travis thinks that buying Betsy gifts and flowers will endear her to him; that getting her into a porno theater will somehow turn Betsy on to him; that physically holding her back will prevent her from leaving in a taxi, etc.

Relationship Story Response

Travis thinks that being with Betsy will end loneliness and bring happiness to both of them; that giving her an unopened record will result in being invited to hear it at her place; that sending her flowers will result in her changing her mind about him; etc.

Relationship Story Catalyst

Travis feels that while Tom’s energies are in the wrong place, his own are not, making him worthy to approach Betsy; he thinks he has something to offer to Palantine’s campaign; when their relationship’s over, he downplays the value of his vigilantism:
TRAVIS:  Oh, I got over that.  It was nothing, really.  The papers always blow those things up.

Relationship Story Inhibitor

Travis has a fantasy image of Betsy as an untouchable angel, which disappoints him when it later proves true in his case; he believes exposing Betsy to instructional sex movies will bring her closer to him, but it ends their relationship; he buys into Betsy’s story about being ill, not wanting to believe it’s over.

Relationship Story Benchmark

When Travis first sees Betsy, he’s moved down to his righteous roots, comparing her to an angel; he successfully appeals to the basic drives of companionship and happiness in an effort to woo her; Betsy’s desire to be with a “star” leads her to date the enigmatic Travis; his libido runs rampant, prompting him to take her to a “dirty movie”; she responds, ending Travis’ dating career, by lashing out with crude language herself.

Additional Relationship Story Information →
Relationship Story Throughline Synopsis

The alienated Travis sees beautiful Betsy as an angel sent from heaven: together, they won’t be lonely and he’ll have someone to spend his money on.  He volunteers to work for her, and convinces her to go for coffee with him.  She’s intrigued enough to go on a movie date with him.  But he chooses a porno movie, alienating her from him.

Relationship Story Backstory

Both Travis and Betsy have impossibly high expectations in a potential mate.  Betsy’s:
“[...]  eyes scan every man who passes her desk as her mind computes his desirability:  political, intellectual, sexual, emotional, material.  Simple poise and status do not impress her; she seeks out the extraordinary qualities in men.  She is, in other words, a star-fucker of the highest order.”
(Schrader, p. 16)
Travis looks for his ideal woman to give him a sense of direction:
“TRAVIS:  I do not believe one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, but should become a person like other people.  [...]  I first saw her at Palantine Campaign Headquarters at 58th and Broadway.  She was wearing a yellow dress, answering the phone at her desk.
Suddenly, out of the congested human mass, IN SLOWING MOTION, appears the slender figure of Betsy in a stylish yellow dress.  The crowd parts like the Red Sea, and there she is:  walking all alone, untouched by the crowd, suspended in space and time.
TRAVIS:  She appeared like an angel out of this open sewer.”
(Schrader, p. 20-21)

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