Raging Bull 25th Anniversary Special Edition Review

It starts in darkness. Suddenly, out of the blackness comes a cage of rope, surrounding a single robed figure bouncing on its toes amidst a pall of smoke. It could be a man but it’s not entirely clear. As Mascagni’s Intermezzo from “Cavalleria Rusticana” swells on the soundtrack, soaring above the smoke and flashbulbs, we realise that this is indeed a man, but what sort of man would behave like this? That’s the best possible opening to this film since it’s exactly the question which is constantly posed. Who is this bull, raging through his life in and out of the ring?

The answer is, of course, that he’s a terribly flawed, deeply sad human being whose inability to square the contradictions of a professional life devoted to violence with a domestic life leads him into some kind of personal hell. Brilliantly performed and stylishly directed, Raging Bull bores deep into the fragility of a deeply lost soul and skilfully examines the ways in which violence and masculinity have become inextricably intertwined. Twenty five years on, it remains a triumph, even if some rough edges have been revealed, and Robert De Niro’s performance is increasingly beginning to seem like his very finest hour, one which is now long past. Although it’s arguably not Martin Scorsese’s best work, it’s still an extraordinary achievement and one of the relatively few films which grows in your mind after every viewing.

Jake La Motta was a popular boxing star during the forties and early fifties whose notoriety was based on his incredibly stubborn temperament and his absolute refusal to go down, no matter how much punishment he was taking. He eventually became middleweight champion but lost the title . Ultimately, he retired and ended up as an overweight nightclub performer. Along the way, he was married twice and imprisoned for serving liquor to underage girls.

The basic facts don’t begin to cover the story of the man. The initial interest which Robert De Niro had in the project came from the book “Raging Bull” which La Motta wrote with Peter Savage and his fascination seems to have been in a man whose experience of using violence in order to make a living eventually exploded into his personal life. Eventually persuading Scorsese to take an interest, the two men produced one of the definitive documents about the insecurities which lie at the heart of the exaggerated display of masculinity. None of this would be possible without what the two men brought to the project. Scorsese’s direction is exceptionally skilled throughout and, in many ways, Raging Bull is his most consistent piece of work. There are a few rough edges – the slight overuse of slow motion, the exaggerated intensity of some of the dialogue scenes – but the film is ultimately all of a piece and it moves with such an dramatic intensity and emotional fervour that it’s virtually impossible not to be carried along. The boxing scenes account for about a tenth of the film at most but they remain the best ever put on film. Using a variety of lighting techniques and a single camera, Scorsese gets inside the ring in a way which few directors have ever managed – the most recent comparable achievement is that of Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. The key decision both here and in the scenes outside the ring is to show things from La Motta’s point of view. The ring changes according to his state of mind – when he’s winning, it’s expansive, when he’s taking a masochistic beating, it’s claustrophobic and somewhat prison-like. One sequence is filled with smoke as if to suggest La Motta’s entrance into his own mental inferno. The decision to use monochrome rather than colour both heightens and abstracts the boxing, putting us at a remove from the immediate and copious bloodletting while somehow emphasising the ritual aspects of it. The scenes of La Motta’s personal life, with his brother Joey (Pesci) and his wife Vickie (Moriarty) are just as intense as the fight scenes, especially in the second half when La Motta’s paranoia is beginning to take over his whole life.

Scorsese seems to understand La Motta, without ever excusing or patronising him. There’s a terrible sadness at the heart of Raging Bull which overcomes the brutality and violence and turns the film into part opera – the fights are the arias – and part passion play. Scorsese’s peculiar achievement as a director has been his ability to take the most loathsome characters and find a spark of humanity inside them, just enough to turn them into tragically damned souls. If we weep for them, it might be despite our better judgement but Scorsese is skilled at finding redemption inside the least redeemable men. There’s a depth to his compassion here, a complex vision of life in which the flaws and cracks are the things which make us all the more human. Indeed, Jake La Motta is all too human, the victim of a set of neuroses and fears so deeply embedded that he can barely find a way out of them. The film charts La Motta’s descent into a hell of his own making yet it refuses to judge him. He does appalling things to the people around him and, ultimately, to himself but his final redemption lies in both his masochistic physical courage – “I never went down, Ray!” he crows to Sugar Ray Robinson – and the self-realisation he achieves right at the end.

