Released: November 14, 1980 (U.S.)
Director: Martin Scorsese; Screenplay: Paul Schrader and Madrik Martin based on the book by Jake LaMotta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage; Cinematography: Michael Chapman; Studio: United Artists; Producers: Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler
Cast: Robert De Niro (Jake LaMotta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie LaMotta), Joe Pesci (Joey LaMotta), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenora LaMotta), Mario Gallo (Mario), Johnny Barnes (Sugar Ray Robinson), Don Dunphy (Himself)
Is there any film released in the last 30 years that is as critically acclaimed as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull? If there is, I’m unaware of it. Raging Bull was certainly well received upon its initial release and even voted the best film of the 1980s, but its reputation has done nothing but grow in the years since. It is now routinely placed amongst hallowed company, ranking near the top of “best movies of all time” polls and being considered on the short list of great American films. Right or wrong, love or hate Marty Scorsese, it’s impossible to deny the impact that Raging Bull has had and the legacy it has established. The movie is now routinely submitted as an example of how a major Hollywood production can achieve the same artistic success as more exotic arthouse cinema. In fact, it has also entered into the category of a movie that has generated a backlash precisely because of the praise that it has continued to receive. Disregarding the ridiculousness of such “counteracting criticism,” I think that the movie quite easily lives up to its reputation. This is another example of great American storytelling, documenting one man’s impressive rise and disturbing fall.
If there’s anything that I am more passionate about than movies, it’s boxing. I absolutely love the sport. For a short period of time I was actually fortunate enough to cover it as senior writer for a boxing website, and some of my most cherished memories are sitting ringside for world title fights. There is nothing that can equal the excitement and tension that builds for a championship bout. I bring this up, because it underscores the fact that if anyone is likely to be overly critical of a film that revolves around the sport, it would be me. There are plenty of movies dealing with boxing that have been highly praised by critics that I am indifferent toward. So I’ll just go ahead and say what will be an obvious statement to many, but is still quite subjective: not only is Raging Bull the greatest boxing movie ever made, it’s the greatest sports movie as well.
There is, however, a small caveat. This is another instance where labeling it a “boxing movie” can be too narrow a classification. The movie is not so much about the actual sweet science itself as it is a character study about a fighter. This is not to say that the actual fighting is not significant, because it is an essential element in the personality of Jake LaMotta. But had there never been any fighting filmed, the study of LaMotta’s descent into abuse and personal struggles would still have been riveting. Perhaps this is the key to the movie’s excellence. As revolutionary as the boxing action staged by Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman was at the time, there is a limit to the reality that can be created in choreographing scenes in the ring. No matter how inventive it gets, it is never going to be able to completely recreate the action, drama, and even violence of a live fight. Any movie that is depending on such sequences to carry it will find that they have created a film that might be entertaining one time through, but will otherwise leave little impression. So while Scorsese did focus on attempting to make the boxing scenes as realistic as possible – even attending many fights at Madison Square Garden to pick up on minor visual details to supplement the shots – it is never the essential focus of the story.
The focus is obviously on the story of Jake LaMotta and the rightfully lauded performance of Robert De Niro as the "Bronx Bull." De Niro was actually the genesis of the entire project, as he brought the idea for the biopic to Scorsese. De Niro had become captivated with the story after reading the book while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900. Initially spurning the idea, Scorsese eventually came onboard and things began to fall into place. An initial screenplay written by Madrik Martin was unimpressive and so Scorsese turned to Paul Schrader to craft and hone the script. The two had already had great success, along with De Niro, with 1976’s Taxi Driver. It evidently was Schrader who added another essential ingredient to the story, inserting the character Jake’s brother Joey, played brilliantly by Joe Pesci, into the script. De Niro used method acting for the part, meeting extensively with Jake LaMotta himself, along with brief periods with his ex-wife Vicki and brother Joey. De Niro even embarked on a serious boxing training regimen under the tutelage of LaMotta himself and legendary trainer Al Silvani. After the movie’s release, LaMotta would comment that De Niro actually possessed some natural in-ring talent.
