An Appreciation – Raging Bull
The opening title sequence immediately puts the viewer in the world of the film’s character. A boxer, warming up in a ring, is the center of everyone’s attention, but he is all alone. Smoke rises up around him as if it came straight from the flames of the underworld. This place, where pain is inflicted and blood is spilled, is the only world the boxer truly knows. He knows this world so well, in fact, that he unfortunately allows it to become a part of his life outside of it. With this opening scene, done so simply but so effectively, director Martin Scorsese lays the groundwork for his masterpiece, Raging Bull (1980).
Although he won’t admit it, Raging Bull may very well be the film that saved Scorsese’s life. After the critical and financial failure of his previous film, New York, New York (1977), Scorsese fell in to a bout with depression and serious drug use. So bad, in fact, that it put him in a hospital. While there, Scorsese was visited by his friend, Robert De Niro, who laid the autobiography of boxer Jake LaMotta on his bed, and told him that they had to make this film. Scorsese believed that it would be the last film he would ever make, and because of that he poured his heart and soul in to it. With a screenplay crafted by Paul Shrader, Mardik Martin, with contributions by Scorsese and De Niro, the artistry is felt within every scene of the film. From the alarming quietness and tension between Jake and his family, to the technical creativity and brutality of the fight scenes, each moment is taken with the utmost attention to detail. Scorsese is not a sports fan, but that is a benefit for the film. It transcends the sports genre to become a character study unlike anything done before.
This is arguably the best film ever made about a truly unlikable character. Jake LaMotta (De Niro) is presented as a boxer of tremendous skill and talent, where he would overcome his opponents out of sheer passion and rage. He does this so well, that he could not leave that part of himself in the ring when he enters his home. His own insecurity, combined with his low self-esteem and sexual inadequacy, consumes LaMotta when he becomes bothered by an outside source. When LaMotta’s wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) unwisely points out that one of his upcoming opponents is “good-looking,” LaMotta becomes so obsessed by the thought of his wife being with another man that, even after violently beating him in to pulp, continues to question Vickie’s faithfulness, fishing for an answer that, in way, he hopes is the wrong one.
This sets off a theme that has run rampant throughout nearly all of Scorsese’s films, that of the Madonna-Whore Complex. This is where a character first sees a woman as virginal, innocent, and pure. But once that element is taken away with physical intimacy (by that character), she immediately becomes suspect, a subject of scrutiny and paranoia, accused of sleeping with any and everyone she shows the slightest bit of friendliness to. This is accented with the use of slow motion. No other director can visualize the thoughts of a character better than Scorsese, and here, just like in Taxi Driver (1976), he uses slow motion to give LaMotta’s point of view a higher sense of awareness. As Vickie goes around and gives various people hugs, kisses, and smiles, and as his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) laughs and interacts with the neighborhood gangsters, the rage that LaMotta has within himself comes bubbling to the surface. This withheld anger explodes in scenes of very violent altercations, where LaMotta uses the only thing he knows how to do (physical intimidation) to control and punish not only wife, but his brother as well.
Technically, Scorsese approached the material unlike any other sports film. The fight scenes here are not realistic, and they’re not supposed to be. The camera was placed directly in the ring, amongst the fists, sweat, and blood of the fighters. Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, cut part the fight scenes very fast and quickly, where punches came with a rapid fire intensity, and where the blood poured out not like a leak, but like a stream out of the fighter’s faces. At other moments the scenes would break in to slow motion, where the ring was no longer a physical place, but a representation of LaMotta’s mindset. It was the correct and appropriate choice to shoot the film in black and white, if it were in color the redness of the blood would almost be too much to handle, because it’s simply everywhere. Fire was lit beneath the camera to give the ring a smoldering effect, the sounds of exploding light bulbs and animal cries were used, and different sized rings were used to manipulate perception. The fight scenes were scheduled for two weeks, and ended up taking nearly three months to film. This all contributes to scenes that are not supposed to mimic an actual fight, but creates a tone that’s almost poetic, where the feeling and mood takes a much more important role than the actual logistics of a boxing match.
The three main actors of the film, De Niro, Moriarty, and Pesci, were all courageous in the way they approached their characters. For Cathy Moriarty, this was her first major role, and at age of nineteen, accomplished it with a level of maturity that stood face to face with De Niro and Pesci. In one of the first scenes of the film, she is shown as a teenager, exuding all the coolness of a woman well beyond her years. At this young age, she already had a level of confidence in herself that made her almost intimidating to other people. During the scenes where LaMotta attempts to court Vickie, her acting, and even physical appearance, seems to make her stand over him, as she waits for him to make a move. Compare this to later scenes supposedly taken years later, as Vickie (still the nineteen year old Moriarty) stands her ground against a monster of a man, and a marriage crumbling around her.