The Trouble of Identity in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver & Altman’s 3 Women

A large cloud of white smoke envelops the frame in the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver (1976), shrouding any conceivable object that might lie behind its ubiquity. As the solemn noise of the orchestral score sets in, Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) yellow taxi cab, immeasurable in size, emerges from the smoke as if from an inferno. However, the inferno holds no demons or ghouls; the inhabitants consist of passing, blurred strangers of the New York City streets. As just his eyes flicker and dart across the screen in closeup, one can sense a deep feeling of paranoia and apprehension on his part as he examines the scene before him. Suppression and Bickle’s expectant reaction to his rapidly changing social environment drives the film’s narrative. Bickle slowly transforms throughout the film, both physically and mentally, and his calculated preparation toward reaffirming his identity in the context he finds himself in becomes structured upon one medium: violence. The screenwriter of the film, Paul Schrader, establishes the fundamentals of his character in the opening page of the screenplay by noting, “He is a raw male force, driving forward; toward what, one cannot tell. Then one looks closer and sees the inevitable. The clock spring cannot be wound continually tighter. As the earth moves toward the sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.”

On first impression, Bickle embodies the ultra-masculinity that Schrader describes in the opening page of the screenplay; his status as a former Vietnam marine and his aloof approach to his social interactions adheres to traditional notions of masculinity. However, the film presents an aesthetically destructive approach to character by portraying identity as a fabrication, much like Robert Altman’s portrayal of his principal characters in his film 3 Women (1977). Barbara Mortimer notes that for the postmodern subject, “selfhood is externally rather than internally produced” and represents itself as an act of signification in environments harboring feelings of loneliness, isolation and alienation (28). Both Bickle of Taxi Driver and Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) of 3 Women assert their individual and characteristically fixed notions of gender identity through impersonations of his or her selfhoods. The crowning acts of violence inflicted by both Bickle and Millie (implied in Altman’s film) can be seen as symbolically representing a final reassertion of identity in lieu of a history of failed attempts.

In the opening shots of Taxi Driver, before Scorsese formally introduces his film’s protagonist, he offers only a lingering close-up of Bickle’s interrogating eyes as he surveys the people he sees before him in the city streets. He carries no form or body and the subsidence of his physical form stands on his eyes alone, creating a space of disproportion and a loss of distance between the subject on screen and the voyeur. The use of the close-up oscillates between feeling intimately connected and overwhelmed by size; a certain kind of emptiness is created because the proximity of the close-up allows no stepping back (Elsaesser 81). Bickle’s gaze and the relationship it shares with the audience represents itself as an elusive game of cat-and-mouse throughout the film; for if the audience finds itself the object of its scrutiny, the spectators’ subjectivity and gateway into deciphering Bickle’s psyche would be shut off. For Bickle, his eyes serve as a dependable resource for judging the world around him; the environment he finds himself in is literally covered in a myriad of sensory traps, from smoke, rain and the nighttime darkness. The terrain he captures in his point-of-view recreates the unforgiving turf of Vietnam, inferring that Bickle still finds himself entrapped in the mentality of war.

Bickle’s apartment space and his physical appearance portrays the extent of unspoken influence the Vietnam War inflicted upon his perceptions of identity and serves as another extension of space in the “dream” he imagines himself in. When Scorsese first introduces Bickle’s cramped apartment, the camera slowly pans right toward the door, where a barely visible North Vietnamese flag hangs on a shelf before Bickle enters the shot. The room holds a marred appeal, as if Bickle recently returned from the war; the mise-en-scene portrays a room bearing only the bare necessities, as empty Coca-Cola bottles and food wrappers litter his desk, bedside and the floors of his apartment. The junk food scattered and hoarded in his apartment serves as his dutiful companion throughout the film; as Bickle sleeps, writes at his desk, and even recites his infamous monologue before his bedroom mirror, an opened container of food or drink makes its presence known in all the shots. And instead of a pillow, he sleeps on his military knapsack; the bomber jacket he wears throughout the film acts as a makeshift blanket. By presenting the influence of the “paternal eye” of the military through imagery and mise-en-scene, Scorsese portrays the silent and forever-present influence of Vietnam in Bickle’s day-to-day life (Faludi 596-597).

