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My Survey of Scorsese: Raging Bull

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Very generally speaking — putting aside the sport’s more flamboyant, incendiary or infamous public figures, its Muhammad Alis, its Floyd Mayweathers, its Mike Tysons — prizefighters are often reserved, soft-spoken people in their daily lives, men who train hard in the gym, fight ferociously in the ring, take out their aggression in the practice of their trade, and leave everything they have in the squared circle, men with nothing left to prove, who sleep well at night.

From the outset, however, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull establishes its protagonist, the legendary middleweight Jake LaMotta (Academy Award winner Robert De Niro), as an outlier of that category, an untamed beast, a man whose anguish cannot be quelled, whose personal demons cannot be exhausted by the cathartic violence of the ring. Even the extended opening credit sequence, lyrical as it is, depicts Jake in his leopard-print robe, shadow-boxing, stalking the ring — almost literally an animal in a cage.


After a brief glimpse ahead at 1964, when we encounter the champion in twilight, bloated of torso and bulbous of nose, trading on his past glory to perform canned soliloquies in a cheesy nightclub act, we cut to Cleveland, September 1941, LaMotta vs. Jimmy Reeves:

All is chaos. Fights are taking place in the crowd during the fight in the ring. Jake, losing on points, rallies late and punishes Reeves, knocking him out as time expires in the final round. Saved by the bell, Reeves is awarded a controversial unanimous decision. Bedlam erupts as Reeves’ corner men carry him out like a sagging body bag. Chairs are thrown into the ring. Men are thrown out of the ring. A woman is trampled by the ensuing mob. The arena organist launches into “The Star Spangled Banner” in a vain attempt to call the mob to order. The LaMottas’ protests are futile, and we see our first example of a theme that casts Jake, in his own eyes at least, as a pawn of the system.

And indeed, he’s no less indentured than any other fighter to the mobster Tommy Como (based on real-life boxing promoter and Lucchese family soldier Frankie Carbo), without whose influence he’d be unable to get a title shot. However, Jake seems more concerned about Tommy taking a cut of his prize money than about any moral dilemma or delusions of his own integrity.

Jake is driven by ego and pride, suspicious of the motives of others, fueled by jealousy, standing alone against all comers, even those closest to him. And so he battles his wife because she overcooks his steak, and shouts threats at the neighbor who overhears their argument and calls Jake an animal, and goads his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci), into punching him in the face just so he can prove that his toughness extends to the world outside the ring.

If we didn’t appreciate Scorsese’s de facto ownership of the dolly push into close-up before Raging Bull, there was no denying it after 1980. He and cinematographer Michael Chapman use it to stunning effect here, whether dreamily, as in our introduction to the glamorous young Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), or even self-mockingly, as in a shot immediately following the latter, in which the camera dollies slowly back from the mob lieutenant Salvy (Frank Vincent) as he removes his sunglasses from his shirt pocket and places them on his face.

However, the technique is best employed in the film’s fight sequences, a tailor-made showcase for Scorsese’s signature camera move. In the Jimmy Reeves fight that opens the picture, the push is used twice in quick succession, to reflect the present state of each fighter: first rapidly into Jake’s corner, urgently, because as we learn from his corner men, he is losing the fight on points and will need a knockout to win; then, from across the ring, slowly, almost casually into Reeves’ corner, where Jake’s opponent sits cool and collected, barely breaking a sweat as his seconds wordlessly attend to him.

Despite professing no passion for or even particular knowledge of the fight game before making Raging Bull (the movie was mostly De Niro’s baby from inception), Scorsese becomes the first director of note to put his camera inside the ring, prowling alongside the action instead of shooting through the ropes like a detached observer or a television broadcast, making us witness more intimately the raw, visceral force and not just the mere fact of the violence perpetrated in the ring.

Each shot is specific and precisely composed, because the fight scenes here are not merely action — they are intricately intertwined with Jake’s character arc, his state of mind over the course of the film. The ring shrinks from fight to fight. Less light is used. Camera angles get tighter. Whip pans convey dizziness and disorientation. The camera is cranked at different frame rates. Frank Warner’s sound design, replete with braying-elephant and shuddering-horse sound effects (and sometimes silence, where appropriate), enhance the primal, relentless brutality at an almost subliminal level. In the film’s more violent moments, whether inside or outside the ring, the gorgeous chiaroscuro of Chapman’s cinematography looks like the prelude to a Weegee crime-scene photo.

Scorsese’s most important collaborator, however — even more so than De Niro here, I would argue, and ever after — is editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who on this film rejoined him for good and won an Academy Award for her efforts. Schoonmaker is always quick to note that Scorsese makes her work easier by having a definite vision for the film he is shooting and not just dumping a lot of takes on her in the middle of principal photography, but it is remarkable to note how easily they fall into their routine here, working together for only the third time, and for the first time in a decade, since Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock, on which they served as second unit directors and two of the film’s seven credited editors.

There are layers to this film that look and feel very different if viewed separately — a stripped-down cinema verite aesthetic one moment, a French New Wave sensibility the next, the extended montage, an occasional scene that has a 1950s live-television feel, the hyper-real intensity and shot-by-shot detail of the fight sequences interspersed throughout — yet in the full context of the film, these disparate elements fit together seamlessly. That it’s all calculated and never seems slapdash is as much a credit to Schoonmaker’s acute sense of timing and attention to tone and tempo as to Scorsese’s vision. In the hands of a lesser editor, this film would be a camel instead of a horse.

The usual Catholic iconography is present throughout the film — every room in every apartment is watched over by a couple of saints, or Christ; the Blessed Virgin guards every doorway; a rosary hangs on a picture frame; a figurine stands atop a bureau; a cross hangs over the bed. And yet these characters don’t seem to struggle against the tide of morality; they don’t seem bothered that their sins are being witnessed, unlike the earlier Keitel characters in particular. In one respect, it’s Scorsese shoehorning one of his obsessions into a film where it might not seem to fit; on the other hand, it subtly underscores Jake’s animal nature.

After Jake loses the third Robinson fight (the second depicted in the movie) by unanimous decision, he remarks, in a rare if not singular instance of introspection, “I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey. Maybe it’s comin’ back to me. Who knows? I’m a jinx maybe. Who the hell knows?” Certainly the audience doesn’t. Even this moment is devoid of any particularly Catholic sense of guilt or remorse, and apart from our having witnessed Jake’s treatment of the women in his life, we’ve really seen none of these “bad things” he refers to nor, for that matter, anything of his life at all before the September 1941 Jimmy Reeves fight that opens the picture.

Here, as Jake’s hand soaks in the ice bucket, meriting its own slow push into close-up, we segue into the film’s centerpiece, a beautiful two-and-a-half-minute montage intercutting still photos of fights with color home movies, set to Pietro Mascagni’s “Barcarolle”:

  • Jake fights Fritzie Zivic for the fourth time, winning by unanimous decision in Detroit, January 1944.
  • Jake courts Vickie with Joey as their third wheel.
  • Jake defeats Jose Basora with a 9th round TKO at Madison Square Garden in August 1945.
  • Jake marries Vickie. We have dispensed with his first wife with no additional conflict or apparent remorse.
  • Jake beats George Kochan for the third time, by 9th round TKO at the Garden, in September 1945.
  • The honeymoon period. Jake and Vickie frolic at the public swimming pool where they first met.
  • Jake fights Jimmy Edgar to a draw in their third bout, in Detroit, June 1946.
  • Joey marries Lenore (Theresa Saldana) in a rooftop celebration overlooking the Bronx.
  • Jake knocks out Bob Satterfield in the 7th round at Wrigley Field in Chicago, September 1946.
  • Jake carries Vickie across the threshold of a new house on Pelham Parkway.
  • Children for both LaMotta brothers and their brides, apparent domestic bliss.
  • Jake decisions Tommy Bell at the Garden, March 1947.

The montage covers a span during which Jake fought 29 times in roughly 38 months — unheard-of today — earning 25 wins against three losses and a draw, two of those losses decisions at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson. The sequence is perhaps intended to lull us into a sense of hope and joy for the turning fortunes of the brothers LaMotta, but we emerge from this idyll to find them berating their wives and each other at the breakfast table, chiefly over Vickie’s innocent remark about Jake’s next opponent being a “good-looking” up-and-coming fighter. (Joey: “So you make him ugly. What’s the difference?”)

This and the Copacabana sequence in which we at last meet the shadowy Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto) have been our prelude to the jealous rage and unbridled violence Jake takes into the ring for his date with Tony Janiro at the Garden in June 1947. (Tommy, at ringside: “He ain’t pretty no more.”)

The Copacabana sequences also give us a glimpse into the mob demimonde that Scorsese would depict so acutely and artfully in Goodfellas and Casino a decade later, having hinted at it in the previous decade with the aspiring young mobsters of Mean Streets and, before that, the half-assed hoodlums of Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Inasmuch as Scorsese is much more than a director of mob or crime films, if we focus on this one particular storytelling arc, we can watch him gradually refine his signature over the course of his career.1 Scorsese typically underscores the seduction of the mob by depicting its opulent social life, its nattily attired capos and lieutenants making the scene with mistresses on their arms, saluting each other across the room and sending drinks over to other tables, presenting a posture of camaraderie and good will that belies their more nefarious traits and habits, the work they do with guns and knives and tire irons or merely by applying pressure, just so.

Thus do we revisit the theme of Jake’s resistance to mob influence and the corruption of the fight game, touched upon earlier in the film, as Jake learns that taking a dive against Billy Fox in November 1947 at Tommy’s behest is essentially the only way Jake can secure himself a shot at the title. It’s an unconvincing dive, too, with Jake refusing to go down and instead taking punishment without defending himself until the ref stops the fight.

The final Sugar Ray Robinson fight, in which Jake loses his title, is played as penance, with Jake absorbing as much punishment as humanly possible in the 13th round, then boasting to Robinson from behind his cuts and swollen eyes, “Hey, Ray. I never went down, Ray. You never got me down, Ray.” In filmic terms, this moment is his redemption for taking the dive against the lesser Billy Fox.2 As viewed through Chapman’s lens, the shot that concludes the sequence — of Jake’s blood dripping from the rope against which he absorbed his greatest punishment from Robinson — is as forthright an allusion to the Crucifixion as you’re going to get this side of The Last Temptation of Christ.

Having conducted that karmic transaction to balance the books on his career, we jump ahead once more to the fat, broken-down Jake, the aspiring nightclub impresario we met in the film’s opening, to find that he is every bit as irredeemable as a middle-aged civilian as he was as a middleweight contender and that the errors of his ways in the real world pay off with serious consequences — the loss of his family, home and business, the badly negotiated pawning of his championship belt to cover bail, a stretch in solitary confinement in the Dade County jail, a descent into a low-rent lifestyle unbecoming a champion.

In the film’s final scene, a tuxedoed Jake sits before a dressing-room mirror, rehearsing Brando’s “contender” speech from On the Waterfront. That monologue, on its face, is about another boxer whom the mob forced to throw a fight, and while it allows Scorsese to tip his hat to one of his idols, Elia Kazan, the choice is drenched in thematic and symbolic irony:

  • In Waterfront, Terry Malloy’s own brother, Charlie the Gent, set him up to take the fall, both as a boxer and as a flunky for the union boss Johnny Friendly, while Joey LaMotta is Jake’s one true ally, whom Jake repays with suspicion, accusation and violence.
  • Jake’s dive against Fox — seemingly the only thing he ever had to do for the mob — did get him a shot at the title, which he won, then pissed away; Terry’s dive got him “a one-way ticket to Palookaville.”
  • Arriving at this point after all we’ve witnessed, the idea that Jake “coulda had class” seems preposterous. This version of the Jake LaMotta character ends in a fitting place, washed-up and alone, speaking of “taking dives for the short-end money,” while Terry eventually challenges and exposes the mob, rallies the longshoremen behind him, wins the respect of his community and redemption through the love of Edie Doyle.

