Raging Bull, 1980.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty.
A black and white biopic of the boxer Jake LaMotta.
There’s a shot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford where James (Brad Pitt) picks up one of his children and swings her around. For an instant, the camera occupies her point of view, the world flying past her as she is spun. A brief switch of perspective, when performed properly, can be transcendent.
Raging Bull is full of such moments. Scorsese’s camera is restless, impatiently switching between slow motion, handheld, and long shots and close ups so extreme they could be mistaken for abstraction. Yet this kinetic style is married to the film’s protagonist, the 1940s professional middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro).
He’s an intensely fiery individual, supremely committed (he abstains from sex not because of it being an extramarital affair, but because a fight approaches) and increasingly jealous and paranoid. Scorsese introduces Jake as the product of these destructive traits, in 1964 as an overweight, deadbeat, two-bit stand-up rehearsing a gag backstage. He appears immensely lonely, talking to himself, sniggering at his own jokes, yet too headstrong to notice his pathetic situation. The rest of the film is technically a flashback from this first scene, back to 1941 when he was first making a name for himself. Jake doesn’t seem to be the man to dwell on such nostalgias, so the film does it for him.
He begins youthful. DeNiro had gained 60 pounds to play LaMotta’s aged incarnation, but here it is shed into the lean physique of a boxer. He’s unhappily married, holding most conversations with his wife at very loud volumes, whilst throwing objects that shatter with tremendous ease. They live in the Bronx, where passions are fierce and folk yell out their apartment windows at each other.
Jake’s manager is also his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci). The two actors feel linked in film history, like a gangster double act. Although they differ in size and shape, you never once doubt that they are kin.
The boxing world of the 1940s is portrayed as a corrupt sport. Joey is able to arrange a middleweight title shot through his Mafia connections, but Jake wants nothing of it. He’s a man with a perverse, specific honour to his sport, a Master that keeps him low in the pecking order. While worse fighters climb the ladder, Jake festers in obscurity, with only his morals as solace. But a man needs more than that…
He encounters Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) at an open-air swimming pool one day. Her legs are presented in slow motion, even though the audio of Joey chatting away remains at a normal pace. It’s how Jake is experiencing time, it practically stopping upon seeing shapes of such incredible beauty. Every camera movement in Raging Bull is inextricably entwined with character and narrative. Scorsese’s ability to fuse style and substance is unmatched in all of cinema.
But Jake becomes consumed by jealousy and possessiveness. He pounces on the slightest flicker of her eyes towards another man with the same ferocity he fights with in the ring. Jake wants to catch Vic cheating on him just to satisfy his own paranoid delusions.
The entire film is shot in black and white. It’s odd that filmmakers tend to adopt the monochrome for their most serious, artistic pieces. Steven Spielberg did so for Schindler’s List, as did Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon. It’s as though the absence of colour brings an instant integrity to the work, if only because it shows the director’s commitment to a more difficult path. Orson Welles once remarked how black and white was “the actor’s best friend”, any nuance in a character’s expression being coloured by the audience’s imagination. Perhaps this goes a little way to explaining the assuredness of DeNiro’s performance.
Or maybe it is to evoke something different, something more personal to the aging boxers with nothing left but the creased and crumpled news clippings in their breast pockets. The black and white recalls the old newspaper article that Mickey produced in Rocky, his only proof of what he once accomplished inside the ring, his memory faltering on account of all those thumps to the head. Remember, Scorsese is not one to do style for style’s sake. Raging Bull is a tale of this old boxer’s fall from grace; each scene one of Jake LaMotta’s own newspaper clippings, for glory or disgrace.
365 Days, 100 Films