The imprint of Vietnam on Bickle’s perceptions of the world around him serves as a framework to achieve the masculine ideal that is reinforced in American culture and history. Susan Faludi notes that Vietnam established itself as a “defining event of American masculinity, the bridge that collapsed just as the nation’s sons thought they were crossing to manhood (Faludi 298).” The ambiguity of the objectives of the Vietnam War and its hasty closure resulted in a lack of assurance for serving men like Bickle, as they remained in the crossroads of achieving masculine self-identity and security. In the film, this uncertainty is accentuated and metaphorically represented with Bickle mentioning that he didn’t even complete his tour in Vietnam; he left early with an honorable discharge. Bickle’s goals and schemes involving violence represent alternative paths to redemption carved from the lessons learned in Vietnam; left with an incomplete mission dedicated to taking down a known enemy, Bickle fashions himself as his own vigilante figure. However, this obsession only formulates after he fails to pursue Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the “angel in white” who serves as a campaign volunteer for New York Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Bickle vividly describes his first sighting of Betsy in a voice-over as he simultaneously writes in his journal off-screen. The contrast of her white dress in Bickle’s dreamlike flashback (emphasized by Scorsese’s use of slow-motion in depicting Betsy’s introduction and a disoriented point-of-view in the beginning of the flashback as the camera navigates through the moving crowd of people) gives her an aura visible to Bickle and even the man (played by Scorsese) sitting next to the entrance of Palantine’s campaign office. In the war-zone Bickle envisions for himself, Betsy represents the “nurse in white” that could possibly lead him to escape and salvation with her potential to heal his psychological  wounds left by Vietnam.

However, Bickle is literally blind-sighted to the extent of damage inflicted on his psyche by his history in Vietnam. He possesses permanent scars, not wounds; a large scar literally covers his entire back, unseeable to him and only visible to the audience during a quick bird’s-eye view shot. Betsy’s refusal to assume her fabricated role in Bickle’s life sends a message to his mind that he must focus his rage and motivations elsewhere, as he begins to plan for the assassination of Senator Palantine. Bickle immediately starts to fashion an identity that combines images of vigilantism drawn from pop culture, as well as retaining his inscribed history as a marine. As he begins to withdraw further away from himself and deeper into isolation, he says in voiceover: “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time: true force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.” Bickle sees violence, the clearest lesson he learned from his time in Vietnam, as a possible pathway leading establishing a new type of law for the disorder present in his society. The promise of violence refuses to leave even after he fails to kill Palantine, as Bickle quickly moves his sight toward freeing 12-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from her controlling and vulgar pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).

Millie Lammoreaux of 3 Women, much like Bickle who is stuck in a nostalgic dream created by his time in Vietnam, finds herself rigidly comfortable in prescribed gender norms and expectations spoon-fed to her by the media and American consumerism. To Millie, her physical appearance serves as a path towards desirability; she desperately seeks the validation of the male gaze with each meticulous behavior she asserts onto the people around her. Instead of following the new ideals placed by the rising feminist movement such as not conforming to the patriarchal demands of the media and culture during her time, she uses her individuality for detrimental pursuits of personal recognition.  John Berger emphasizes the influence of the male gaze on the female subject: “And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another” (46). Millie’s fabricated identity presents itself as such a farce that everyone she interacts views her as an elaborate joke. Even the new surname she assigns herself, Lammoreaux (“It’s French,” Millie declares with pride), seems inauthentic with its excess of letters and awkward pronunciation. Altman plays with the irony of Millie’s character by casting Shelley Duval, who embodies a flawed beauty with her prominent teeth, marionette figure and big eyes.

Unlike Bickle, Millie possesses a complete fabrication of identity and doesn’t find herself in a crisis; she simply copies the depictions of women in her magazines and nourishes herself with the gender norms regurgitated by the media. In a scene depicting her typical lunch break, she’s seated with a group of self-involved workers from the hospital across her workplace. All the men who share the table with Millie ignore the babbling she spouts and nod as if to appease her; Millie seems oblivious to the rejection as she later says her goodbye while continuing to recite the new recipe she learned from a cooking journal. Before she leaves the table entirely, she picks up her assumed “lunch” in the notably expensive cafeteria: a pack of cigarettes and a large stack of colorful ladies magazines. Millie consumes the recipes and conventions of a soulless culture, resulting in a persona that is all outward manner and style with no inner feelings or substance (Kinder 14). While Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver imagines himself as the hero of his own maddening narrative, Millie represents just another gaudy commercial to be ignored by the mass public.

