“Loneliness,” the American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in an undated essay entitled ‘God’s Lonely Man’, “is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

When Martin Scorsese first read Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver he had a visceral, almost mystical response to the struggle of its central character, Travis Bickle, one of God’s lonely men and Scorsese’s definitive example of the archetype. Loneliness has followed him his whole life, Travis tells us, everywhere he goes, and there’s no escaping it.

Scorsese began work on Taxi Driver after some success with Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), which won its star, Ellen Burstyn, the Oscar for Best Actress. But it was the hallucinatory, fever dream of 1976’s Taxi Driver that made his name as an international director, a film now scorched into our cinematic unconscious, where it’s remained for 40 years.

Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s loneliest man Travis Bickle

Burning brightest is the image of Travis Bickle – played with controlled intensity by Robert De Niro, in his second collaboration with Scorsese – haunting the sticky, steamy New York streets where he drives his taxi on the graveyard shift. Where Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in Mean Streets has his community (for better or worse) to fall back on, De Niro’s Travis is an isolated, socially awkward Vietnam veteran making his way through the world alone. Travis can’t sleep. He sees a society riddled with venality and obscenity, and imagines that “someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” He’s out of step and alienated within the city, but desperate for a connection. Travis craves a cathartic redemption, turning himself into an avenging angel for the young prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) – his desire to do good, misdirected through violence and blood.

“It’s the power of the spirit on the wrong road,” Scorsese has said, to explain the direction Travis’s life takes. The possibility of a life headed down the same road but narrowly averted is something that both Scorsese and Schrader knew more than a little about.

Schrader’s screenplay for Taxi Driver grew out of a time of deep malaise and dislocation. He recalls, “I didn’t have any money and I took to drifting, more or less living in my car, drinking a lot.” A bleeding ulcer found him in the emergency room when he was 27 years old. Schrader, lying in hospital, realising he hadn’t spoken to another person for almost a month, recognised how easily loneliness could eat you alive. “I knew if I didn’t write about this character I was going to start to become him – if I hadn’t already.”

Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader on the set of Taxi Driver

For Scorsese, loneliness lives in the tension between the sacred and the profane. He plays it out, first, in Mean Streets, where he’s literally the voice in Charlie’s head as he struggles with these conflicting paths and the lure of a life on the street. Scorsese famously considered joining the priesthood (film and religion the two constants in his life), until the pull of girls and rock and roll became too strong. These tensions are writ large throughout Mean Streets, establishing the Scorsese universe as one in which men, regardless of the safety nets of family, community or Church, must face their choices alone.

Harvey Keitel as Charlie in Mean Streets (1973)

Loneliness stalks many of Scorsese’s most memorable protagonists. From Jake La Motta (De Niro) in Raging Bull (1980) to Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) in The King of Comedy (1982) to Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Howard Hughes (Leonardo Di Caprio) in The Aviator (2004), Scorsese gives us men lost somewhere in the space between who they are and who they want to be.

Some like Henry Hill (Goodfellas, 1990) and Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Casino,1995) reach great heights and then crash spectacularly down to earth. Others are their own worst enemies, coming undone due to personal demons or flaws. Rupert Pupkin, the aspiring stand-up comic desperate for fame, finds his ingratiating personality isolates him even further. Despite his successes, the long shadow of loneliness is always with Howard Hughes, exacerbated by depression and paranoia.

Scorsese’s lonely men share a similar experience of masculinity – angry, troubled, and empty, exiled from the world, living on the edge of acceptability, afraid of humiliation, alone even when surrounded by others, seeking redemption as they struggle for humanity.

This struggle pushes Jake La Motta to emotional extremes. Raging Bull begins with an iconic opening – Jake, positioned as a lonely figure, shadowboxing, battling himself. As the film unfolds, each punch he receives becomes a form of self-punishment, a lifelong atonement for sin. Shift to 1964, where an overweight La Motta is reduced to performing a shambolic jumble of Shakespeare, bad jokes and scenes from On the Waterfront. He’s a sad, lonely figure whose rage has pushed away all the people he once loved most.

Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980)

Intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. But in Scorsese’s world connection is hard won, tenuous and tough to retain. Travis can’t get close to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd); Jake loses everything. Alienated within his high society tribe, Newland Archer comes to life in The Age of Innocence because of love. As he tells Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer), “You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one. No one can endure that.” But then he must; separated from her he becomes “a prisoner at the centre of an armed camp”, an empty shell of a man, old before his time.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence (1993)

Taxi Driver’s original tagline makes Travis’s loneliness both exceptional and ordinary: “On every street in every city in this country there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.” When he first asks Betsy out, Travis sees in her the loneliness he feels inside himself: “I see a lot of people around you, I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk and it means nothing.” That’s a feeling we all have, of being alone in a crowd; it’s not so rare. Forty years on, the universal nature of this observation still saturates every frame of Scorsese’s first masterpiece.

A version of this essay was first published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2016 for their exhibition ‘SCORSESE’ and its accompanying season of screenings ‘Essential Scorsese’