Loneliness and Conviction: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver

Warning: This essay contains spoilers

Several months ago, I saw Taxi Driver for the first time and after watching it and loving it, I was shocked that I hadn’t seen it sooner. I really should have. It felt like I was finally correcting a big mistake as a film watcher and a punk rocker. Taxi Driver (1976), directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert De Niro, is probably one of the most important movies to come out in the seventies aesthetically, cinematically, and story-wise. The film is also full of interesting political implications that are still worth thinking about in the contemporary moment. Since this essay could go in many different directions, I want to focus on Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis Bickle being a character consumed by loneliness and conviction. De Niro gives one of his best performances in this film; essentially, the entire film is from his perspective. He plays a Vietnam Vet and a loner living in New York City who gets a job driving a taxi cab at night. Eventually, his loneliness and his convictions consume him to the point where he turns into a sort of warrior-vigilante at the end of the film. I also consider De Niro’s performance in this film to be majorly influential in regards to the punk movement that was just beginning around the time the film was released. De Niro embodied a punk rock nature before it was really a thing, and his performance in this film captures the overall concerns that the punk movement would eventually address: loneliness, societal corruption, and political oppression. So, this is the positioning I’ll be looking at the film from.

I want to discuss three scenes from the film that all have one thing in common: how Travis interacts with others from a place of loneliness. The first scene is when Travis asks Betsy out on a date. Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd, works as a campaigner for Senator Palentine (Leonard Harris) who’s running for President. She’s a very well put together woman that Travis develops a bit of an obsession with. In this scene, she’s interacting with her co-worker, Tom (Albert Brooks) as Travis enters. Here’s the scene in its entirety:

The camera walks up to Betsy sitting at her desk along with Tom who sits on her desk. She’s blonde and she wears a red dress, open at the neck, with white curvy stripes all over it. Tom wears a pink dress shirt, gray vest, red tie, and glasses. There’s a huge poster behind them with Palentine’s face on it. The sign says “Palentine” at the top. At the bottom, it says “We Are The People.” The room is loud and hectic with people talking and phones ringing. There are glass windows behind Betsy’s desk. The camera zooms in on Betsy, then shifts behind her as Travis walks up to her desk. He wears a flannel button-up shirt and a red velvet blazer. His hair is combed.

Travis: [Leans on the desk] Hi, I’d like to volunteer.

Behind Travis there are more windows and Palentine posters.

Tom: Great. I’ll take you right over here.

Travis: Sorry, I’d rather volunteer to her if you don’t mind.

The camera shifts to Betsy’s face as Tom walks away.

Betsy: Why do you feel you have to volunteer to me?

The camera shows Betsy at her desk in the busy campaign office and Travis still leaning over the desk.

Travis: Because I think that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

Betsy: [Looks down, almost humbled] Thanks. [Looks back up at Travis] But what do you think of Palentine?

Travis: [Looks around] Well, I—

Betsy: Charles Palentine, the man you’re volunteering to elect president.

Travis: Well I’m sure he’ll make a good president. I don’t know what his policies are, but I’m sure he’ll make a good one.

Betsy: Do you want to canvass?

Travis: Yeah, I’ll canvass.

Betsy: How do you feel about the senator’s stand on welfare?

Travis: I don’t really know the senator’s stand on welfare, but I’m sure it’s a good stand.

The camera shows Travis and Betsy both talking as Tom enters the frame at a distance and stands in the gap between them, trying to watch them. He stands among busy campaigners and Palentine posters.

Betsy: You sure of that?

Travis: Yeah.

Betsy: Well, we all work together here full-time day and night, so if you’ll just step over there [gestures with her pencil], I’m sure the gentleman will sign you up—

Travis: The thing is, I drive a taxi at night, so it’s kinda hard for me to uh, work in the day. So, uh—

[Tom continues to watch them.]

Betsy: Then what exactly do you want?

Travis: [Leans over] would you like to come have some coffee and pie with me?

Betsy: Why?

Travis: Why?

Betsy: [Smiles] Yes.

Travis: I’ll tell you why. I think you’re a lonely person. I drive by this place a lot, and I see you here. I see a lot of people around you, and I see all these phones and all this stuff [the camera shows the top of the desk—papers, two black telephones, a pair of glasses—and Travis’s hand as he moves it across all the desk objects] on your desk, and it means nothing. And when I came inside and met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw how you carried yourself, that you’re not a happy person. And I think you need something. And if you wanna call it a friend, you can call it a friend.