Only Millie’s new and remarkably childlike coworker, Pinkie (Sissy Spacek), fully captures Millie in her obsessive, wide-eyed gaze. 3 Women bears a characteristic as a film that sets it apart from Taxi Driver in terms of its presentation of identity formation in postmodern America. Altman forces the spectator to question their experience of the conventional narrative found in contemporary cinema by structuring the film like a dream: the camera overlooks significant events and characters (including the incidents associated with them) as they spin away from the narrative axis (Di Piero 34). In comparison, Scorsese’s film aligns itself with more conventional modes of storytelling and its ambiguity, in turn, becomes less pronounced. With his trademark satirical style, Altman creates an ideal filmic environment for carefully studying the intricacies and faults of American culture and identity.


The use of mirrors throughout the film heightens the irony Altman plays with as he cleverly mocks Millie’s heedless nature. Millie’s dependence on magazines and popular culture for guidance and companionship isolates herself from the individuals she hopes to integrate with in her workplace and apartment complex: the twins, the best friends who almost seem attached to the hip, her two bosses, and her so-called “friends.” Altman’s number fetish presents itself as essential social commentary on the importance of traditional unions and general amity in widespread culture; Millie disrespects this notion by refusing to effectively extend herself to others. In the screenshot above (top), Pinky easily intrudes into Millie’s manufactured life through the mirror in the dressing room and in turn finds a cohesive identity of her own. Pinky, as John Berger noted earlier in his quote regarding the male gaze, assumes the position of the male surveyor in the woman’s equation of seeing; she sees herself as an extension (and complement) to Millie’s identity and life. In sum, Pinky’s blurred reflection in the mirror transforms a couplet into a comfortable triad; with the introduction of the reclusive artist Willie (Janice Rule) in the lives of both Pinky and Millie, Altman foreshadows an eventual union between the three lost souls. The implied murder of Willie’s grossly masculine husband after her miscarriage in the end of the film provides a sense of closure to the three women as they assume their desired identities within the space of their communion.

Throughout 3 Women, Altman reassures his audience that the self can recreate itself in spite of structure and culture, represented by his principal characters’ individual plights and ensuing circumstances: Pinky’s move to California, her suicide attempt and transformation after she awakens from her coma, and the final rearrangement of their intertwined identities (Kinder 16). However, the glimmer of hope evident in Altman’s film is not available to Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The screenshot pictured in page 7 (bottom) captures Bickle during an ordinary moment in his day as he mindlessly eats a meal – erosive with its implied sugar content – while watching television. Unbeknownst to him, the mirror that hangs on the wall behind him captures his own reflection, emphasizing his increasing loneliness and isolation. In 3 Women, Millie also suffers from alienation and keeps herself company with items from her consumerist culture. Yet, she’s eventually accepted by the enormous influence of Pinky in her life, foreshadowed by Pinky’s reflective image in the mirrors Millie finds herself in front of throughout the film. In contrast, Bickle continuously finds himself with no one and chooses to withdraw in his madness and delusions. The scene where he recites his “Are you talking to me?” monologue in front of his apartment mirror serves as the beginning of his attempt to integrate  the destructive split in his personality as he directly “confronts” it for the first time.

According to Barbara Mortimer, the end of Taxi Driver exposes the concept of selfhood as “increasingly obsolete” in the context of contemporary culture (38). However, Mortimer’s assertion of obsoleteness in Bickle’s quest of identity fails to take in regard the madness that Robert Phillip Kolker acknowledges in Bickle’s mental perceptions and his final act of symbolic violence (217). While 3 Women presents the final act of violence inflicted by its principal characters’ as a sanctioned means of an individual’s expression of self, Taxi Driver depicts a path to violence with no rational comprehension or need due to Bickle’s mental instability. The elevated status of Travis after his heroic act of murdering Iris’s captors loses its validility when he finds his paranoid eyes in the ‘prison’ of his rearview mirror. Bickle finds himself in the seat of his driver’s car again – in comparison to the relaxed trio in the last scene of 3 Women – as he continues to bleakly search for a cohesive identity.

Works Cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972. Print.

Di Piero, W. S. “Wish and Power: Recent Altman.” Chicago Review 30.1 (1978): 34-51. Print.

Elsaesser, Thomas, and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction to the Senses. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man. New York: W. Morrow and, 1999. Print.

Kinder, Marsha. “The Art of Dreaming in “Three Women” and “Providence”: Structures of the Self.” Film Quarterly 31.1 (1977): 10-18. Print.

Kolker, Robert Phillip. A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Mortimer, Barbara. “Portraits of the Postmodern Person in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy.” Journal of Film and Video 49.1/2 (1997): 28-38. Print.

Schrader, Paul. Taxi Driver: [screenplay]. New York: Faber & Faber, 1990. Print.

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