Scorsese again – although with a film that couldn’t be more different than Taxi Driver. A couple of days ago when I began to comment on Taxi Driver and noted the problem that Scorsese presented was which films do you omit, I purposefully left one off the list. The truth is that by any conventional standard Raging Bull demands its place on a list of films in X category (whatever X is). If I were to write the list again tomorrow it would still be firmly sat there, in fact with a few exceptions it could make its stand on any given year in the list. It’s not an easy watch, it’s not really enjoyable, but it’s as close to essential as any film on the list.
Born out of desperation on Scorsese’s part to remain employed following a near fatal drug overdose, he delivered a cathartic look at another man’s self-destruction as a means of coming to terms with his own. Unlike Taxi Driver, this time the story was a biography of the one-time prize fighter Jake LaMotta, and – unusually given the norms surrounding sports films before – focussed on the destructive nature of the sport on the men that are involved with it rather than the noble pugilist (Scorsese even mocks this by having LaMotta quote “On the Waterfront”). Boxing is a sport that’s easy to romanticize, often involving a rags to riches story and a sense of overcoming adversity to make it, Raging Bull turned that on its head – LaMotta learns little along the way other than how to be a more effective thug, in the end his life hasn’t been a triumph, rather a sense that he’s just about managed to become a human being, albeit one who’s worst opponent is himself.
More so than any of their other collaborations there’s the sense of total trust between director and actor in Raging Bull. Both are under no illusions that LaMotta is a repugnant character, but that whilst he’s repugnant it doesn’t make his story any the less interesting. It would have been easy to have taken the story and made it about boxing in general, or even focus on a more sympathetic fictional character, but there’s a sense of Scorsese working out his own personnel demons. De Niro never shows less than total commitment to the role, this was at the height of his method madness and the latter scenes in the film where no longer fighting LaMotta is reduced to a physical wreck, no longer the proud figure he was before. It’s here that the mental slide begins and DeNiro increases the sense that this is a man who could turn violent at any time, although more often than not against himself. Scorsese forces us to look at him (he’s rarely off screen) and come the end we’re watching with a horrible fascination rather than any sense of empathy. He’s also supported by superb turns from Joe Pesci (in a rare, sympathetic role here, rather than as a ranting, pint-sized psychopath) and even more so by Cathy Moriarty as his teenage wife (and the focus of much of the violence in the film) – even more surprising when you consider for both of them it was their film debut. Scorsese fills out the rest of the cast with faces familiar from his later films, ensuring quality is maintained from the largest to the smallest of roles.
Aside from DeNiro, much was made at the time of the boxing scenes (never bettered – sure, Michael Mann got closer to the action when the technology caught up for Ali, but they lack the ferocity shown here) but in truth they barely occupy a tenth of the films running times and they almost seem incidental to the action shown elsewhere. Only two reveal anything about LaMotta as a character, Tony Janiro and the jealousy he feels towards his wife and his last bout with Sugar Ray where his self-destructive behaviour reaches its height (and is based on their last real meeting which was later dubbed The St. Valentines Massacre). Elsewhere they feel like almost perfunctory stops in the story of his life, a means of recharging our shields before the next brutal battering of watching his life unfold. We learn far more about LaMotta from the gorgeous, dreamlike home-video at the centre of the film – the only splash of colour and light in an otherwise dark & oppressive film.
The black & white photography is gorgeous, blood appears as the blackest of blacks with no darker colour, but elsewhere it moves from oppressive in the early tenement scenes, through sharp contrasts at the height of his career to a washed out palette at the end of his career. LaMotta is shot to look more sickly as the film progresses, as if he’s eating away at himself. The editing is nothing short of superb, employing nearly every trick in the book to increase the ferocity of the on screen action. And the sound presents a surrealist landscape of slowed down animal noises, bangs and screams to add to the sense of being pummelled from start to finish. And Scorsese has the best record collection in the movies, taking in opera for the grand moments through to the wonderful use of
Raging Bull is not an easy to film to watch, nor does in really have anything particularly profound to say (other than if we create a man for violence, that violence will spill over into the rest of his life), but it remains an essential film because it’s unafraid to present an ugly life as something worth investing our time in (and come the end there is still a possibility of redemption, even if we do not see it). Scorsese would only reach these heights once again with Goodfellas, but in truth that’s a much easier proposition to film (it has a clearly defined narrative) and nowhere near as difficult a sell. Raging Bull remains his most complete film and (for me) a possible contender for the best film on the list.