But again, it’s not the in-ring talent that is most astounding about De Niro’s performance. It’s the ability for him to take the mental anguish that haunted the life of Jake La Motta and make it seem real. A less talented actor would try and capture the shocking and violent mood swings that would characterize the life of LaMotta and have them come across as fake and overly bi-polar. With De Niro it feels absolutely genuine. Early in the movie it becomes apparent that this is a man on the fast track to greatness and fame in his sport. LaMotta is one of the best fighters in the world, inching ever closer to a coveted world title. He has every reason to be content, and even happy, with the life that he is leading. When he meets a neighborhood teenager Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and the two soon fall in love, it seems like this is the best life that a young fighter from the Bronx could hope for. Yet for the entirety of the film, it is as if he is never truly happy. There are odd moments when he might laugh or smile – usually when he is trying to seduce Vickie or another female – but there is always a disturbing uneasiness underlying everything that he does. LaMotta’s insecurities simply will not allow him to be content. Convinced that everyone is out to get him – his trainer/brother, his own wife, organized crime – Jake responds the best way that he knows how, by lashing out violently. I maintain that the strength of De Niro’s performance lies in the ability to make such eruptions believable, rather than violence just for the sake of it. This is a paranoid man in a fight with himself, but who can never seem to overcome the demons that he harbors. I love this movie, but to this day I still am unsettled by some of things done by LaMotta throughout the story. That’s how powerful some of the scenes are. When Jake pummels his brother Joey, convinced that he had a relationship with Vickie before they were married, it’s incredibly sad and disconcerting.
This is where boxing does become important to the story, however, in that the ring functions as the place where LaMotta can atone for his sins. This is the aspect that apparently drew Scorsese to the picture – to show, in his words, that the ring is “an allegory for life.” LaMotta recognizes that his actions toward people that he cares for are at times hideous and it is as if he goes into the ring and fights to punish himself. To this day the chin and toughness of Jake LaMotta are the stuff of legend in the boxing world. Writers and gym rats around the country still marvel at how a man could absorb punishment like LaMotta (if you don’t believe, just YouTube his “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” fight with Sugar Ray Robinson). As Scorsese and De Niro portray it, this is due to more than just toughness and an unwillingness to lose. It is also penance for LaMotta.
It is a horrifyingly spectacular performance from De Niro, but he is not the only one to shine. This will be something of a confession, and I am in no way diminishing the greatness of De Niro’s performance, but my favorite in the film has always been that of Joe Pesci. I expect near universal disagreement on this point, but it’s just slight personal preference. Say what you will about Joe Pesci and some of his role selections, but at his best (here, Goodfellas, JFK), the man can be a powerhouse. His Joey LaMotta adds both another dramatic subplot to the story, as well as regularly contributing some lighthearted lines to an otherwise bleak tale. Pesci’s performance is so affecting for me because of where the relationship between the two brothers eventually ends. It’s tragic how somebody like Joey can be so loyal to his talented sibling, doing everything from preparing him for fights to keeping the Mafia at arm’s length, and then be treated as Jake treats him. I don’t think I’m being at all melodramatic in saying that it’s heartbreaking.
As is usual in Scorsese’s best films, the supporting cast that fleshes out the environment is equally superb. For someone charged with working opposite Robert De Niro in her very first film role, Moriarty looks far from a rookie. Veteran mob player Frank Vincent is very good as the shifty Salvy, a wannabe wiseguy who is always trying to get close to Jake. And for anyone who is unable to picture Nicholas Colasanto as anyone other Coach in Cheers, he is outstanding as the smooth gangster Tommy Como.
Still, we cannot forget to praise Scorsese. His technical chops are often on display. Few scenes in film are as gorgeous as the opening of De Niro alone in the ring shadowboxing, set to the strains of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. The decision to film in black and white, at the suggestion of Chapman, turned out to be a wise one. It allowed the movie a very authentic feel, one that captured the feel of a weekend fight cards at the Garden and the smoking back room deals being made by characters like Tommy Como. And for all of the camera virtuosity that Scorsese is routinely associated with, the style throughout much of this movie is almost that of simple voyeurism. It’s nearly documentary-like at times, as if a camera has simply been placed in a room and allowed us to watch the interaction between Jake and others. This works extremely well and gives everything a very realistic veneer.
Other Contenders for 1980: Burt Lancaster is just all over this countdown! The next best film for me in this year is his leading role in Louis Malle's Atlantic City. This is one that I saw for the first time only about a month ago and it immediately made an impression on me. Lancaster was such a talent and somebody who deserves credit for working in so many different settings and with different directors. The other movies from this year that I would acknowledge would be The Shining (Stanley Kubrick), The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner).
A glaring omission for me in this year and that I'm really eager to finally see is R.W. Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hopefully this doesn't invalidate my selection in this year in anyway, I just wasn't able to get to it in time (things are busy at the moment). But I'm really looking forward to it!