Over the course of his illustrious career, New Hollywood maestro Martin Scorsese has produced several influential masterpieces like Raging Bull and Goodfellas. However, the film that has immortalised Scorsese in the popular consciousness has to be his 1976 neo-noir gem Taxi Driver. Starring Robert De Niro as an insomniac, lonely and highly volatile taxi driver who glides along the filthy streets of New York at night, Taxi Driver is one of the definitive cinematic experiences of the 20th century.
Regularly cited by film scholars and fans as a seminal exploration of nihilistic angst, socioeconomic realism and masculinity, Taxi Driver is visceral in its venomous indictments of the alienation induced by modernity. Given the artistic power of the material, it is only natural that such a personal work of art took a lot of effort on the part of the artists behind the film’s final vision.
“At the time I wrote it [Taxi Driver], I was in a rather low and bad place,” screenwriter Paul Schrader recalled. “I had broken with Pauline [Kael], I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt.” Due to his rapidly deteriorating health, having to live in his car and hanging out at porn shops in the middle of the night, Schrader naturally ended up in the hospital.
While he was in there, the writer figured out the exact extent of his depraved condition during a conversation with a nurse which led to the genesis of Taxi Driver: “When I was talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks…that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.”
In a very early interview, Martin Scorsese introduced his masterpiece to unknowing audiences by claiming that this was very different to his breakthrough film Mean Streets. According to Scorsese, Taxi Driver was a political and philosophical doctrine which revolved around the central figure of a character who was moulded after the infamous political criminal Arthur Bremer.
In order to point out the exact differences between Mean Streets and his new project, Scorsese explained that the ethnic focus of Taxi Driver was completely different: “Taxi Driver is sort of a return to the type of thing Mean Streets is but the point is Taxi Driver is not about Italians, it’s about a Midwesterner who drives a taxicab at night in New York which is the worst time you can do it… but it’s my favourite time in New York.”
Adding, “He drives a cab at night and he really is like Arthur Bremer – the guy who shot George Wallace in America. Sort of like that, he writes diaries [and] it has a little to do with political assassinations but really has to do with a fellow who becomes obsessed with something he can’t have – a blonde haired, blue eyed beautiful woman… It’s kind of a religious film in the sense that it explodes into great violence, repression into violence like a cleansing. It’s a very strange film.”