Audiences had modest expectations for Taxi Driver when it was first released in the winter of 1976. A low-budget film directed by a not-particularly-well-known Martin Scorsese and starring the young Robert De Niro, who had recently won an Oscar for his work in The Godfather, Part II, the film undoubtedly had ingredients to be a success, but no one could have predicted the massive influence it would have on the culture at the time, and for decades afterwards. Whether by design or accident, the timing of Taxi Driver’s unexpected appearance in movie theaters in the winter of the mid 1970s turned out to be integral to its success. With little else in theaters to stimulate much interest, the palpable and imaginatively directed themes of alienation, urban paranoia and psychic claustrophobia were met with recognition and acclaim.
Vigilante stories were particularly popular in the 1970s. Movies in which ordinary people chose the moral high ground to dispense justice at their own discretion had already proved compelling to the general public, with the prior release of films such as Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Foxy Brown. While Travis Bickle may seem to bear little resemblance to Dirty Harry Callahan or southern fried Sheriff Buford Pusser, all these characters come from the same trend in movie-making, a trend contextualized by a post-Vietnam and post-Watergate world, during which there was a national sense of alienation and lost control.
Travis Bickle is a quintessentially mid-70s American anti-hero, and Taxi Driver established Robert De Niro as a star. It also established Martin Scorsese as a formidable directorial talent. Travis Bickle is both well-intentioned and severely misguided, emblematic of the confused and confusing masculinity and socio-political identity of the 1970s. To modern audiences, he is a blood-thirsty maniac, situated somewhere between The Shining’s Jack Torrance and Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs as one of Hollywood’s all-time great psychopaths. At the time, he was certainly a maniac, but a figure reflective of a bleak national moment.
Taxi Driver is one of the most iconic Hollywood films of its time, and of all time. Nominated for four Oscars, the film was almost universally acclaimed, lauded by the Library of Congress, and won the prestigious Palm d'or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.