Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Raging Bull (1980)
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Background

Raging Bull (1980) is an unrelenting, searing biopic and dramatic tragedy - based on the real-life story of an unlovable, stubborn middle-weight boxing champion as he struggles to be champion. His life passes through successive stages of punishment, compromise, and self-disintegration, due to numerous inner demons. The tale of Jake La Motta's downfall is a reversal of the sentimental, much-loved boxer/hero story in Rocky (1976). [Its tone resembled previous boxing genre films, including Golden Boy (1939), Body and Soul (1947), Champion (1949), and The Set-Up (1949).]

Paul 'Taxi Driver' Schrader and Mardik 'Mean Streets' Martin contributed the superb (and un-nominated) screenplay that was loosely based on Jake La Motta's book of the same name - it chronicled the boxer's own rise and tragic, self-destructive, violent fall. The 1940s boxing champion/bum blindly, obtusely, and stupidly inflicts wounds upon himself (mostly outside the ring in his personal and marital life with sibling rivalry, obsessive and irrational jealousy, and domestic abuse) while he also legally brutalizes opponents in the ring. The protagonist finds that his own meanness, brutishness, lack of humanity, inarticulate rage, and inner demons can best be expressed or exorcised inside the boxing ring. By the film's end, he has alienated himself from his wife and brother, and lost both his boxing title and freedom.

Scorsese's film was positioned in the middle of his Italian-American trilogy of films, between Mean Streets (1973) and GoodFellas (1990). True to life in the Italian ghetto, the film is naturalistically filled with elements of the first generation Italian-American subculture. It includes colloquial, blasphemous language (with a peppering of four letter words and cursing), and un-formed, non-sequitur thoughts.

The skillfully-made film was both praised and vilified at the time of its release, but has since been rated as one of the best films of its decade. Out of its eight Academy Awards nominations, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Cathy Moriarty), Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Cinematography (Michael Chapman), and Best Sound, it only won two Oscars: Best Actor (De Niro), and Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker). The film lost both the Best Director and Best Picture awards to Robert Redford's Ordinary People (1980).

Director Martin Scorsese was convinced by actor Robert De Niro, with whom he had made Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and New York, New York (1977), that the film had to be made, after he was given La Motta's biography by De Niro in 1974. The actor's own performance was the most overwhelming of his career - he completely immersed himself in the role by altering his physical appearance in an ultimate Method-acting performance. As a lean boxer, he rigorously trained with La Motta for the boxing sequences, and then bloated out with over fifty pounds more weight for the film's ending as a defeated has-been. The actor's award-winning performance required an incredible transformation of his character over a 23-year period (from 1941 to 1964), including La Motta's two marriages, boxing ring fights with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson (to whom he lost the title), and his decline to a Miami, Florida nightclub owner and a sleazy, two-bit, lewd comedian in a New York nightclub.

In the film's brutal, no-holds-barred look at the gladiatorial sport of boxing in documentary-style, B/W newsreel footage, La Motta unsparingly engages other boxers in the ring in some of the most realistic, visceral, bloody, and brutal yet stylized boxing scenes ever filmed - with sweat and blood spraying out of the ring, devastating blows, and flashing - actually exploding - camera bulbs. The sounds of squashing melons and tomatoes were used for landed punches, along with animal growling and bird shrieks during various violent scenes. Dark Hershey's chocolate was used for blood. The size and shape of the ring was also modified and changed from small, to long and narrow, for varying effects.

Michael Chapman's stunning, crisp black-and-white cinematography (throughout the entire film except for the home video segments) and subjective camera used innovative techniques including slow-motion (varying camera speeds), 360 degree pans, and titled camera angles for various fight scenes. The lighting was deliberately made harsh and stark, to provide an expressionistic look and feel of the brutality inside the ring. Musical excerpts from three of Italian composer Pietro Mascagni's melancholic operas intensify the surrealistic images.

[Although the eight fight scenes seem to occupy much of the film, their screen time totals only ten minutes, but they took about six weeks to film. Even more time was necessary to edit the dozens of shots that make up each match. The domestic fighting and other battles in La Motta's personal life compose the remainder of the film.]

The Story

Except for the bold red lettering for the title of the film, the rest of the film's credits are white, superimposed on a grainy, black-and white scene. Boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), with his face hidden in the monk-like hood of his leopard-skin robe, warms up alone in the ring by shadow-boxing into the smoky air. He gracefully dances or jogs up and down - in slow-motion - in the dreamy sequence to the melancholy, haunting soundtrack of the "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria Rusticana (an opera by Pietro Mascagni). [The film closes with the same piece.] It is a religious, almost spiritual environment in which he prepares for his ultimate battles - in the location of his only reality, the confined boundaries of the ring.