Usually in sports films, boxing is seen as a means to an end. Glory, success, sex, whatever; some kind of material prize. For De Niro’s La Motta, however, boxing is an end in itself, a concrete portrayal of the violence continually raging inside his psyche. All the prizes mean nothing – he’d either throw them away or break them. By the end, he doesn’t even care about winning. It all seems to be about acting out his inner demons in the most brutally punishing way possible. The end result is inevitable. The opening transition from the old, fat man to the toned young boxer poses the question, how did he get here from there? The answer is supplied, I think, in the final moments. When he sits in his dressing room and recites, “I coulda’ been a contender”, the emotional resonance comes from the fact that he was a contender and indeed, briefly, a champion – and it’s through being a contender that he’s ended up reciting speeches from old movies in a dingy club to a handful of drunks. The final, tragically comic irony is that at the end of the day, for all the chances, he’s no better off than Brando’s Terry Malloy sitting in the back seat of the car. Opportunity means little if it only comes by the path of self-destruction.

The performance of Robert De Niro is the other vital element here. This is one of the greatest achievements in the history of film. I want to try and pin this down rather than generalising. I take as my measure the performance of Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris. Brando’s work in that film changed the yardstick for screen acting because it went beyond performance into something much deeper and richer. You can see in that film the way that Brando is opening himself up and daring to go too far, daring to make himself look foolish. In doing so, he both finds the character and lives the character, getting right to the centre of the man. What De Niro does in Raging Bull is comparable. You never get the feeling that he’s just playing a character here. He seems to be living and breathing La Motta, giving form to the man and making him completely real. It’s an astonishing piece of work, symbolised by De Niro’s famous willingness to gain 60 pounds in weight in order to play the older La Motta. When, towards the end, he beats his head and fists against the wall of a cell – which, like all of his life, is just an extension of that boxing ring – he’s terrifyingly credible yet completely heartbreaking. The problem for De Niro is that everything he has done since has been compared with this and, inevitably, found wanting. The same happened with Brando. Perhaps its best to simply rejoice that his moment of glory was caught for eternity on film and accept that it’s virtually impossible for an actor to do this twice.

Using boxing as both a literal event and as a metaphor, the film gets closer than most to digging into the evasive notions of masculinity which have infected generations of men. The need to prove something which you can’t quite define; the conviction of superiority to women and to men who you perceive as somehow lesser; the manifestation of mental confusion through physical violence. All of these things seem to me to be at the heart of boxing and at the heart of the confusions which have been wracking the male psyche over the last fifty years as their traditional roles got first questioned and then summarily ripped to shreds. A recourse to violence seems to have been a fairly standard response, particularly violence against women. Indeed, given the prevalence of wife beating and its social acceptability, particularly in the middle of the twentieth century, it becomes less surprising that men abused their wives and more surprising that some didn’t. One gets the feeling that if Vickie had gone to the police, she’d have been told to stop whining and accept the beatings as a normal part of married life. Jake’s tragic flaw seems to be his belief that manhood is essentially an authoritative, controlling position which his constant paranoid suspicion about his wife brings into question. In essence, it makes him lose the controlling position and the initiative in the relationship. Essentially, his suspicions mean that he is losing authority over his conscious self. The famous scene in which Jake batters the face of his rival Janiro so “he ain’t pretty no more” can be seen as an attempt to wrest control over his own suspicions by beating away at a representation of them. When this doesn’t work, he beats Vickie, then Joey and, ultimately, himself.

Yet the remarkable thing is that the film, violent and grim as it often is, isn’t gloomy. In fact, it’s often extremely funny. Much of this is due to the double-act between De Niro and Joe Pesci. Jake and his brother Joey are hilarious together and the early scenes between them turn into cross-talk acts. It’s like watching a classic vaudeville team and the comic energy that the actors create was later repeated in Goodfellas and Casino. This adds to the sense of despair when Jake finally turns on Joey and accuses him with the famous line, “Did you fuck my wife” – and even then, the aggressive reactions of the pair have an underlying comic spin. Something similar can be said of the teaming of Pesci with Frank Vincent as one of the shady wheelers and dealers who surround the pair. Equally impressive is the debutante Cathy Moriarty as Vickie. This was her first film and its her best work, completely natural and very touching.

Twenty four years after the event, its very hard to believe that the Academy could have missed the opportunity to give Raging Bull the highest honour of Best Film, and even harder to believe that they went for that collection of tedious platitudes Ordinary People instead. Everything in Scorsese’s film works. The screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin is a miracle of construction, bringing a very complicated life story down into a coherent narrative, and the dialogue – some improvised by the cast – is colourful and flavoured with an authentic ear for the ways in which men talk to each other. Michael Chapman’s black and white cinematography is stunning to look at and an achievement worthy of ranking with the best work of James Wong Howe and John Alton. The other key collaborator is editor Thelma Schoonmaker, also making her debut on a feature film, and her work on the fight scenes is still some of the best she’s done for Scorsese.

