As not only one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest ever films but up there with the greatest films of all time, the Palme d’Or winning Taxi Driver elevated the status of its director and shot its star, Robert De Niro, into the limelight of Hollywood cinema. An uncompromising psychoanalysis of a man on the edge of insanity, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader crafted one of the finest New York dramas, riddled with intensity and dense characterisation.
Drawing inspiration from the likes of Arthur Bremer to Alfred Hitchcock, in films like The Wrong Man, Schrader’s story is a dark and troubled one influenced by his own dissatisfaction in his youth. In conversation with the American Film Institute, the screenwriter compared the writing of the film to “self-therapy”, explaining that he found it a cathartic experience penning his real-life experience onto the page. As Paul Schrader states, “The idea of this taxi cab came to me, this yellow metal coffin floating through the sewer of the city with this boy trapped inside who can’t get out who looks like he’s in a crowd but he’s desperately alone”.
Having enjoyed an illustrious career, writing the screenplays for such films as Raging Bull, Bringing Out the Dead, First Reformed and The Card Counter, Paul Schrader has made a name for himself penning stories of complicated, tortured souls in oppressive, suffocating communities. Working with Martin Scorsese multiple times throughout his career, the two creatives share a mutual appreciation for cinema’s toughest tales, featuring the world’s most roguish characters.
Such an established career may have never happened if it had not been for one fateful trip to the cinema for Schrader in 1969, however, where, whilst he was working for the LA Free Press, he went to see a screening of Pickpocket by Robert Bresson. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in a round table interview, the screenwriter remarked, “In that 75 minutes, it’s a short film, two things happened that changed my life”.
The first of Paul Schrader’s epiphanies was that he “realised there was a bridge between my spiritual life and my film life, and it was a bridge of style, not a bridge of content”. Meanwhile, the writer also asserted, “The other thing I realised was that in fact there was a place for me in the film business, other than a critic”.
Inspiring him to take up fiction writing, Schrader realised that his spirituality could be suffused into his love of cinema, helping him to create such borderline religious characters as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead. As Paul Schrader concluded, he noted, “Two years later I’d written the book [Transcendental style in film] and three years later I’d written Taxi Driver, which is a pickpocket”.
Robert Bresson was known as one of the most iconic filmmakers of the 20th century, creating the likes of Au Hasard Balthazar, A Man Escaped and, of course, Pickpocket released in 1959. Starring Martin LaSalle, the classic film follows the enigmatic character Michel who lives his life by picking people’s pockets despite the watchful eye of the police and his good friend, Jacques.
Take a look at the trailer for the influential classic that changed Paul Schrader’s life, below.