But hey, if a caricature of one’s former self wants to cast oneself more heroically in the light of one’s past glories and with favorable comparisons to Brando3 — that’s entertainment.
Random Observations:

  • The film is produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who, coincidentally, co-produced Rocky only a few years earlier and used United Artists’ desire for a sequel to its 1977 Best Picture winner as leverage to get Raging Bull made.
  • In the first major film appearance for both actors, Joe Pesci delivers his first cinematic beatdown of Frank Vincent. Broken glass, a table, fists, a velvet-rope bollard, the door of a taxi — this beatdown has something for everybody. Salvy at least survives this beating, faring much better than Billy Batts in Goodfellas.
  • Scorsese cast a number of New York–based prizefighters in the roles of LaMotta’s various opponents:
    • Floyd Anderson (as Jimmy Reeves) fought twice professionally, in 1978 and 1980, losing both times.
    • Kevin Mahon (as Tony Janiro) fought three professional bouts as a middleweight in 1977-78, recording a record of 1-2-0.
    • Louis Raftis (as middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan) fought nine times between 1965 and 1978, posting a record of 8-0-1.
    • Johnny Barnes (as pound-for-pound legend Sugar Ray Robinson) boxed competitively in the Army, in the Golden Gloves and in other amateur tournaments but never professionally.
    • Coley Wallace (as heavyweight champion Joe Louis) fought Rocky Marciano as an amateur and Ezzard Charles as a pro, compiling a professional record of 20-7-0 during the 1950s.
    • Johnny Turner (as Laurent Dauthuille) amassed a record of 42-6-2 as a welterweight and once fought Wilfred Benitez.
    • In perhaps the production’s slyest inside joke, Billy Fox, the feckless opponent against whom Jake takes a dive, is portrayed by former WBA light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, who fought to a career record of 50-8-1.
  • Fast-forward to 22:08 through 32:22 of this interview in which editor Thelma Schoonmaker breaks down the Sugar Ray Robinson fights. Or, you know, just watch the whole video, because she’s an incredibly cool lady talking about her incredibly cool collaborators and their craft.
  • A detail that caught my eye on my third pass through the movie: On Jake’s ring walk before his title shot against Marcel Cerdan, his hands are wrapped but not gloved. In the modern era, an official inspects both fighters’ hand wraps and gloves in the dressing room before the fight; the gloves are taped at the wrist, the official signs the tape, and the fighter is wearing those gloves from that moment until the final bell. I’m unable to find online any definitive mention of when that practice began, but it’s reasonable to assume that it wasn’t enacted prior to the Kefauver Committee’s 1960 Senate investigation, which exposed corruption in boxing, led to Frankie Carbo’s further indictment and incarceration, and not coincidentally included Jake LaMotta’s testimony that he had thrown the Billy Fox fight in exchange for a title fight.

Coming soon: The King of Comedy (1982)
1 It’s admittedly only the kernel of an idea at this point, but I’ll be interested to note later on how that arc informs Scorsese’s treatment of the, shall we say, nontraditional mobs of Gangs of New York and The Departed.

2 Broadly speaking, pretty much everyone is a lesser fighter than Sugar Ray Robinson was, but Billy Fox brought a record of 42-1-0 into the ring against LaMotta when they fought at the Garden. While the film depicts Fox as a tomato can for dramatic effect, eight of his nine career losses and his only draw came after he fought LaMotta, over the last 25 months and 14 fights of his 48-9-1 career. Make of that precipitous post-LaMotta decline what you will.

3 Though it does occur to me now that by 1964 LaMotta had already stood up to Frankie Carbo by testifying before the Kefauver Committee, much as Terry had stood up to Johnny Friendly at the end of Waterfront. So that’s at least one point in both LaMotta’s and Scorsese’s favor here.


Written by Shepcat

August 8, 2014 at 6:26 pm

One Response

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  1. Glorious, my pet, as usual.


    August 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm

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