Betsy: [Playing with her pencil] You’re gonna be my friend?

Travis: Yeah.

This scene happens fairly early on in the film and it’s important because it helps to humanize Travis. It’s apparent from the very beginning of the film that Travis is an isolated person by choice. His loneliness is self-imposed. And he’s experiencing loneliness and solitude in one of the most populated cities in the world: New York City. Here, we see him addressing the woman of his affection in a very direct way. And here, we can see that his feelings include a type of conviction that he’s finally expressing verbally: you and I are the same, you just don’t know it. Whether this is actually true or not is another thing, but in this moment, Travis believes it’s true. Being a lonely person himself, he feels that he’s detected loneliness in Betsy, who works tirelessly as a campaigner. I also think this is a really important scene precisely because of how De Niro carries himself. Even though he knows nothing about Palentine, he’s ready to care because Betsy cares. But at the same time, Travis exists outside of the political spectrum in his personal life. He comes across as apolitical because he doesn’t fit into the social structure. He’s not really for or against anything on a political level, but in his interaction with Betsy, we can see that he does have conviction, which evolves into something more political later on in the film.

The next scene is an exchange Travis has with the Wizard (Peter Boyle), who is an older, seasoned taxi driver, outside of the Belmore Cafeteria. Prior to this scene, Travis walks into the cafeteria, gets some food, and sits down with Wizard and a few other taxi drivers who are talking about their experiences on the job. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, but the stories they tell are what would be considered a little inappropriate, rough, and comical. But, because they are all taxi drivers, they have a mutual understanding of what the job entails, which consists of interacting with the darker aspects of the city. Travis is both part of and not part of the group, and this is important because it shows that he’s immersed in the same kind of roughness the other taxi drivers are, and it seems to be affecting him, but his loneliness still keeps him at a distance from them. As a result, he tries to solicit advice from the Wizard, who does his best to help. Here’s the scene:

Wizard leans back against the hood of his taxi cab as Travis stands next to him. It’s night; there’s a red tint from the Belmore Cafeteria sign.

Wizard: Yeah?

A cheaper-looking taxi cab drives by behind them.

Travis: I know you and I ain’t talked too much, you know—

Wizard: Yeah.

Travis: But I figure you been around a lot—

Wizard: Shoot. That’s why they call me the Wizard.

Travis: I got…it’s just that I got uh—

Wizard: Things got you down?

Travis: Yeah.

Wizard: Happens to the best of us.

Travis: Yeah, it’s got me real down, real down.

There is a pause. The camera shows the Wizard looking at Travis, cars passing back and forth behind him.

Travis: I just wanna go out and really…really…really do something.

Wizard: Taxi life, you mean?

Travis: Yeah, well…no, it’s…I don’t know…I just wanna go out [car horn sounds]…I really…I really wanna…I got some bad ideas in my head. I just…[car horn sounds]

Wizard: Oh look, look at it this way. You know, uh, a man, a man takes a job. And that job, I mean like that, that becomes what he is. You know, like uh [a bus drives by reflecting the red Belmore Cafeteria sign], you do a thing and that’s what you are. I’ve been a cabby for seventeen years, ten years at night. I still don’t own my own cab. You know why? ‘Cause I don’t want to. That must be what I, what I want. You know, to be on the night shift, driving somebody else’s cab. You understand? You get a job, you become the job. I mean, one guy lives in Brooklyn, one guy lives in Sutton Place. You got a lawyer, another guy’s a doctor. Another guy dies, another guy gets well, you know. People are born. I envy you. Go out, get laid. Get drunk, you know. You could do anything. You got no choice anyway. I mean, we’re all fucked. More or less, you know.

Travis: [Smiles] I don’t know. That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Wizard: It’s not Bertrand Russell, but what do you want? I’m a cabby, you know? What do I know? I mean, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Travis: I don’t know. Maybe I don’t know either.

Wizard: [Points to his own head] Don’t worry so much. Relax, kid. You’re gonna be all right. I know, I seen a lot of people and uh…I know [pats Travis’s arm].

[Travis and the Wizard shake hands]

Wizard: Yeah, you know, you’re all right [walks over to the driver’s side of the taxi].

In this scene, Travis’s loneliness is eating at him in a particular way. It’s not just “taxi life” as the Wizard suspects; it’s something more. I might call it political frustration that Travis can’t quite articulate. He’s isolated by choice, but it’s due to the fact that he feels alienated from society. But on top of that, he’s feeling the need to take action, and he can’t quite figure out how to take action yet. It’s his conviction eating away at him subconsciously. It’s apparent that being a taxi driver has aggravated his sense of what’s right and wrong. He’s become immersed in the rough environment and it’s a factor in how he’s seeing the world. He’s seeing it through the lens of a taxi driver and a lonely person. Both of these perspectives inform the decisions he makes later on the film. But here, in this scene, he makes a concerted effort to connect with the Wizard, who he does see as a wiser man than him. And the Wizard is wise. But, because Travis still can’t pinpoint his frustrations, the Wizard can’t really help him. In this scene, De Niro tries to balance out the side of Travis that wants to do something and the side that recognizes he needs an outside opinion. At this point, the job and the mental anguish are both wearing on him and it shows.

In the final scene I want to discuss, Travis interacts with a Secret Service Man (Richard Higgs) just before Palentine’s campaign rally. This is an interesting scene because it sets up what Travis does later on, which is to make a failed attempt to assassinate Palentine. As viewers, we don’t necessarily know what Travis is up to exactly in this scene, and it’s safe to say that he doesn’t really know, either. But he’s assessing, and he does this while talking to the Secret Service Man. Here’s the scene:

Travis stands next to a Secret Service Man. The camera is almost looking over the Secret Service Man’s shoulder at Travis. There’s a crowd in the background.

Travis: Hi…Hey, you’re a Secret Service man, aren’t you? Huh?

SSM: Just waiting for the senator.

Travis: [Smiles] Waiting for the senator? Oh [smiles and turns his head away], that’s a very good answer. Shit, man [kids run by]. I’m waiting for the sun to shine.

The camera shows them standing side by side, arms crossed, the Secret Service Man taller, wearing sunglasses and a brown suit, Travis wearing jeans and a green canvas jacket. There’s a crowd behind them. In the bottom lefthand corner of the frame is a Palentine poster.

Travis: Yeah…no, the reason I asked that you’re a Secret Service man, I won’t say anything, ‘cause I—

Two more Secret Service men walk by in dark blue suits, tall, glancing at Travis. Travis sees them, stops talking for a brief moment, and smiles.

Travis: I saw some suspicious looking people. Yeah, they were over there. Right over there [points to a spot off-camera].

The camera zooms in on Travis as he looks around.

Travis: They were just here [keeps looking around]. They were very, very, uh—

SSM: Suspicious?

Travis: Yeah [keeps looking around]. Is it hard to get to be in the Secret Service?

The camera zooms out, showing the Manhattan bridge just above Travis’s head.

SSM: Why?

Travis: Well, I was just curious because I think I’d be good at it. I’m very observant. I was in the Marine Corp, you know. I’m good with crowds. I notice that little pin there [looking at his suit jacket]. It’s like a signal, isn’t it?

SSM: Sort of.

Travis: A secret signal for the Secret Service.

SSM: Yeah [nods].

[Travis smiles.]

Travis: Hey, what kinda guns you guys carry? .38s? .45s? .357 magnums? Something bigger, maybe?

SSM: Look, uh, if you’re really interested, if you give me your name and address, we’ll send you all the information on how to apply. How’s that?

Travis: You will?

SSM: Sure.

Travis: Okay…why not?

[SSM pulls out a pad and pen from his suit jacket. A little redheaded kid walks around by Travis.]

Travis: My name is Henry…Krinkle. K-R-I-N-K-L-E [smiles at SSM]. 154 Hopper Avenue.

SSM: Hopper?

Travis: Yeah…you know, like a rabbit. Hip hop [laughs]. Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

SSM: Is there a zip code for that, Henry?

Travis: Yeah. 610452…okay?

SSM: That’s uh, 6 digits. 6, 1…

Travis: Oh, well 61045.

SSM: Okay [closes the notepad and puts it back inside his suit jacket.]

Travis: I was thinking of my telephone number.

SSM: Well, I’ve got it all…Henry. We’ll get all the stuff right out to you.

Travis: Thanks a lot. Hey, great. Thanks a lot [shakes SSM’s hand in a slightly awkward way]. Hell. Jesus. Be careful today.

SSM: Right. Will do.

Travis: You have to be careful around a place like this [smiles]. Bye.

[SSM waves to Travis. As soon as Travis starts to walk away, he motions to a man who’s holding a camera. He runs up and tries to get a picture of Travis, who looks back briefly. However, Palentine’s car pulls up and stirs up the crowd.]

