With Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese was, as far as he was concerned, directing his last film - throwing everything he had into a creative swansong/suicide. He has since directed 11 feature-length dramas, and many other projects. Thelma Schoonmaker's credit, for which she won several major editing awards, appears over an introductory scene that amounts to a single static shot lasting over two and three-quarter minutes with no cuts. These ironies fit well with a film that was an enigma. That Raging Bull was any kind of commercial success seemed against the odds. It was made in black and white - something considered to be a box-office 'kiss of death' by the time of release. Worse still, it was about a character (real-life former middleweight world champion Jake La Motta, the 'Bronx Bull') whose brutality towards everyone including his own wife and brother seemed to make him impossible to like.
In its favour was the presence of Robert De Niro, whose name alone had become a crowd-puller, following the enormous success of The Deer Hunter (Cimino, USA, 1978) two years earlier. His preparation for the role, particularly a spectacular weight gain for the older Jake, went straight into legend, sparking off the new interest in the 'star' as (method) actor, where it continues to be almost mandatory for publicity to boast about the depth of commitment demonstrated by actors' studied role preparation. Also, production duo Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had been responsible for another boxing film that had been a gigantic hit just four years earlier: Rocky (Avildsen, USA, 1976), which had turned Sylvester Stallone into a star. Raging Bull looked nothing like Rocky, and, lacking the slightest feel-good element, it was much further from normally acceptable Hollywood fare than even Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976; see chapter 26). But if Raging Bull risked being found depressing, its explosive drama was unlikely to be rejected as dull. If not Scorsese's masterpiece to date, it is his tour de force. In any event, Raging Bull is remarkable for its brutal moulding of cinematic form, particularly the visual and aural montage of the fight scenes, which seem so geared towards expression of feeling that they display a kind of self-destructive anti-continuity. Scorsese rejected having the narrative of the boxing sequences tied down by the simple shot-shot action continuity flow that dominates much of American mainstream cinema, which liberated him to present a stark montage of emblematic images that embody Jake's alternately enraged and penitential experiences inside the ring.
The redemption theme of Raging Bull is explicit, where Jake thinks in terms of his failures being a form of penance. 'I've done a lot of bad things Joey - maybe it's coming back to me.' He even seems to set out to make amends in the ring for his worst excesses - violence towards his own family - taking terrible punishment while 'playing possum' during a fight that he goes on to win confidently. Physical repression is another key part in the image presented of the boxer, including pre-fight sexual abstinence (literally aborting foreplay with his second wife Vickie by pouring iced water down his shorts), the constant battle with maintaining weight and avoiding alcohol. Jake is barely capable of expressing himself at all, other than expelling rage through violence, in his own apartment as well as in the ring. It is his pathological jealousy and mistrust of Vickie that leads him to batter opponent Janiro to a pulp, after Vickie had angered him by referring to his up-and-coming rival as 'young, good-looking'. The power of Jake's fury drives images like one nauseating tilt-shot that follows Janiro right down to the canvas, until his world is upended, ropes stretched vertically up the screen. The static approach to scenes away from the ring contrasts with the kinetics of the fights, which tend to stay with Jake in the ring, but each fight is also shot and edited differently - emotionally or psychologically unique within the narrative. Each one shows a new point in Jake's downfall, filmed to reflect his current state of existence. Where the Janiro fight focuses on the harsh detail of Jake's devastating win, the first fight he loses to Sugar Ray Robinson is characterised by disorientation and lack of clarity, where images are unstable or their content obscured, mirroring Jake's inability to grasp what is going on in a fight that he thinks he should be winning.
Aspects of Raging Bull such as the performances and art direction give a strong sense of realism or naturalism, but also go far beyond. Michael Chapman's black and white photography can be taken as serving to evoke the boxing films of the period itself, but its bright and stark contrast also becomes yet another externalisation of Jake's electric anger. The fights seem either like hyper-reality or the opposite for Jake - either the time where he is most alive, or just an intense experience that makes up for the failures in what really is 'life'. Reflective sadness breaks through as an essential aspect of Raging Bull, and the feeling that Jake could have had happiness but threw it away is strongest in the post-fight scene that carries us from his hand gently nursed in a bucket of ice, to (colour) home-movie footage of family life with Jake, Vickie, Joey and his wider family enjoying the idyllic lightness of existence that is possible. The scratched but carefree images are intercut with a series of black and white images of Jake's fights, either as stills or as a dragging slow motion, which seem removed from life, their value questioned, if not their destructive importance, clashing with the undulating Italian classical music that serves as the film's most wistful counterpoint. Jake's greatest achievement when he takes the world title from Marcel Cerdan is strangely melancholy; following the adrenalin-charged pursuit of La Motta's entry to the arena, this fight is portrayed in a more fragmented manner than any other. Jake's glory eventually explodes with dazzling upward angles and an orchestra of flashbulbs, but on winning, when he walks to Cerdan to embrace him, the event feels overshadowed, as if suggesting its meaninglessness. Cerdan, Edith Piaf's lover, would be killed in a plane crash soon after. The final fight where Jake takes 'terrible punishment' from Sugar Ray is the most extreme, both in its bloody violence and in its distortion of time and reality, with sounds stripped away or slowed down, or used to evoke the fighters' dehumanisation through the sound of animals' exhausted breathing. This shock of Jake's apparent self-loathing/destruction is matched by the impact of a sudden leap to his bloated retirement from boxing, and his rapid demise that leads to incarceration for statutory rape. We end up with Jake where we met him - in the dressing room of his small-time club, with little apparent prospect of glory - but there is redemption, confirmed by the end titles' bible quote from John 9: 'Once I was blind, but now I can see.' Jake lost everything, and failed to win back fully the love of his closest ones, but he may have gained the ability to see himself and recognise his own humanity in all its flaws.
Schoonmaker's partnership with Scorsese goes back to his early days as a film-maker and she has edited all of his feature films since Raging Bull. She is overgenerous in suggesting that her Oscar was really his (because of his meticulous pre-designing of shots), but their creative fusion certainly provokes the most fascinating thoughts about film drama and the director-editor relationship. One could hardly offer a sharper illustration of the importance of marrying cinematic form and dramatic content than by contrasting a screening of Raging Bull with a screening of their subsequent collaboration, The King of Comedy.
Some Things to Watch out for and Consider
• Does the black and white cinematography enhance the dramatic impact of the film?
• In what way is the ideal of 'realism' important/not important?
• Are the fights exciting? (Yes? No? Some, but not all? Which?)
• How does their portrayal match the film's overall depiction of the sport/life?
• Can you select key scenes that seem to justify the awards for editing?
• Can you describe their contribution to the film?
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