The Auditory Perceptions of God’s Lonely Man: Sounds and Narrative Devices in Taxi Driver

Dylan Hintz
Intro to Film
Dr. Johnson

The Auditory Perceptions of God’s Lonely Man:
Sounds and Narrative Devices in Taxi Driver

“You’re only… as healthy… as… you… feel,” utters Travis Bickle, played by an Oscar Nominated Robert DeNiro, to no one but himself; the only one who listens. It is a manifest destiny line, filtered through subjective narration by Travis after his failed date with the blond goddess, Betsy. Embedded into the audio track of this statement is a familiar sound of ticking—a clock growing louder and louder, and the meaning, like many scenes in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), is one of oncoming dread. Like many other sounds in the film, this tick becomes an aural motif, also seen “when Bickle is preparing for his assassination attempt against Senator Palantine” (Thurman 1). As the plot progresses, Travis becomes a ticking time bomb of psychological dysfunction and mental disease, and his symptoms are best manifested to the audience through his aural hallucinations and delusional auditory intake of the world around him through the sense of sound.

Over the course of the film, the audience receives detailed subjective narrations from Travis, with the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds adding caliber to his words. Though a screenplay does not take place inside a characters head, subjective sounds can lead film to read like a novel. “The action takes place inside the character’s head, within the mindscape of the action” (Field 7) as Syd Field says in his book, Screenplay. Early on, the sound-effects are used to bring the viewer into Travis’s state of withdraw, and later they are used to make the most familiar and penetrating sounds he hears so clear that they become a part of his character. By the end of the film, the meaning of one sound in particular is given the most emphasis: the sound of gunshots. Thus, the sounds  used to bolster Travis’s perceptions follow a character arc, along with him, in the three-act plot of the film. As Syd Field says, “Beginning, middle, and end […] Setup, confrontation, resolution—the parts that make up the whole” (Field 12). The three moments used to portray these events are Travis’s staring into the glass of Alka-Seltzer as a setup in Act 1, his gunplay in the mirror as part of the confrontation in Act 2, and his final rampage and attempted suicide as the resolution near the end of Act 3. Each scene has a controlled sound effect within, but is portrayed in near-surrealistic ways, demonstrating how Travis is “torn between rage and otherworldly asceticism” (Bordwell 78). Travis is living in a world of sounds that both drown out and focus clearly on different aspects of his own insane personality.

At roughly seventeen minutes into the film, nearing the end of the first act, Travis performs an odd action. While in mid-conversation with his fellow cabbies in their local hang out, he abruptly opens a container of Alka-Seltzer tablets and dumps one into his drink. The tablet fizzles, but outside of the norm, the sound is brought to an increasingly high level. The sound eventually grows so loud that it overshadows the entire conversation. Loudness is effectively used in films to add a third dimension to the story on the screen as “loudness is also related to perceived distance; often the louder the sound, the closer we take it to be” (Bordwell and Thompson 350). Because this sound is so overwhelming, Travis’s proximity to it becomes exaggerated, as if he is falling into the drink. Thus, he becomes closer to his isolation, and farther away from the world around him. This is reflected as the shot cuts back from the Alka-Seltzer to Travis watching it, and the audience sees that Travis has not physically moved. Therefore, Travis is most distant from reality, trapped within the realm of his own thoughts.

The shot itself is symbolic, but the sound effect associated with it displays the transportation into “a representation of the private universe in which Travis is lost” (Thurman 1). The sound is a surreal example of Travis’s isolation, a key factor in his character development in Act 1, helping to create a specific boundary for the audience to cross. Before leading into the plot-point one hook of Travis’s dates with Betsy, this scene establishes “the relationships between the main character and the other people who inhabit his or her world” (Field 10). Even in a group of very talkative cabbies, Travis has very little to say, with almost no idea how to react to small talk, and would prefer to zone out into his own, private world. The first act reflects on how Travis doesn’t know how to belong, and the second shows how he tries and fails, with catastrophic results.