This, to me, is probably one of the most vital scenes of the film. It’s both comedic and serious at the same time. This is a place where De Niro is really tapped into the energy of Travis, who shows his gutsier side by directly conversing with the Secret Service Man. One could make the case that this is a scene where Travis’s delusional paranoia has gotten to him, but I would make the case that this is where Travis becomes the most aware of what his conviction wants him to do: confront the government. He’s dissatisfied with the state of society and he wants to do something about it. This is what the film is building toward: what Travis is going to do about his loneliness and his feelings of alienation. Here, he makes a big move. De Niro walks a brilliant line between innocence and trickery with Travis. He plays dumb, but he’s not dumb; however, he also doesn’t really know where he’s going with the conversation. He’s still not clearly sure what he’s going to do. But he’s going to do something, that much becomes clear. There’s an excellent bit of dry humor here about the fact that Travis is both aware and unaware of what he’s getting himself into. And the Secret Service Man plays along. He takes down Travis’s false information. He’s polite. He’s non-judgmental. But the minute Travis’s back is turned, he gets one of his guys to snap a picture of him, and fails to do so. Travis makes himself a target and then quickly disappears. He becomes the suspicious person, however, he’s not worth chasing down.

I want to take some time to discuss all three scenes together. What they have in common is Travis’s desire to interact with others. In these scenes, he interacts with Betsy (the woman he feels that he loves), the Wizard (a co-worker he perceives as being wise) and a Secret Service Man (who he views as an extension of society’s problem: politicians). There is also an element of humor in each scene that helps cut through the intensity of Travis as a character. Tom tries to eavesdrop on Travis and Betsy as he asks her out on a date. The Wizard’s delivery of his speech is comedic, and the fact that neither man quite understands each other is also a bit humorous. Travis’s exchange with the Secret Service Man is also a great example of dark, dry humor wherein both characters know they’re not fooling each other, yet they both continue to play along. But another thing these scenes show is Travis’s progression toward taking action in the film. He decides that Palentine is the problem and attempts to assassinate him, but fails. Instead, he decides to go after another problem: Sport, the pimp (Harvey Keitel). And he does. So, he views Palentine as the problem because he won’t deal with the real problem, which is crime and corruption, and he views Sport as the problem because he’s a criminal taking advantage of Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year-old prostitute. This is what he sees all throughout the film: criminals, scum, lawlessness. These issues aren’t being dealt with, so Travis decides to deal with them himself, vigilante style.

One of the things that first eluded me while watching Taxi Driver is what Travis’s problem is on a psychological level. It’s not entirely clear. We know he’s a Vietnam Vet. We know he writes letters to his parents that are completely fabricated. We know he falls in love with Betsy and she eventually rejects him. We know he becomes entangled with Iris, who he wants to save from a life of prostitution. We know he’s lonely. We know he’s utterly alone. And we know he’s dissatisfied with society. Martin Scorsese gave some commentary on the film and made a good point about what Travis’s problem is: he lets himself be consumed by a world he despises. He doesn’t seem to understand that he doesn’t have to live the way he does, in the degraded environment that he’s chosen for himself. However, that doesn’t mean he’s not also seeing the world correctly. He’s seeing the world for exactly what it is in that moment: corrupt New York City in the mid-seventies. And rather than turn his back to it, he chooses to go to the root of the problem, corruption and crime itself. He kills Sport, who is allowed to be a pimp in a part of town that is poor, oppressed, and ignored by politicians like Palentine.

In the research I’ve done on Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle, the common consensus about him is that he’s paranoid. And as the film progresses, he becomes more and more paranoid, and his paranoia is what causes him to act. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, in his commentary of the film, referred to Travis as being a racist and a chauvinist, although those elements did not make it into the film. But that was the intention he had when he wrote the script. He wanted Travis to go after Black people at the end of the film and he wanted Sport to be Black. However, it was felt that it would be too volatile to take the film down that road. So, they tried to find a white pimp for Harvey Keitel to emulate, and couldn’t find one. Although I did not include a scene in this essay that features Sport, I want to make a crucial, and possibly controversial point: I think that Sport absolutely should have been white, and I disagree that Travis Bickle is a chauvinist and a racist. However, I can see how that narrative thread could exist, given the subculture that developed right after this film came out: the punk subculture. It quickly became infested with neo-nazis and skinheads, young males who were white and oppressed and viewed Blacks and Jews as being the problem. I think that Paul Schrader had his thumb on that sensibility, but I would want to separate Travis out of that group and place him in the realm of the punk rocker in a pre-punk era who had no subculture to turn to for solidarity and comfort. If Taxi Driver had come out at the end of the seventies, it would’ve been a different film for that reason. It would’ve had the punk subculture to contend with. But in the mid-seventies, Travis had nowhere to turn socially. So he became a vigilante instead.