White letters on a black background, a title card reads: New York City 1964

The camera pans down a sign outside the Barbizon Plaza Theatre: "An Evening With Jake La Motta Tonight 8:30." In voice-over, Jake La Motta speaks, as the film cuts to La Motta, alone in his dressing room where he rehearses for his nightclub appearance reciting bits of Shakespearean tragedy, wearing a tuxedo and open shirt. His fantasy of disrobing in the ring presents the film's recurrent theme of sexual anxiety, fear, and confusion:

I remember those cheers
They still ring in my ears
And for years they'll remain in my thoughts
Cuz one night I took off my robe
And what'd I do
I forgot to wear shorts.
I recall every fall, every hook, every jab
The worst way a guy could get rid of his flab
As you know, my life was a jab...
Though I'd rather hear you cheer
When I delve into Shakespeare
"A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdom for a Horse,"
I haven't had a winner in six months (he lights his cigar)...
I know I'm no Olivier
But if he fought Sugar Ray
He would say
That the thing ain't the ring
It's the play.
So gimme a stage
Where this bull here can rage
And though I can fight
I'd much rather recite
That's entertainment!
That's entertainment.

The rest of the film is a flashback - a look back at the middle-aged man's life to try to understand why he is reciting lines in his dressing room. The final words of the monologue: "That's entertainment," are sharply juxtaposed with the next scene - a closeup of young boxer La Motta receiving several rapid punches to the jaw in a different performing art, the sport of boxing.

[There are eight boxing match scenes in the film.]

Superimposed title card: Jake La Motta 1941
(First Fight Scene)
According to the voice-over of the fight announcer, middle-weight boxer La Motta is still undefeated. A fierce, up-and-coming boxing contender, La Motta fights in 1941 in Cleveland against black boxer Jimmy Reeves (Floyd Anderson). The blows to the boxers' faces are magnified by numbing stereophonic sound and shot from their point-of-view - inside the ring. The impact of the punches, the glaring bright lights, and the pearls of sweat which are flung off by every blow are intensely real. La Motta, known as the "Bronx Bull," is told in his corner by his trainers and handlers between the ninth and tenth round that he is "outpointed" and to win the bout: "You're gonna have to knock him out." In the arena, a woman screams and a fight breaks out between a fan and a soldier.

When the impressionistically-filmed fight resumes in the ring, La Motta half crouches in a closed-in position and "continues to bore in." He knocks Reeves down to the mat. Flashbulbs explode and clink and the crowd erupts. With a couple more "hard lefts," La Motta pummels him hard and knocks down his unprotected opponent a second time - and then again a third time in a comeback attempt in the final round. Blood oozes from the boxer's eye as the countdown reaches nine, but Reeves is "saved by the bell" at the end of the round.

As La Motta proudly strides around the ring with arms raised up, while his brother/manager Joey (Joe Pesci) bestows the victor's mantle on him - a leopard-skin robe, the ring announcer declares Reeves "the winner by unanimous decision." (The fight's outcome was fixed by the Mafia.) La Motta refuses to leave the ring and pandemonium reigns in the arena. An angry fracas breaks out in the crowd over La Motta's controversial first defeat - chairs are thrown and one female spectator is trampled. The rioting crowd violence is partially quelled when the organist begins playing: "The Star Spangled Banner."

Title card: THE BRONX New York City 1941
On the city street's sidewalk, Joey and Salvy (Frank Vincent), a small-time Mafia lieutenant, walk toward Jake's apartment while discussing the Reeves fight. Salvy claims that hard-headed Jake, a product of the Bronx slums, must cooperate and let mobster Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto - who also acted as Ernie 'Coach' Pantusso in the Cheers TV-sitcom series (1982-1985)) control his boxing career:

Salvy: That shit would've never happened if Tommy was over there takin' care of him. You know he's gotta be with Tommy to fight in New York to get a title shot. I mean, he's gonna wind up fuckin' punch-drunk, your brother.
Joey: I know.
Salvy: You know. You gotta make him understand that it's the best thing for everybody involved.
Joey: I said, I know.
Salvy: You know, but you gotta make him know. You gotta tell him and make him understand.

In the dining nook of his cramped New York apartment in the famous "steak" scene, a scene that demonstrates his hellish neighborhood life, a bruised-faced (still fresh from the Reeves fight) Jake in an undershirt eats and mulls over the disastrous fight with his first wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax): "They knew. They knew who was the boss. The judges didn't know. Who knows what happened with them? The people knew." In both his public life and private life, La Motta lives with violence and conflict. He bullies her about how she should cook his steak, carnivorously wanting it bloody and raw [the analogy to La Motta's own explosive, visceral, self-defeating life is clear]:

Don't overcook it. You overcook it, it's no good. It defeats its own purpose.

