The DefinitiveS
An ongoing series of in-depth essays and appreciations on the very best of cinema

Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Cathy Moriarty, and Frank Vincent
Rated: R
Runtime: 129 min.

by Brian Eggert

The Definitives:
06/29/2009

Original Release Date:
12/19/1980

Martin Scorsese composes a graceful examination of a brutal subject in Raging Bull. Middleweight boxer and dogged machismo Jake La Motta, driven by jealousy, self-hatred, and complexes enough to enthrall any Freudian theorist, comes to life through Robert De Niro’s greatest performance. Capturing in their most absolute form recurrent themes that appear throughout Scorsese’s anthology of New York stories, De Niro’s La Motta weighs his lustful instincts against his Christian guilt and finds the only way to release the inevitable conflict is through unrelenting violence, in or outside the ring.  

Released in 1980, Raging Bull earned Academy Awards for De Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, both regular collaborators with Scorsese. And though Oscar overlooked the film and its director in favor of Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, its reputation needs no award to prove its superiority. Sight and Sound’s “Director’s Poll” conducted most recently in 2002 chose the picture as the 6th best ever made, just behind titles such as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And the National Film Registry, dedicated to preserving “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films,” chose Raging Bull in 1990, the very first year they began their preservation efforts.

Not to be included among the homogenized samplings of typical Hollywood boxing movies, Scorsese’s film avoids dwelling on La Motta’s training routine or fight strategy. The matches themselves play out like surreal interpretations of inner passion, utterly metaphoric in their exposition thanks to Paul Schrader’s palpable screenplay. Indeed, some bouts amount to no more than a few precisely chosen stills by Schoonmaker. Scenes alternate between intimate windows into the boxer’s home (particularly his bedroom) in the Bronx, and the resultant bloody pounding when he charges onto his opponent. How this exchange of settings finds dramatic balance remains the film’s most affecting triumph. Rapt with covetous fury and uncertainty, La Motta channels out his domestic anger in the boxing ring, where his own personal therapy session or confessional translates his pain into physical absolution and punishment.

Making the film proved just as therapeutic for Scorsese. As filming progressed on his picture Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1974, Robert De Niro gave the director a copy of Jake La Motta’s semi-autobiography, written by La Motta along with Pete Savage and Joseph Carter. Left on the wayside for several years, the book’s adaptation to film became De Niro’s pipe dream, always postponed by Scorsese in favor of something decidedly easier—if Mean Streets and Taxi Driver could be considered “easier”—though, Scorsese later admitted he did not yet understand the character Jake La Motta when first approached to direct. Not impressed with the book’s desire to explain away each and every bit of La Motta’s irrational behavior through contrived motivations, Scorsese eventually found his personal bond to the material: Hospitalized from a severe cocaine addiction following melancholy and his failed pictures New York, New York and The Last Waltz, Scorsese was visited by De Niro who petitioned once more for the director to helm the actor’s passion project. Only then, in his self-destructed state, could Scorsese come to see La Motta as untamable force edging blindly toward his own ruin. Scorsese credits the episode with saving his life.

A ring announcer calls him, “A man who doesn’t know how to back up.” Jake La Motta, inscribed by his home of Little Italy, the same neighborhood where Scorsese spent his childhood, suffers from an inferiority complex and fights with an unwavering desperation to prove himself. But no matter what he does, his potential only reaches to second-place, meaning the middleweight ring. His opponents fear him to be sure, but he will never be a heavyweight. He tells his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) that his “little girl’s hands” will prevent him from entering The Big Leagues. He asks his brother to punch him in the face as hard as he can, slapping and insisting until Joey breaks and delivers a few solid blows. Joey asks, “What does it prove?” Jake’s face lightly spattered with blood, he cannot answer. Perhaps Jake unconsciously wants to demonstrate how he enjoys the punishment, given his feelings of inadequacy; or perhaps the inflicted physical pain removes the emotional sting of inferiority, albeit briefly.

Married to a wife for which he has no respect, one day he spots a young girl at the area pool.  The 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) earns the description of “neighborhood girl,” a nice way of saying she knows her way around the block. Jake avoids the association and looks upon her from a distance in awe, the camera’s slow-motion gaze gliding over her. She looks ten years older than her age, and her experience undoubtedly lives up to that illusion, as around her swarm a throng of neighborhood men like Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). After a brief courtship, Jake remarries to Vickie, but he refuses to bed his new wife so as not to release any pent-up aggression before a fight. Part of him resents her sexuality even though she attracts him so, something Freud would call the “Madonna-whore complex.” Consumed by the suspicion that she cheats on him, he watches her closely, misreading her innocent comments and not-so-innocent kisses from neighborhood friends. When she remarks that Jake’s new opponent Janiro is “good-looking,” he destroys the man’s face with an unparalleled pummeling, at which point a Mob boss in the audience announces, “He ain’t pretty no more.”