As the plot progresses into Act 2, Travis fails on his dates with Betsy and a few major scenes, including the ticking time bomb and wilting flowers shot, demonstrate how Travis’s isolation begins to lead him down a dangerous path. This is best accentuated with Scorsese’s infamous hallway shot, in which Travis, on the phone with Betsy, is heard talking to her as she rejects him, denying Travis the attention he craves. Betsy’s voice is never heard, but the audience is a full participant in Travis’s reaction as he mumbles into the phone pathetically. This is a form of restricted narration, in which “plunging to the depths of mental subjectivity can increase our identification with a character and can cue stable expectations about what a character will later say or do” (Bordwell and Thompson 86). Travis begins taking persistent steps into his own “morbid self obsession”, as he would put it, and focuses with growing intensity on his needs for vindication, describing his isolation as a form of punishment, as if it were God given. It is demonstrated through this scene so thoroughly, because the audience hears only his side of the conversation, as if all of his dialogues were really monologues with no one to listen.

Reaching the halfway mark of the film, and halfway through Act 2 “the story becomes the main character overcoming obstacle after obstacle to achieve (or not achieve) his or her dramatic need” (Field 12). Travis’s dramatic need, arguably, is to find a place where he belongs in society through the acceptance of others, and he decides to pursue this through violent behavior and a false self-perception of becoming an archetypal western hero. He decides to become some kind of lone ranger, in which “individualism, arguably the badge of the American Identity, [devolves] into loneliness, and thence into madness and violence” (Iannucci 1). His obsession with Betsy becomes transferred to the young prostitute, Iris, and the idea of cleaning up scum begins to surface in his deranged mind, with Travis envisioning himself as “the lone hero who rescues and regenerates society through violence” (Iannucci 1). This is the theme that begins to perforate Act 2, whipping the story into a radically different direction and taking Travis off the deep end. The sound effects, of course, accompany his visual madness.

At the very half-point of the film (53 minutes in), known also as the midpoint wherein a culminating action occurs that defines the character, Travis states “And then there is change,” as he gets ready to climb into another cab with Easy Andy, the traveling gun dealer. Inside a seedy hotel room, each gun Andy offers him has its own distinct sound, with Travis listening intently as he pulls the trigger for each click and clack of the different hammers. Through their different pitches and timbres, the audience sees Travis organically connecting with his new tools. There is an undertone of a child’s laughter in one shot, providing one of the functions of sound that is to “create something off screen that is not really there” (Whittington 148). Travis points the .38 Snub Nose revolver out the window, feeling gleeful as he gazes over potential targets. His emotional needs are finally being met, and his psychotic responses are starting to be triggered.

He bloodlust tingling, Travis purchases his new friends, and takes them home to begin training. This involves staring in the mirror and rehearsing one-liners to himself for what could be hours on end. As he does this, he progressively attaches the guns to his body, even going so far as to rig one mechanically to his arm. As he whips this one out in particular, the Colt .25, he begins making clicking and ratcheting noises with his own body. Even though this is the natural sound the rigging would make, the combination of his fluid and organic body motions with the metallic clacks mold the Colt .25 and Travis’s body into one being. This is because “seemingly ‘realistic’ sound effects in the film transform into expressionistic constructions” (Whittington 147). Over the course of these scenes, the attachment of the sound to Travis’s movements becomes an artistic link between the guns and his mind, especially as he speaks while drawing them.

Sound effects such as these are “infused with issues related to organic unity, anthropomorphism, and gender, which keep the filmgoers in the grips of stylistic and emotional excess” (Whittington 151-152). With the theory of audio-biomechanics in play, Travis is literally becoming a killing machine, personifying his weapons as an anthropomorphic part of himself. “…Travis’s fetish for his guns […] provides him the illusion that he can accomplish his objective with violent force” (Iannucci 1), and this fetish is revealed not only through his actions, but his perceptions of the loudness of the clicking of his guns—as if he were in an action movie, and he was the hero. His constant rehearsals of killing targets demonstrates his overcoming of mental obstacles, and his preparation for his big kill, that is the focal point of the latter half of Act 2. These sound effects ring out Travis’s development as a character, leading to his final rampage towards the end of Act 3.

