When Martin Scorsese made the jump from Roger Corman’s B-movie training ground with Boxcar Bertha (1967) and gave us the gritty Mean Streets (1973), we knew there was a serious new director, and actor, afoot. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) demonstrated his ability to get audiences invested in a story and to provide fertile ground for a dynamic lead performance. Taxi Driver (1976) then blew everyone away with its neon gloss and courageously controversial character study.
All of this occurred within an incredible four-year timespan, and when he appeared to lay low following a slight stumble over nostalgia with New York, New York in 1977, nobody was expecting what came next. A boxing biopic, seriously? We had just had Rocky, for whatever that was worth, a crowd-pleaser with lots of fanfare blaring over sentimentalized training of the underdog followed by romanticized bouts in the ring. Marty had other ideas, and in 1980, he set the bar so high for the next decade that few – if any – other films that decade would come close to reaching it, none of us in those older audiences of Mean Streets, Alice or even Taxi Driver could have possibly anticipated what was coming.
Raging Bull combines all of the elements in Scorsese’s early work – the urban grit, the unapologetic character study, even the lush sheen of nostalgia – and sets it all on its ear. His acting muse at the time, Robert De Niro, was a hot, meteoric commodity coming off three Oscar nominations and one win who would be capable of delving as deep into character as his director dared go – and then a step or two further. By some miracle, Scorsese discovered two obscure supporting players who could hold their own with De Niro – the luminous Cathy Moriarty as his second wife, Vicki, and the mercurial Joe Pesci as his brother and manager.
Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who had worked with Scorsese on a couple of minor projects, was about to embark on a complex project that would catapult her to the upper echelons of her field. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who provided the rich color palette for Taxi Driver, was brought aboard to provide the same intensity, only this time in glorious black and white.
I’ll confess up front that I’m neither a fan of boxing nor the film genre, generally speaking. Perhaps it’s due to the base brutality of the sport that makes its glorification on film a touch artificial and the crowd-pleasing a bit phony and manipulative. When the opening credits begin in Raging Bull and we see a distant, hooded figure in the smoke-filled ring in warm-up sparring mode – presented in cosmic slow motion and set to the celestial “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria rusticana and the pop of flashbulbs – we sense that we are entering untrod territory.
Jake LaMotta may have been a championship boxer, but he was also a beast of a human being in the ring, on the street, and domestically. Scorsese ensures that we are aware of this in unflinching fashion and, thanks to De Niro’s multi-layered performance, we are rewarded with a complex character that’s very much a product of time and place. De Niro’s LaMotta fights at every turn as though he’s not only battling his way to the top of his profession, but out of his Bronx surroundings, and even out of himself and over anyone, male or female, who gets in the way. When the married Jake encounters the whiskey-voiced urban angel, Vicki, at the local pool, he ditches the loyal wife as though he was trading-in for a newer model car. Later, when they are married, Vicki makes a comment about an upcoming opponent’s good looks, setting-off a paranoid possessive outrage within Jake. When brother Joey also comments on the same Tony Janiro’s good looks, Jake comments, “I don’t know whether to fuck him or fight him,” then proceeds to all but obliterate the man’s face in the ring.
Throughout his career, Jake succeeds at alienating or estranging everyone around him with his entanglements with the mob, his uncontrollable jealousy, his social inappropriateness, and legal missteps involving under-age minors in his nightclub that eventually land him in jail. It is there we witness a bit of redemption – naturally in true Jake fashion as he smashes himself against the prison wall, not understanding why, no matter how hard he fights, he cannot win. Fat and humbled, he cashes-in what’s left of his celebrity and embarks on a flatly delivered stand-up nightclub career.
Now, this is not Rocky territory. Some audiences – and a few critics – were aghast at the lengths to which Scorsese and his troupe went with the overall violence and generally negative vibe, but the film quickly recouped its legacy due to its inarguable lightning-strike artistry. Scorsese presents us with the bleakest of circumstances in refreshing and, sometimes, beautiful form. His four major fight scenes are each filmed in totally different styles to suit the situation and mindset of his protagonist. We feel the w-i-n-d-u-p as are glued to LaMotta’s eyes, feel the force of the impact of the punch, and wince as the splatter coats the front rows attending the bout. His domestic scenes reek with the reality of memory for an era long gone and his performers – from the lead layers down to the bit parts – interact with an honesty and forthrightness we rarely get to see onscreen.
Raging Bull was one of two films in 1980 that revived the dormant black and white format, the other being David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Both films benefit from the decision as the monochromatic style drains the screen of distractions and creates a dreamlike quality. Scorsese was already aware of the short-lived condition of the current film stock – a crusade he would eventually take on – and, rumor has it, when a disagreement over the actual color of period boxing gloves occurred (were they brown, red, maroon, black), the detailed director cut his odds and went with black and white.
The legacy of Raging Bull is unparalleled by any other film of the modern era. United Artists, after nearly not releasing the film, gave it little promotion. Even Scorsese thought it was the end of his career. But what began with polarized reviews and audience fear and repulsion has, over time, escalated into uniform praise. It’s a difficult story to “like”, but and easy film to love and appreciate. It receives more votes by the Sight and Sound polls than any other film made since 1975. The Motion Picture Editors Guild has named it the best-edited film of all time. Any major critic’s group of top films always has a slot for Raging Bull. It contains Robert De Niro’s bell-weather performance, quite possibly one of the two or three best performances committed to film.
For me, Raging Bull is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. All the stars aligned when he was creating it, and the result only gets brighter and brighter over time.