Drawn entirely from his own doubts and paranoia, La Motta’s insecurities construct the drive that makes him an unstoppable fighter. Existing in a smoky, noisy haze, the boxing sequences touch on La Motta’s impressive record, though do better to inform his seemingly unmotivated behavior in his personal life. To put it simply: Everything is a fight. Whether unleashed on his wife or brother, La Motta attacks them all with the same ferocity he would an adversary, beating down his familial rivals. Boxers rarely have motivation to fight their opponents beyond “the business of boxing,” which includes their record and the inevitable paycheck. No more goaded by his family than by Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), his archnemesis of the ring, he beats them anyway, because violence is all he knows. Finding a cyclical balance, his personal life fuels his professional one, and vice versa.

Inside the ring, Scorsese places his audience into the points of view of La Motta and the poor sap that goes up against him; he forces us to take punches and give them. Unlike so many boxing movies that keep us outside of the ropes looking in from the audience (while we look in from the audience), Scorsese involves us in the battle on a personal level. As a viewer, your head moves with the reality of the impacts, the camera passing over the blows and following them through. Adjusting the size of the ring from claustrophobic to expansive, not according to accuracy but as the scenes demand, Scorsese’s bouts rely on the dramatic subtext communicated through the fights. The film does not chronicle La Motta’s boxing career through these matches, rather informs his damaged ego through the allegory of boxing.  

Any Scorsese fan can attest to how much the filmmaker uses red, so the choice of black & white may seem unnatural for his brand of filmmaking. Apart from removing the actual color, the choice does nothing to reduce the film’s power, quite the opposite. Friend and idol director Michael Powell inspired the choice after seeing rushes of De Niro’s gym routine; he considered the spraying blood and bright red gloves and resolved there was too much of the one color. Released in the era when the comparatively gentle fighting of Rocky Balboa earned America’s heart, Scorsese presented the bloodiest fisticuffs of any boxing film. No doubt the director felt some reluctance about portraying that much blood onscreen, with sponges hidden in boxing gloves and tubes under hair spewing fluids out in heavy streams and sprays as the actors make contact. Blood and sweat seem to drench the boxers, leaving the experience more visceral than any boxing matches put on film before or since, regardless of the absence of color.  

Ultimately, colors would have taken away from the drama of the images onscreen. So much of Raging Bull is singular and functional, from the central conflict to the main character himself; the uniformity of black & white, its simplicity of positive and negative, and the ways in which those formal themes appeal to the narrative feel unreservedly precise. Jake La Motta is not a character of depth and layers, and he should not be shown through an array of colors. He fires on a single potent cylinder, and Scorsese reflects that in his choice of color scheme. Upon the film’s eventual release on the festival and college lecture circuit, Scorsese campaigned for better film stock to prevent fading, and he also demanded restorative efforts on films made in the last few decades that had already begun to diminish. His black & white film served as a sample of what all filmmakers should be using if no alternative to the then-standard cheap color stock was provided. Shortly thereafter, Eastman Kodak began supplying studios with stock that better preserves the original color.

Delivering an audible wallop on par with his visual violence, Scorsese’s use of sound effects jars the senses. Camera bulbs chink, fists make contact, and the audience roars through it all, each sound created from a different element, almost none from the studio’s stock sounds, and certainly not from their depicted source. Rather, panes of glass, smashed fruit, animal cries, and gunshots cover the audio-frenzied fight scenes, the complexity of which extended the eight weeks of planned sound mixing twofold. Scorsese leaves the viewer in a virtual state of shell shock from the ensuing exchanges between the thwaps and snaps of the boxing scenes, to those potent moments when the audio is dropped completely, only to come back with a harsh crack. Afterward, sound man Frank Warner burned the individual recorded elements after the effects track was created; no other picture could sound the same as Raging Bull.

Scorsese’s best utilized special effect, however, remains the remarkable performance given by Robert De Niro, whose longstanding union with the director generated some of the finest work in their respective careers. More than any audio or visual artistry the production contains, those tricks of the trade work to support De Niro’s uncanny transformation. Beginning with Mean Streets in 1973, continuing on to Taxi Driver, and all the way through Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino, the Scorsese-De Niro director-actor affiliation lasted over twenty years. Among the supreme partnerships in cinema, they rival even Kurosawa-Mifune, Ford-Wayne, and Flynn-Curtiz. Although Scorsese has now embraced Leonardo DiCaprio in a series of equally significant collaborations, only time will judge the better of the two.  