I also want to separate Travis’s thinking out from the usual narrative that he was just paranoid. His concerns were rooted in real social issues: corruption and crime in particular. He was a Vietnam Vet who lived alone in a shitty one-room apartment in New York City. He was not privileged. But he was a white male and by patriarchal-capitalist standards, all white men should succeed within the system. Travis was a white male who fell through the cracks, so to speak, and was immersed in a world that typical consists of poor people of color. So he saw the injustices happening through the eyes of a white male reject. And he wanted to fix the problem. This is why I don’t consider him to be racist. He knew the areas he was working in and what those areas were infested with: crime and poverty. And he knew it was the politicians’ jobs to fix social problems. But they weren’t. In this sense, Travis took it upon himself to do what the politicians wouldn’t do: get rid of the scum who perpetuate crime. The reason why I feel Sport should’ve been white is because like Palentine, he was another white man using the system to his advantage. Black pimps, although problematic, are ultimately oppressed themselves because they are Black. However, it was a good move to make Sport white because it highlights a more poignant truth: white corruption fuels crime and oppression. Palentine and Sport are two sides of the same coin: one side is corruption; the other side is crime. So they both needed to be white to point to that truth.

This brings me back to my main thought, which is loneliness and conviction as the central themes of this essay. Travis’s loneliness and conviction are informed by all of the reasons I just discussed above. But he could not articulate it, and that was his big psychological problem. This is also why I admire Robert De Niro’s performance as Travis in this film. As an actor, he doesn’t pretend to know what Travis’s problem is, and performs loneliness instead, to such a degree where the social issues become permeated within him. This is because he will not leave the environment. De Niro keeps Travis innocent through his conviction which becomes more acute by way of his loneliness. He knows things aren’t supposed to be like this. And because of his hyperawareness of societal corruption, he ends up becoming even more lonely. But he does try to reach out—to Betsy, to the Wizard, and to Iris (the prostitute he tries to save, who is a twelve-year-old white girl). De Niro pulls from loneliness and conviction in order to portray Travis as complex rather than just paranoid. De Niro could’ve played Travis that way, as simply out of his mind. But instead, he took the high road with the character and gave viewers something more, a character who is awkward and innocent, but deeply affected by his loneliness and his job working as a taxi driver. He gave us a more complete character in Travis—someone who embodied enough conviction to feel justified in confronting a Secret Service Man, attempting to assassinate Palentine, and eventually killing Sport.

As the three scenes show, Travis’s loneliness does cause him to take productive actions aside from becoming a vigilante: to ask Betsy out, to seek advice from the Wizard, and to confront the Secret Service Man. I also consider Travis to be a punk rock icon precisely because De Niro highlighted loneliness and conviction as a way to show us something more than a white male reject losing his mind. Being a punk rocker myself since I was a teenager, and being immersed in the subculture, I know that punks come from the condition of loneliness and self-induced isolation due to a conviction that stems from not wanting to participate in a society that is ultimately corrupt. Those who want to understand what it means to be punk should definitely watch Taxi Driver, and especially take note of the scene where Travis interacts with the Secret Service Man. If I could point to one scene that embodies the punk ethos, it would be that scene. De Niro’s wonderful blend of innocence and cockiness in that moment hits the bullseye masterfully. He was punk before punk was an official thing. And although this essay didn’t explore aesthetics, I also want to acknowledge Scorsese’s cinematic brilliance for this film. Taxi Driver, on an aesthetic level, is probably the first of its kind in terms of how it was shot and how the film lends itself to multiple threads for analytic consideration. Even though it explores Travis’s perspective, it feels like a very open-ended film because it also engages with New York City in the mid-seventies. It captures the political turmoil of the time and the changing aesthetics of cinema at the time. Taxi Driver is an important counterculture film because it exposes societal corruption aesthetically and narratively. Paul Schrader’s initial script and vision for the film were further developed by the detail-oriented direction of Scorsese and De Niro’s on-point acting, which created a movie that both accurately documents a time period and tells a compelling fictive story at the same time, which is a rare thing to be able to do in cinema.

March 20, 2023