Tired of his bullying, she slaps the steak on his plate in front of him. The volatile-natured husband up-ends the table.

The camera cuts back to the end of Joey and Salvy's conversation in front of Jake's Bronx apartment. Joey agrees to talk to his brother about agreeing to an association with Tommy: "If he's in a good mood, I'll talk to him." As they part, Joey mouths the words and silently tells Salvy: "Go f--k yourself" - a phrase which incorporates sexual anger, affection, and repressed hostility into a typical working-class Italian 'goodbye.'

Inside, Joey walks in on the couple's heated argument. An offscreen, urban neighbor Larry complains about the noise of the domestic quarrel: "What's the matter with you up there, you animals?" Jake leans out the window and hollers back with another carnivorous threat - that he'll eat the neighbor's dog for lunch. After the hapless husband Jake calls for a truce with his wife, things calm down. Consumed with bitter anger, Jake complains to Joey about what's wrong - that he will never be "the best there is" because he has "girl's hands":

Jake: What's wrong with me? My hands.
Joey: Your hands? What about 'em?
Jake: I got these small hands. I got a little girl's hands.
Joey: I got 'em too. What's the difference?
Jake: You know what that means? No matter how big I get, no matter who I fight, no matter what I do, I ain't never gonna fight Joe Louis.
Joey: Yeah, that's right. He's a heavy-weight. You're a middle-weight. What of it?
Jake: I ain't ever gonna get a chance to fight the best there is. And you know somethin'. I'm better than him. I ain't never gonna get a chance. You're askin' what's wrong.
Joey: But you're crazy to even think about somethin' like that...

Lean and muscular, Jake challenges his brother to punch him in the face as hard as he can - to play out the ritual of the boxing ring in his own kitchen. When Joey resists, Jake taunts him and calls him a faggot: "Come on, don't be a little faggot. Come on. Hit me." Goaded relentlessly, Joey wraps a towel around his hand and slams his brother repeatedly in the face, but it isn't enough and sadistically intimates that Joey is homosexual: "You throw a punch like you take it up the ass. Come on. Harder." After his brutish brother takes many more "bangs" or hits in the perversely sexual scene, Joey is ordered to take off the towel. After being slapped back, Joey strikes Jake a few times with his bare fist, and the boxer's cuts start opening up, spattering his face with blood. Joey shouts in an exasperated voice after blood has been drawn:

What are you tryin' to prove?! What does it prove?

Non-verbally and slyly, Jake enigmatically grins back and tweaks Joey's cheek, communicating something about the nature of his relationship with his brother.

In Gleason's Boxing Club, Jake spars with Joey in the ring, making his brother his punching bag. Salvy and his friends Patsy (Frank Adonis) and Guido (Joseph Bono) watch Jake, who is irritated about their presence, beat up his brother. Almost inaudibly, one of them comments about the brothers: "They look like two fags up there." After the spectators rise to leave, Jake denounces go-between Joey for arranging to have them cooperate, become subservient to the mob, and split his fortune:

Joey: They only came up here because Tommy told 'em to come up and try to help us.
Jake Whatsa matter with you? Help who? Whatsa matter with you?...Help me by takin' my money? Is that what you're talkin' about - takin' my money? I'm here breakin' my ass, not them. Don't ever bring 'em up here again, ya hear me?

At the open-air city swimming pool, Jake buys a coke and then is lustfully attracted to a fifteen-year old, blonde "neighborhood girl" named Vickie (19 year old Cathy Moriarty) who hangs around with the neighborhood wiseguys - Salvy and the boys. Poolside in a white-striped, one-piece bathing suit, she is revealed to Jake's point-of-view when Joey's back, which fills the screen, moves out of the way. Obsessed with her, he incessantly grills his brother about the young teenager and the men surrounding her, intensely interested in her desirability: "Where's she from?","What's her last name?", "She knows them?", "She go with them?", and "I heard there was a girl that he (Salvy) went with that was a very beautiful young girl, blonde...that's not her?" Jake almost wishes to hear that Joey bedded down Vickie:

Joey: She ain't the kind of girl you just f--k and forget about, this girl.
Jake: Joey, how many times I gotta tell ya? Why're you always cursin' when I'm talkin' to you? Don't do it around me. Do it around your friends...
Joey: She's a, the kind of girl you bang and forget about - she's not like that. You gotta spend time with her, get involved, you know...
Jake: Did you bang her?
Joey: No.
Jake: Tell me the truth.
Joey: I just told you the truth. I tell you the truth the first time. You don't have to ask me again. I never do that. I always tell you the truth. If I did it, you would know. I took her out a couple of times.
Jake: You went with her and you didn't try to f--k her?