The final graphic shootout of the film contains many elevated sound effects, an as he begins his assault “the shots of his opening salvo echo over the empty spaces of the tenement, where Iris hears them from her upstairs room and turns her head in alarm” (Thurman 1). His .44 has roared, and his attack has been announced, and while Iris has a look of fear, Travis only sees and hears his enemies fighting back. The words “kill you” echo over and over again as the doorman crawls after Travis, adding a disturbing tone to the action within the scene. He executes two other men with both his snub nose and his Colt .25, each sound still distinct and gruesome, especially the pop-cap noises of his automatic as it lands in the face of the mobster in Iris’s room. Most importantly, however, is Travis’s final attempted kill: himself.

Travis has killed all of his targets (aside from his failed mission to assassinate Palantine), but still has to end his own life to secure his martyrdom, or eliminate his pain. Either way, Travis begins searching for whatever guns he can find in an attempt to blast himself. This is the climax of the film, in which “Emotionally, the climax aims to lift the viewer to a high degree of tension or suspense” (Bordwell and Thompson 82), as the character the audience has followed for so long through so many trials is about to bring himself to an end. However, each gun he picks up clicks empty, like in his earlier training, only now their loudness is much quieter and more natural. In essence, Travis’s violence is spent and he has no more left to give, or perhaps fate has dealt him a kind hand by ironically having all of his weapons completely drained of ammo.

When the police finally arrive, Travis sits on the couch, staring with a fulfilled bleakness, raises a bloodied hand to his head, and points it at himself like a gun. This gesture is not new to the film by any means—Travis has received this from two other characters within the course of the film, once in Act 1 by the black cabbie Charlie T., and once in Act 2 by Sport the pimp. In the case of both men, “Travis looks at him ominously as if [their fingers] represented a gun” (Iannucci 1). While they are pointing figurative guns at him, Travis takes this action as a literal gesture of hostility, meaning his reenactment of their motion upon himself must be self-deploring. What links all three of these moments is the sound effect all the men use: each man makes some sort of “pow” sound while pointing their fingers at Travis. He is effectively killing off his “monster” self. This final sound motif is echoed back through Travis’s lips three times before he finally nods off into unconsciousness, ending the most climactic part of the film, before the God-shot and denouement begins. It is an aural cue that Travis’s subjective storyline is over, as from this point on he will no longer be completely lonely and isolated. It is a moment of rebirth.

The three Acts of Taxi Driver are noted with distinct sound effects that give the audience more insight into Travis on an artistic level. The first Act contains scenes of heightened awareness such as the Alka-Seltzer, but equally demonstrates his social ineptitudes. While this is a theme throughout the entirety of the picture, the second act brings in the motif of gun mechanics and gunfire as a building notion towards machine-infusion and self destruction. At the same time it demonstrates Travis’s glee in his newfound vindication. The final act brings the taxi driver into complete self-absorption as he and his guns wreak havoc in a small brothel hallway, making noises far louder than anything heard on the screen before, and ending with the quietest gun effects yet heard as Travis fails to end his own life having already fired every shot in his arsenal. All three acts are connected by the sound effect the threatening male characters, including Travis, all make as gestures of friendliness, though through Travis’s subjective and restricted perceptions, come off ultimately as hostile behaviors. The sounds of Taxi Driver show an extreme range of emotion, but allow for the audience to get within Travis’s own skull through his hallucinogenic and delusional perceptions of audio phenomena, as if he was constantly driving his taxi with chattering passengers in the backseat, unseen but always heard.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies.. Berkley, U of
California P, 2006.

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristen. Film Art: An Introduction (7th Edition). McGraw-Hill,

Field, Syd. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. New York: Dell, 1979.

Iannucci, Matthew J. “Postmodern Antiheor: Capitalism and Heroism in Taxi Driver.Bright
Lights Film Journal
. 47.  2005.

Thurman, John. “Citizen Bickle, or the Allusive Taxi Driver: Uses of Intertexuality,” Senses of

Whittington, William. Sound Design and Science Fiction. Austin: U of Texas P, 2007.

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The Auditory Perceptions of God’s Lonely Man: Sounds and Narrative Devices in Taxi Driver by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Fun Fact! I made a Taxi Driver video some time ago for Directing Actors for Film, a Class at SU. Check it out and be sure to comment!