One of the benchmarks of 1970s American films is the extent to which they wear their previous influences on their sleeves. Their overt acknowledgement of influences is partly a symptom of postmodernism, a style more interested in portraying copies in a self-conscious and original way than in creating something entirely original. It was also a product of the directors' having grown up in the age of television, where one could watch the same films on re-runs over and over. Taxi Driver has a long roster of cinematic, literary, and real life influences of its own, and below is a partial catalogue explaining them. The cinematic influences appear mainly in Scorsese's direction, while the literary influences were written into the screenplay by Paul Schrader. The complex web of influences suggests that Taxi Driver is not simply a portrait of random violence and debauched mental illness, but rather a medley of carefully considered responses to previous artistic visions of similar subjects.
Taxi Driver's plot pays homage to the 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, starring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards. John Wayne was the quintessential hero for children growing up in the 1950s, and The Searchers may have been especially influential because Wayne's character is neither heroic nor admirable. The film's influence was wide-reaching, also inspiring the plot for George Lucas's Star Wars (1977), which is surprising given that Star Wars and Taxi Driver have little else in common.
The similarities between Travis and Ethan are extensive. Both Travis and Ethan are loners who do not quite fit into society. In Taxi Driver, Travis appears at the beginning of the film several years after he has been discharged from his service in the Vietnam War. In The Searchers, John Ford begins the film several years after the end of the Civil War, a war in which Ethan has fought for the losing side, the South. Ethan makes no explanation for what he's been doing in the intervening years. Society considers both Travis and Ethan heroic, even though they kill many innocent people in the course of their heroic actions. Ethan thinks nothing of massacring Indians and of trying to eliminate their food supply by killing buffalo. Travis kills everyone involved in Iris's life, as well as a black man trying to rob a convenience store. Ethan has an obsessive hatred for Indians, Travis for black people. Ethan is on a mission to rescue his niece from Indians, and Travis devotes his energy to saving Iris from her sexual custody. In both cases the young woman in question has no interest in being rescued, and we are denied her point of view once she is supposedly saved. The Indians have become Debbie's people. Similarly, Iris escaped an unhappy home life to live in the glamorous city where she is the favorite of her pimp, Sport. The styles of these two films, however, are very different. Whereas Ethan is distant and hard to understand, we are uncomfortably close to Travis and his daily habits.
The Searchers influenced Taxi Driver's plot and some of its themes, but this film is only the beginning of Scorsese's references to previous films. Scorsese has stated that Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) inspired his point-of-view shots for Travis. The opening shot of Travis's eyes may come from one of many films, including The Tales of Hoffman (1951), The Conformist (1970), In a Lonely Place (1950), or Vertigo (1958). The scene in which Travis stares at his Alka-Seltzer is lifted straight from Jean-Luc Goddard's close-up of the surface of a cup of coffee in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967). Scorsese's cameo as the unnamed passenger marks a turning point in the plot just as Roman Polanski's cameo does in Chinatown.
Just as The Searchers influenced Taxi Driver's structure, Notes from Underground, the 1864 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, influenced the development of Travis's character. Notes from Underground is told in the form of a diary. The notes that the unnamed protagonist writes are confused and contradictory memoirs that describe his alienation from modern society. Like Taxi Driver, Notes centers on an unreliable, lonely narrator. Reading spurs the protagonist's disgust and hatred for society, just as driving around the worst areas of the city feeds Travis's hatred. The book even contains a similar plot element to Taxi Driver: the protagonist of Notes tries to save a young prostitute in the second half of the novel.
Taxi Driver also has more recent literary influences, including the French existentialist novels of the 1950s, such as Albert Camus's The Stranger and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea. Travis resembles an existential hero in that he cannot summon normal emotions about day-to-day occurrences. Unlike the characters from Nausea or Notes from Underground, whose lives are characterized by an almost obsessive inaction, Travis's crises propel him to violence, which Schrader believes to be a distinctly American reaction to obsession and loneliness.
Travis's efforts to save Iris were influenced by The Searchers and Notes from Underground, but his attempt to assassinate the presidential candidate Palantine was inspired by current events. In 1972, Arthur Bremer tried and failed to assassinate presidential candidate and Governor George C. Wallace. Bremer, a young loner who lived in a rented room, had been following Wallace closely for several weeks. The choreography of his attempted assassination is almost identical to that portrayed in the movie. As Wallace was walking by, Bremer reached into the crowd with a gun and shot at the candidate. Bremer paralyzed Wallace, but security guards prevented him from doing any more damage. Bremer, like Travis, kept a detailed journal, and one of his motivations for trying to kill the candidate was his own failed relationship with a young girl.
Taxi Driver has influenced many subsequent films, but it is more famous for having influenced another would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr. Hinkley was obsessed with Taxi Driver, and more specifically with Jodie Foster, who plays Iris. After stalking Foster unsuccessfully, Hinkley decided that assassinating the president would get her attention. He tried and failed to assassinate first Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan, whom he shot but did not kill.