Learning that Joey only took her out a few times, Jake turns his attention toward Salvy and his friends. He jealously watches them and mutters that they must be trying to impress her - his erotic object of desire. His passionate feelings for her quickly turn violent toward her male admirers. Jake remarks that "tough guys" aren't so tough without their guns:

Friends. They're in a huddle. Big business meeting. By the pool, they sit around and talk. Big deals. They make sure she can hear. Big Man. Get the f--k outta here. Big shot. Get 'em all in a back room, smack 'em around, no more big shot, without his gun. They're tough guys. They're all tough guys.

During his meditative reverie, Vickie sensually gets up and moves to the edge of the pool, sits down with her feet in the water, and turns her face toward the sun. Joey reminds Jake that he's married: "What are ya thinkin' about? Ya keep lookin'. Where the f--k you going? You're dead! You're married! You're a married man, it's all over. Leave the young girls for me." The scene ends with a slow-motion shot of Vickie's legs - her objectified body parts idly swish up and down in the pool water, as Jake mutters again: "Big shot."

After primping together before a mirror in Jake's apartment before going out on the town on a Saturday night (August 6th), Jake and Joey leave - ostensibly for "business." Irma protests, intimates that they're homosexual, and screams: "I'm not gonna be here when you get back, you f--kin' bunch of guineas, you're always hangin' out together. Why don't you f--kin' stop? You're not goin' on business. You're gonna suck each other off, right? Suck 'em, suck 'em baby." When they reach the street, she yells more invectives out the window, jealously incensed at the sexual dimensions of their relationship: "You f--kin' queer. Faggot. Go stick it up..."

At the Annual Summer Dance sponsored by St. Clare's Church, held at Chester Palace, the two La Mottas (hypocritically without their spouses) enter the main ballroom and sit at a table in the back with Beansy. Jake is intent on looking for Vickie. A Catholic priest is asked to bless the table. In successively-closer views, Jake spots Vickie across the room at a table with a group of women. When the group begins leaving, with Salvy escorting Vickie, Jake follows them downstairs through the crowd and sees the sultry blonde driven off in a shiny black convertible.

Alongside the city swimming pool the next day, Jake sits in his own shiny convertible as Joey, talking to Vickie through the pool's chain-link fence, asks whether she'd like to meet his brother ("Jack.") [The scene on either side of the fence reflects the relationships between the characters - the brother's bond also creates a barrier between Vickie and Jake.]

Joey: Vickie, this is my brother Jake. He's gonna be the next champ.
Vickie: Hi.
Jake: How ya doin'? Nice to meet ya.

He touches her fingers through the metal fence. [The dividing wire between them foreshadows that she will be his 'kept' woman, or that he will ultimately end up in prison.] She compliments him on his car: "Nice car."

Jake: Where are ya from?
Vickie: Around here.
Jake: You wanna go for a ride?
Vickie: All right...

In a camera angle shot through the car's windshield of the moving convertible, Vickie moves over and sits closer to Jake. At a miniature golf course, Jake instructs Vickie on how to play the game and putt on one of the holes where the object is to hit the golf ball under the course obstacle - a miniature church. Symbolically, they are both dressed in white. When she putts the ball, it vanishes and they both crouch and look in vain for the ball under the church:

Vickie: What does that mean?
Jake: It means the game is over.

[Their closing words in the scene foreshadow their marriage, their failed relationship, and their inability beyond a cursory look to focus more deeply upon their underlying problems.]

In the next scene, Jake takes Vickie to his father's apartment where no-one is home. At his invitation, Vickie moves from opposite him at the kitchen table to the center chair, closer to him: "You're so far away, like on the other side of the room." She is even encouraged to sit on his lap. His success at boxing has brought financial rewards:

Jake: I bought it for my father. I bought the building.
Vickie: Oh yeah? From fightin'?
Jake: Yeah. What else?

In the apartment's dining room, where two religious Madonna paintings hang on the wall, Jake points out the bird's cage as they pass through:

That's a bird. It was a bird, 's dead now.

Back in the bedroom, they sit on the edge of the bed. After he briefly rests his arm around her waist, she rises and walks over to the bedroom's chiffonier to look at a cameo photograph that sits atop the dresser, with rosary beads dangling down over it. Jake and Joey are playfully pictured with their fists raised against each other, mimicking the traditional boxer's stance:

That's me and my brother, foolin' around.

The oval photograph that dominates the middle of the frame comes between them. [It is symbolic of how the relationship of the two brothers (who fight and play at boxing) will interrupt their emotional relationship]:

You know how beautiful you are? Anybody ever tell you how beautiful? Yeah, (they) tell you all the time.

He kisses her gently on the cheek and lips and tenderly strokes her neck. As he takes her toward the bed for love-making, the camera remains fixed on the photograph.

The following scenes alternate between boxing matches in the ring and love-making in the bedroom - between warring and peace-making.


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