In the mid-1970s New York was a very dark and dangerous city and tourists were avoiding it. In 1975, a year before Taxi Driver was launched, violence was so widespread that here were posters around Manhattan that said “stay off the streets after 6pm” and “do not walk alone”. Urban people were suffering with unemployment, inflation, crime and corruption, with many experiencing loneliness and anxieties. Screenwriter Paul Schrader didn’t have to look far in order to find inspiration for Taxi Driver.
As you probably know, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) works as a taxi driver in New York City. He complains about how dirty New York is and talks about how he does not discriminate against his passengers. He drives around everywhere on a typical day. When he gets off work in the morning after driving for hours and hours, he begins drinking and goes to a local porn cinema, where he spends the mornings on his own. Travis confesses his inability to sleep and talks about wanting to become more normal. Deep inside he wishes he could find a different place to go and to fit in with other people. Travis Bickle is a Vietnam War marine veteran. But he also has a much darker, dangerous and murderous side.
Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay while he was divorcing from his wife. He had no home. He slept in his car and was obsessed with guns and pornography. His experiences are reflected on Travis. What’s more, the car suddenly impersonated his feelings of loneliness and maladjustment, which Martin Scorsese deftly transposed to the screen. More than the cab driver, the taxi is a character. It is the car that sees underground New York. It is the car that chases the scum of the earth: the pimps and hookers. From inside the taxi, there is a perspective of New York that must be eliminated. The marginalised inhabitants of New York don’t fit in Travis’s reactionary idea of a “clean city”.
If Travis was around today, he would be on a lorry similar to the white lorry whose driver delivered an expletive-laden attack outside a mosque in Florida last year. Instead of searching for half-naked, blonde and young hookers, such as Iris (Jodie Foster’s cinema first role), Travis would exterminate burka-clad and Muslism women in general. His hate-fuelled mind would be intoxicated with racist Trumpian vitriol.
In fact, on the first script, Travis was much more racist than in the film. All of his shooting victims were African-Americans. Taxi Driver is such a cult movie that offers different readings as time goes by. In the film, there is a plethora of hidden figures that reveal the psychotic side of the seemingly ordimary citizen..
What makes Scorsese’s feature so vivid is its authenticity. Robert De Niro worked as a taxi driver in order to prepare for the role (his taxi driver’s licence is pictured above). Harvey Keitel, who plays the pimp Sport, did improv for weeks with a pimp. Jodie Foster was only 12 years old. Her role was considered so bawdy that she had to have a social worker on the set with her. She also had to spend several hours with a therapist in order to prevent psychological damage. They all got deep into the roles. Such authenticity elicited a quick reaction from the audience. On the day the film came out in New York, the queues were huge, and there were many taxi drivers lining up.
The film associates pornography with romance. Travis falls in love with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a secretary for a politician running for mayor. She is clearly out of his league but Travis insists on a date. On their first date, Travis takes her to see to a porn cinema.
Taxi Driver shows ugliness for what it is. There is no glamour and nothing is picturesque. Quite the contrary: it is menacing and dirty. The film is out again in cinemas on Friday, February 10th.
In time: A year after Taxi Driver was launched, William S. Doyle, Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of Commerce and Dr. Mark Donnelly, Art Director for New York State, hired advertising agency to develop a marketing campaign for New York State. The logo has become a pop-culture meme used everywhere around the globe. “I ❤ NY” was conceived in a taxi over to a meeting for the campaign. Watch below the song for the radio ad: