The low expectations for the impact of Taxi Driver on the future of American pop culture when it was dumped into theaters at the height of winter in 1976 cannot be overstated. Little was expected of a low-budget film directed by a critical darling few outside that limited circle of peers had ever heard and starring a young actor whom many fans of The Godfather, Part II thought had won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for a role in which all his dialogue was in Italian because he actually was Italian and couldn’t speak English. While one perspective is that Taxi Driver was essentially being punished with a release into theaters at what has historically suffered among the lowest rates of movie attendance in any given year, an argument can also be made that hitting movies theaters when its only competition for those who love movies enough to brave out in the bitter cold was so incredibly lame in comparison that the startling intensity of the film stood out all the more.
Whether by design or accident, the timing of Taxi Driver’s unexpected appearance in movie theaters 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 much easier for audiences to identify with than it could ever have been if released during the summer or even the holiday season. In addition, vigilante stories in which both cops and everyday people the moral high ground of dispensing justice had already become something of a short-lived Hollywood phenomenon. While the Mohawk and eyes like angry marbles exhibited by Travis Bickle as takes down pimps and drug dealers to save a teenage prostitute and send her back home to her family may seem to bear little resemblance to Dirty Harry Callahan or southern fried Sheriff Buford Pusser or the New York architect with a seeming death wish in his mission of revenge against the men who raped his wife and daughter, they are all parts that formed together as a whole in response to the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate national sense of having lost control.
In the years since its release, Travis Bickle has inexorably been extricated from his place within that distinctively mid-70s portrait of an American hero and found himself lodged somewhere between The Shining’s Jack Torrance and Hannibal Lecter as one of Hollwood’s all-time great psychopaths. Next to a guy who barely failed to slaughter his wife and child with an axe and a cannibal serial killer, Travis Bickle’s explosion of violence directed toward New York lowlifes solely for the purpose of rescuing an exploited child seems pretty tame stuff for an alleged psychopath.
The subjective legacy of Taxi Driver has taken on a life of its own that has become increasingly disconnected from the objective facts on display in the movie. As a result, it is worth both a first time look and a long-delayed repeat viewing if for no other reason than to reclaim its legacy on your own terms.