Paul Schrader was in a pretty bad way when he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. Reduced to living out of his car, the once hot scribe's poor financial situation was matched by a level of mental decay that reduced him to sucking on a loaded revolver in order to get to sleep. In the midst of this depression, Schrader pumped out the Taxi Driver script, a piece of writing peppered with references to his passion for firearms and his unhealthy interest in pornography. With the screenplay done, Schrader left LA for his family home in Michigan in the hope of gaining both perspective and peace of mind.
While no one would wish misfortune such as Schrader suffered upon anyone, these dire straits are at least partially responsible for the Taxi Driver script remaining unmatched in either the writer's cannon or in the sub-genre of the vigilante movie. Over the years, there have been so many pictures made about edgy outsiders that God's lonely men don't seem so lonely anymore. Add the grit of Schrader's bitter experience to the burgeoning talent of Martin Scorsese and the amazing power and otherness of Robert De Niro and you're some way towards understanding why, 35 years on from its original release, critics and audiences continue to hail Taxi Driver.
New York City in the mid-1970s is a far from bucolic burgh. As whoring and street crime have reached epidemic proportions, so the once proud avenues have become clagged with the detritus of daily life. Through this foul landscape cruises Travis Bickle (De Niro), an insomnia-wracked 'Nam vet completely estranged from modern society. Although his attraction to political activist Betsy (Shepherd) hints at a normal life, Bickle's disdain for the city and its spawn overwhelms him. Come the final reel, normalcy feels like a long forgotten land as Travis becomes obsessed with political assassination and rescuing child prostitute Iris (Foster) from her vicious pimp Sport (Keitel).
While it might not contain enough sex and violence for modern moviegoers, Taxi Driver's disturbing qualities remain intact. After all, who needs graphic assaults when you have Martin Scorsese cameoing as a passenger bent on shooting a woman in the holiest of holies. And while the film's sexual content comprises a snatch of the Swedish porn film Language Of Love, the sound of Iris unfastening Travis's zip is as unsettling as a 'sex' scene can be.
With Taxi Driver having been the subject of so much academic study and critical appraisal, it's hard to say anything about Scorsese's movie that's not been said 100 times before. If the film highlights anything, however, it's the importance of competition within the film industry. Sure, the studios have always been at one another's throats for control of the box-office, but for film to flourish, it's the artists who require rivals. When they set about making Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese was very much in the shadow of fellow 'Movie Brat' Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro was slugging it out with Al Pacino, and Paul Schrader was locked in a battle for artistic supremacy with none other than his elder brother Leonard.
Such skirmishes might sound petty, the product of state-sized egos. But if you look at the films made in America in the 1970s then compare them with the committee-produced products of today, you can't help but feel the artform would be in better shape were the creatives as obsessed with improving upon one another's work as with eclipsing their contemporaries' pay cheques.