The classic American psychological thriller film “Taxi Driver” directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Schrader, and starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Leonard Harris, and Albert Brooks has turned 45 years old. Set in a decaying and morally bankrupt New York City following the Vietnam War, the film follows Travis Bickle, a taxi driver and veteran, and his mental state as he works nights in the city. The film released in 1976 is recognised as one of the 20th-century masterpieces, was nominated for an Oscar in four categories, including “Best Picture”, in addition to winning the “Palme d’Or ” in 1976.
After the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, “Taxi Driver” strengthened Martin Scorsese’s reputation as a first-rate director. “Taxi Driver” is his fourth motion picture and the second one with Robert De Niro (but the first one which the actor shines as the protagonist). The film captures the malaise of American society of that period, after the failure of the Vietnam War, the economic crisis and the political scandal known as Watergate.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a frustrated and alienated 26-year-old from the Midwestern United States and an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran living in New York City. He suffers from insomnia and decides to work as a taxi driver in New York, working the night shift. Travis spends his free time watching pornographic films in filthy cinemas theatres, driving aimlessly through the Manhattan suburbs. He tends to look at New York from inside his taxi and violently erupts against those he thinks are society’s savvy.
Travis is bothered by what he considers to be the moral decline around him, and when Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute, gets into her taxi one night to escape a pimp, Travis becomes obsessed with the idea of saving the young woman, even she is not interested in his idea.
Travis is also obsessed with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), who works for the election committee for Senator Charles Palantine, a presidential candidate, whose campaign promises drastic social changes. Travis also decides to support Palantine’s candidacy after meeting Betsy. She is initially intrigued by Travis and, identifying with her own loneliness, agrees to go out with him. At the meeting, however, Travis naively takes her to watch a porn movie and the woman leaves the place disturbed.
In an attempt to find a way out of his frustrations, Travis initiates an intense physical training program. A fellow taxi driver takes him to an illegal arms dealer, from whom Travis buys four guns. He begins to attend Palantine’s rallies to ensure his safety. One night, Travis enters a convenience store moments before an armed robbery attempt and fatally shoots the thief. To help him escape from prison since Travis ‘possession of weapons is illegal, the store owner takes responsibility for the action, claiming one of Travis’ weapons as his own.
Travis seeks out Iris, through her pimp whose name is Sport, and twice tries to convince her to stop working as a prostitute, an effort that partially convinces her. After breakfast with Iris, Travis sends her a letter containing money, begging her to come home. Travis cuts his hair at a mohawk and participates in a rally where he intends to murder Senator Palantine. Travis almost draws one of his weapons, but Secret Service agents noticed him putting his hand inside his jacket. He is almost caught by them but, he successfully escapes from there.
That night, Travis heads to the pimp’s Sport brothel. Travis shoots Sport, causing a shootout among Sport, a gangster and a brothel`s client. Travis manages to get rid of them. When the police arrive, Travis tries to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, but runs out of ammunition and passes out due to blood loss.
Travis’ shooting is seen by the police and the press as an attempt to rescue Iris from the armed bandits. Travis ends up not responding criminally and is hailed as a local hero by the press. He receives a letter from Iris’ father, thanking him for saving her and revealing that she has returned home to Pittsburgh. After weeks of recovery and returning to work, Travis meets Betsy when she gets in his taxi. Travis takes her home but, refuses to let her pay the fare. When Travis walks away, he is suddenly agitated after noticing something in his rearview mirror before the final credits come up.
When Paul Schrader was first writing the script, he believed that he was just writing about loneliness, but as the process went on, he realised he was writing about the pathology of loneliness. His theory is that, for some reason, some young men (such as Schrader himself) subconsciously push others away to maintain their isolation, even though the main source of their torment is this very isolation.
The story was partially autobiographical for Paul Schrader, who suffered a nervous breakdown while living in Los Angeles. He was fired from the AFI, basically friendless, in the midst of a divorce, and was rejected by a girlfriend. Squatting in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment while she was away for a couple of months, Schrader literally didn’t talk to anyone for many weeks, went to porno theatres, and developed an obsession with guns. Schrader was working at the time as a delivery man for a chain of chicken restaurants. Spending long days alone in his car, he felt, I might as well be a taxi driver. He also shared with Bickle the sense of isolation from being a mid-Westerner in an urban centre. Schrader decided to switch the action to New York City only because taxi drivers are far more common there. Schrader’s script clicked with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro when they read it.
Between the time Robert De Niro signed a $35,000 contract to appear in this film, and when it began filming, he won the Oscar for his role in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974), and his profile soared. The producers were worried that De Niro would ask for a deserved larger pay raise, since Columbia Pictures was very concerned about the project, and were looking for excuses to pull the plug on it, but De Niro said he would honour his original deal so the film would get made.
Robert De Niro worked fifteen-hour days for a month driving cabs as preparation for this role. He also studied mental illness, and during his off-time when filming “Novecento” (1976), visited a US Army base in Northern Italy and tape-recorded conversations with Midwestern soldiers so that he could pick up their accent.
In an interview with Roger Ebert upon the film’s release, Martin Scorsese called it “my feminist film … because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you. This (movie) shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between (their perception of women as) goddesses and whores.”
See the trailer