On and off set, De Niro worked closely with credited “Consultant” Jake La Motta, picking up his mannerisms, and even taking care of the broken soul on occasion. Though, La Motta was kept on-set only during the ten weeks it took to shoot the fighting scenes, in which time De Niro took instruction on how to move and guard, where to hold his hands and how to throw a punch. Even when scrutinized in side-by-side comparisons between Scorsese’s film and La Motta’s vintage fight reels, the actor’s manifestation of the boxer’s fighting style is flawless. The remaining time, although not allowed to observe the shoot given the dramatic liberties the filmmakers intended to make on their subject’s life, the real La Motta remained accessible to De Niro. 

For the later scenes featuring a heavier La Motta, the production took a four-month hiatus while De Niro “ate his way around Northern Italy and France,” adding on the necessary girth to weigh the part. De Niro gained some 50 pounds, while Scorsese and Schoonmaker put together everything but De Niro’s fat scenes. In this archetypal actor’s metamorphosis, the one against which every subsequent actor’s physical transformation would be judged, De Niro goes from the lean physique of a champion athlete to an overfed has-been. This bloated version of La Motta, having won the middleweight champion belt, gives up fighting and runs his own Miami club, called “Jake La Motta’s” no less.

The weight, the fighting, the Madonna-whore complex—these symptoms stem from a recurrent theme in Scorsese’s pictures, Christian guilt or self-punishment. After earning his belt, Jake becomes lazy and overconfident; he then attacks Joey, suspecting his brother and wife are having an affair. Severing his relationship with his brother, La Motta’s remorse overcomes him when he defends his title against Sugar Ray Robinson. Not fighting back, La Motta sentences himself to a fifteen-round beating. Blow after blow and La Motta does not go down, but rather he seems disappointed, even annoyed that Robinson’s punches do not relieve his remorse. Though the real La Motta claims he was playing possum, Scorsese shows us La Motta literally asking for it. The result of his self-permitted punishment drips off the ropes. Scorsese tells the famous story, “Jonathan Demme gave me a portrait of Jake made by a folk artist and around the edge of this piece of slate was carved, ‘Jake fought like he didn’t deserve to live.’ Exactly, I made a whole movie and this guy did it in one picture!”

When La Motta finds himself arrested and thrown in jail, having tried and failed to pawn off the jewels in his championship belt for bail, he slams his head and fists against the cell wall, crying “Why!” and “You’re so stupid!” His archenemy all along was himself, and unconsciously he knows this. Later, the former boxer, thick-necked and breathing heavy, performs his grating lounge act in a hole-in-the-wall dive. Scenes of him practicing a monologue from On the Waterfront bookmark the film. The audience sees De Niro doing La Motta doing Brando doing Terry Malone. And somehow that conversion resists being merely a series of parodies stacked on top one another because of De Niro’s brilliant translation. His performance eliminates the “acting” in the equation, so that what we see is La Motta identifying with the transcendence of his own words. Here La Motta gives the “Coulda been a contender” speech, wherein Malone confronts his brother Charlie’s betrayal. “It was you, Charlie,” La Motta says, looking deep into the mirror at himself, presenting the very moment when this broken boxer understands his own cruelly self-deprecating nature. This performance-within-a-performance effect took some nineteen takes to accomplish and represents some of the most extraordinary acting ever put to celluloid.

Consider how Scorsese’s films continually reflect on instinctual, self-betraying drives standing in opposition of faith or inborn morality, producing a conflicted and thus dynamic character who ultimately punishes himself to resolve his inner argument: Mean Streets features Harvey Keitel’s small-time hood balancing his criminal life with his devotion to God, holding a flame to his hand in hope of absolution. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver expresses displacement within New York City, more specifically his reserved attraction to an underage prostitute by saving her in a suicidal pimp killing spree, which he tragically survives. Most controversially, The Last Temptation of Christ featured Willem Dafoe’s Jesus reflecting on his own crisis of faith and desire to rebel against his fate, concerns both resolved through his affliction on the cross. The examples could go on and on, and common throughout remains the resolution that human nature has been engineered to invariably destroy itself.

Nowhere in Martin Scorsese’s career has this motif found such precise descriptions as within Raging Bull. Given the total personification of Scorsese’s ongoing thesis in the form of Robert De Niro’s performance, and indeed the narrative in its entirety, perhaps the film should be thought of as an embodiment, encapsulating the subtext of nearly all his films and bringing those ideas to the surface in their most forward assault. By understanding this film, his audience consequently perceives the depth and intensity behind all Martin Scorsese pictures, and for that it operates not only as a moving drama, but also a thematic instruction manual for one of the all-time great filmmakers. 

 


Recommended reading:

Christie, Ian; Thompson, David (edited by). Scorsese on Scorsese. Revised Edition.  London: Faber, 2003.

Scorsese, Martin; Henry, Michael. A Personal Journey Through American Movies. New York: Hyperion, 1997.