For fans of cinema, the name Travis Bickle will instantly conjure up visions of mohawks, brothel shootouts, and conversations in the mirror. As the anti-hero of 1976’s Taxi Driver, Travis (Robert De Niro) constantly wages a moral and ideological war within his own mind. Should he keep his head down and become yet another anonymous, callous resident of New York City, or should he confront the ever-present scum with guns blazing? It’s a Martin Scorsese film, so that should immediately tip you off as to which path Travis will ultimately choose.
Those unfamiliar with Martin Scorsese’s disturbed protagonist are in for a complex, yet pleasant, surprise. Travis Bickle is considered one of the most iconic characters in the history of cinema, and he’s received high rankings on Empire Magazine’s “100 Greatest Movie Characters” and the AFI’s “Top 50 Movie Villains of All Time.” He’s also infinitely quotable, with his classic “You talkin’ to me” speech ranking tenth on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movie Quotes.”
Before we jump into this look at Travis Bickle, keep in mind that spoilers lurk around every corner in this article. If you haven’t already watched Taxi Driver, you might want to step away and do so. If not, don’t say that we didn’t warn you.
Travis Bickle Bio
During the events in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is 26-year-old former Marine living in Manhattan. He claims to have served in the Vietnam War, being honorably discharged in May of 1973. In keeping with his military background, he has a partially burned Viet Cong flag in his apartment, and a large scar is noticeable on his back.
Lacking anything more than a high school education (and suffering from insomnia), he takes a job driving a taxi on the graveyard shift. Socially awkward with few friends, Travis is willing to take on any kind of passenger and travel to any kind of neighborhood. While he appears unafraid of the city and its inhabitants, he is visibly disgusted by what he refers to as the human “filth” he witnesses every night. During the daytime hours, Travis spends much of his time in porn theaters.
He writes his thoughts in a diary, and the film’s voice-over narration frequently draws from this source. Travis also writes letters to his parents, although he deceives them by claiming to be a government employee living a successful life. Telling him his job is of a secretive nature, he declines to give them his home address.
Travis spots a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) through the window of a campaign office for Senator Charles Palantine. Instantly smitten with her, he enters under the false pretense of becoming a campaign volunteer. Once inside, he convinces Betsy to join him for coffee and pie. During this meeting, she tells Travis that he reminds her of a line from Kris Kristofferson’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33,” “He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction–a walking contradiction.” Travis quickly reminds her that he’s not a pusher.
Betsy agrees to see him again, and Travis takes her to one of the porn theaters he frequents. The movie playing is Language of Love, a sex education film from Sweden. Betsy is horrified, and she ends the date. Travis tries to reconcile with her, but Betsy wants nothing more to do with him.
Following his rejection by Betsy, Travis becomes more and more obsessed with the crime-ridden city around him. He often fantasizes about doing something drastic, a fact he partially confesses to cabbie buddy Wizard (Peter Boyle). Travis begins a strict exercise regimen, and he purchases a number of guns.
Travis is especially disgusted by prostitution, and this only intensifies when a 12-year-old hooker named Iris (Jodie Foster) jumps into his cab in an effort to flee her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel). She’s drug from the cab by Sport, who tosses a crumpled twenty-dollar bill to Travis for his trouble.
Travis now shifts his attention to saving Iris, even buying some of her time from Sport and trying to convince her to return home to her parents (Iris is a runaway). When this fails, Travis becomes increasingly obsessed.
He begins to study the schedule of Senator Palantine, and it becomes clear that he has bad intentions towards the politician. During this time, Travis enters a grocery store just before a robbery takes place. He foils the robber by shooting him in the neck, then leaves with the blessing of the store’s owner (who proceeds to club the criminal to death).
Travis shaves his hair into a mohawk and intends to assassinate Palantine during a rally. Spotted by Secret Service agents, he flees from the scene before carrying out his plan. Soon afterwards, he approaches Sport and shoots him in the stomach. He then enters the seedy makeshift brothel where Iris is entertaining a client. In the ensuing shootout, Travis is wounded in the neck and shoulder, but he kills Sport, the brothel’s bouncer, and Iris’s customer. Kneeling near the horrified Iris, he attempts to commit suicide. His guns out of ammunition, a bloodied Travis sits on a sofa and waits for the police to arrive.
Travis is considered a hero for his daring rescue of a 12-year-old prostitute. Iris is returned to her parents, and they write a heartfelt letter to Travis thanking him for his courageous act. After being released from the hospital, he returns to driving a cab. Betsy ends up being one of his fares, and she seems once again interested in him. Travis drops her off at her destination without charging her. Driving away, he hears a piercing noise which causes him to glance into his rearview mirror.
Inspiration for Travis Bickle
Screenwriter Paul Schrader drew much of his inspiration for Travis Bickle from the real-life diaries of Arthur Bremer, who tried unsuccessfully to assassinate presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Schrader also drew from his own feelings of isolation and pain after going through a divorce and a break-up with his live-in girlfriend. The bizarre ramblings in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground also helped in the creative process.
Schrader considers Taxi Driver to be part of a series he calls “Man in a Room” or the “Night Worker.” The other films include American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, and The Walker, all of which were written and directed by Schrader. In interviews, he has stated that he believes the lead character in each film is the same person, simply changing with the passage of time.
You Talkin’ to Me?
Screenwriter Paul Schrader takes no credit for the iconic “You talkin’ to me?” speech in Taxi Driver. When he wrote the script, he only noted that “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror.” The line was created by Robert De Niro during filming. Clarence Clemons, saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen, has been quoted as saying that De Niro claimed to have lifted the line from Springsteen. During a concert where fans were screaming his name, the singer looked into the audience and yelled “You talkin’ to me?” At that moment, De Niro decided to take the line and incorporate it into the role of Travis Bickle.
Travis Bickle – Death and Redemption
There has been much debate over the ending of the film, especially in regard to whether or not Travis survived the brothel shootout. A number of critics have championed the theory that the film’s final moments of heroism and admiration are nothing more than Travis’s dream as he dies of trauma and blood loss from the gun battle. While Scorsese and Schrader have not confirmed this theory, they have cited the moment when Travis glances at the unseen object in his rearview mirror. According to both men, this is a clear indication that Travis is far from being cured, and his next rampage probably won’t be against pimps and mobsters.
Travis Bickle Quotes
To conclude this article, I wanted to provide a series of Travis Bickle quotes. They should help underscore many of the points discussed above, plus they show off the genius of screenwriter Paul Schrader. Feel free to use these Travis Bickle quotes on friends, family, and co-workers, although expect vaguely disturbed expressions from those who don’t understand the reference.
- “Shit… I’m waiting for the sun to shine.”
- “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man…June 8th. My life has taken another turn again. The days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next. A long continuous chain. Then suddenly, there is a change.”
- “I got some bad ideas in my head.”
- “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time: TRUE force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.”
- “How’s everything in the pimp business?”
- “Hey, I’m not square, you’re the one that’s square. You’re full of shit, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those fuckin’ creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little pussy for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I’m square? You’re the one that’s square, man. I don’t go screwing fuck with bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein’ hip? What world are you from?”
- “I think someone should just take this city and just…just flush it down the fuckin’ toilet.”
- “Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.”
- “I first saw her at Palantine Campaign headquarters at 63rd and Broadway. She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They…cannot…touch…her.”
- “Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.”
- “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking…you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?”
- “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”
- “June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pullups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.”
- “Now I see this clearly. My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.”
- “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ‘em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Travis Bickle, the complex anti-hero from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. If you’d like to read more about strange movies and the characters contained within, be sure to click on the following links from Odd Films: