Taxi Driver: Still talking about you 40 years later

Scorsese classic an important reminder of what the now tourist-friendly metropolis used to be.

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was released on February 8th, 1976 - 40 years ago this week.

A commercial and critical success, the neo-noir psychological thriller has been included in lists as the greatest film of all-time.

It was shot during a New York City summer heat wave and garbage strike. The year was 1975 - a year of bankruptcy in the city as it suffered from crime, corruption and neglect. It became the perfect film to represent New York's 1970s demise. The Big Apple was ravaged by mass unemployment, brazen crime and filthy streets.

When shooting the film, Scorsese did not know which cops were for the film's security and which were for the violence around him. Unlike his previous film Mean Streets, there was no need for any alterations to the set; it was already seedy enough to fit the narrative as it was.

The young Martin Scorsese had found the perfect canvas to portray his masterpiece. It came at a special time in film-making during a period known at New Hollywood. This style focused on highly artistic, hard-hitting, character-centric dramas with more ambiguous messages.

The New Hollywood film style of Scorsese emphasises the sense of urban decay excellently. Scorsese's camera accentuates the vileness; as the camera glances out the window of his taxi, there are always whores, pimps, and junkies in the garish streets.  At no point does there seem to be any order in this vile city.

And Scorsese found the ideal character, Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro in his pomp, a lonely cab driver who is completely opposed to Scorsese's world as a fiery inferno of neon lights and relentlessly hostile populace.

In the 1970s, the economic tide was running against New York City.

New York, as the worldwide hub of capitalism, the Stock Exchange and thus the American Dream, soon realised that it would no longer be able to fulfil the dreams of its residents.

In 1975, the city filed for bankruptcy. It had spent twice as much on its people per capita than any other city in the US and was hiding shortfalls by creative accounting.

The city struggled from a nationwide recession, the exodus of middle-class taxpayers to the suburbs and the defunding of the Northeast towards the Sunbelt states by Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

The general hostility to New York City by the federal government was seen when President Ford chastised the city for its liberal economic policies, sparking the infamous New York Daily News headline, 'FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD'.

The result of the financial collapse was a sharp decline in the quality of life for citizens. Education suffered as one quarter of teachers left their jobs and extra-curricular funding was slashed.

Welfare grants were greatly reduced. The city became filthy as sanitation workers staged a wild-cat strike allowing 58,000 tonnes of garbage to accumulate on the streets.

The city's subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns. Prostitutes and pimps frequented Times Square, while Central Park became feared as the site of muggings and rapes. Homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings.

Taxi Driver's protagonist Travis Bickle feels an existential sickness in this world and the 'animals' that inhabit what has turned into a real-life Sin City.

He has to wash the blood from the back seat of his taxi almost every morning. One customer even tells him his plans to kill his wife that night. There seems to be no morality in this world and the anger builds inside Travis.

Travis is completely disillusioned and is troubled by the loneliness that he says has followed him his entire life. The musical score from Bernard Herrman, with its opposing noises in the soundtrack - gritty little harp figures, hard as shards of steel, as well as a jazz drum kit - add to this feeling.

The more that Travis is alienated, the more that it pushes him towards violence. Taxi Driver follows thus a similar narrative to a number of 70s films that focused on crime-ridden settings and vigilantism.

It came at a time when faith in the police was at an all-time low. New York Police Department in the 1970s had taken a massive hit in both numbers and prestige.

Six thousand police were let go because of budget cuts and rotten police corruption in the city was revealed by whistle-blower Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino in another gritty 70s movie.

Antagonism towards the police intensified, particularly among minority communities. The police responded by hardening their code of silence and avoiding dangerous assignments. Crime rates surged and people felt unsafe.

New York City's lowest ebb came in 1977 when a major electrical blackout precipitated widespread riots. The scene combined carnival, criminality and chaos as people stole everything. Under orders not to shoot, the police made over 3700 arrests.

It is Travis who decides to be the man who 'would not take it anymore'. He buys a gun and attempts an assassination. Travis even starts threatening himself as he peers into his soul in the mirror, asking himself 'Are you talkin' to me?'

The film ends with vigilantism, as Travis is involved in a mass shoot-up to protect a young teenager who has fallen into the world of prostitution. Travis only trusts himself to rid New York of the 'scum, dogs and filth'. He makes it rain in a violent bloodbath that has washed some of the scum off the streets.

Taxi Driver, set in New York City's post-fiscal crisis, gives as accurate of a depiction of the despair in the city as one could hope to portray. Through the troubles of its protagonist, it demonstrates the anxieties of the poor and working-class in a city that had neglected their well-being.

The nadir of New York City shocked the world as a city that had advertised itself as the 'World's Greatest'. The city in Taxi Driver serves to be an important cultural lesson on what that 'Disneyfied', tourist-friendly metropolis used to be.