Viewing Raging Bull can be a painful and upsetting experience. It has the power to get inside your head and trouble you so that you begin to question some of your assumptions about life. That’s a sign of a great film as opposed to a very good one and every time I watch it, I come away with something new. It may not be Scorsese’s very best work – I think that Mean Streets and Taxi Driver are impossible for him to top, although his 1993 adaptation of The Age Of Innocence is just about a perfect film of its type – but its packed with good things and certainly deserves its place among the finest films of the 1980s. Robert De Niro’s performance, on the other hand. earns a place among the greatest in the history of screen acting and makes the fact that he’s ended up starring in fluff like Meet The Focker and Hide and Seek even more depressing.

The Disc

This is MGM’s third attempt at a DVD of Raging Bull and they’ve finally got it right. The first non-anamorphic disc was a bit of a mess and the ‘Special Edition’ from 2000 paired that same disc with a second DVD containing a worthy but brief featurette and a couple of other minor extras. This third release deserves the adjective ‘Special’ and is worthy of the film which it contains.

The film is presented in an anamorphic transfer that I found pretty impressive. According to DVD Beaver, it’s cropped from 1.85:1 to 1.81:1 but the day that I begin getting so anal about this is the day you can put me out to pasture. It looks fine to me. The black and white image is reasonably sharp with a pleasing amount of atmospheric detail. There is some film-like grain present which adds to the effectiveness, although not quite as much as on the previous release – whether this is a good thing is a matter of personal taste. I didn’t notice any serious artifacting problems or over-enhancement. It’s not a great advance over the older edition but I definitely found it an improvement.

The disc contains both the original two track Dolby Stereo soundtrack and a new 5.1 remix. Both tracks are eminently clear and well balanced with limited but effective stereo effects, The surrounds in the 5.1 track are mostly used for ambience and the .1 LFE comes into play during the more gruelling fight sequences.

The first disc contains three commentary tracks. The first is the legendary Criterion laserdisc track, a serious and intense look at the film from the always fascinating Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. This is essential listening for fans of the film and anyone interested in the art of filmmaking. The second contains a mind-boggling range of participants including producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, casting director Cis Corman, cinematographer Michael Chapman, sound editor Frank Warner, music arranger Robbie Robertson, actress Theresa Saldana and onetime bit-part player John Turturro. Inevitably, this is somewhat disjointed although patient listeners will glean some fascinating trivia from it. I thought this was the least valuable of the three tracks. The third commentary is the most entertaining, a gloriously freewheeling interview with Jake La Motta accompanied by interpolations from Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin. La Motta is a natural star and he has the sense of ethnic humour which constantly bubbles up in the film. You won’t believe half of what he says, but that’s part of the fun.

The second disc has some very interesting material, principally a making-of documentary which is broken into four parts. “Before The Fight” deals with the genesis of the project and the lengthy development process . The film only really began to get off the ground when De Niro visited a tired and emotional Scorsese in hospital – following the physical and allegedly chemical demands made on him during the shooting of New York New York - and it seems to have become something of an obsession for both men. “Inside The Ring” details the lengthy shooting of the boxing sequences which were done in California over a nine week period and heavily storyboarded in advance. “Outside The Ring” looks at the location shooting in New York while “After The Fight” concentrates on the editing and sound mixing process and the release of the film. Together, these run a little shy of 90 minutes and provide a very comprehensive guide to the film, albeit one which contains material that will be very familiar to anyone who has sat through all three commentaries. Most impressive is the list of contributors to these documentaries with the surprising presence of a very eloquent Robert De Niro being particularly rewarding.

Also on the second disc is the half-hour “Bronx Bull” documentary from the 2000 SE release. This is fine as far as it goes and has the big advantage of the presence of Jake La Motta and the bigger disadvantage of including comments from the egregious Ian Nathan of “Empire”. The best bits of this featurette come when Thelma Schoonmaker talks us through sequences from the film. Added to this documentary are a brief comparison of the real La Motta with De Niro’s performance and some old newsreel footage of La Motta defending his title. Finally, we get the original theatrical trailer.

The film is broken into 36 chapter stops. Although the main feature is subtitled, the extra features are not.

Although this isn’t, in technical terms, a huge improvement over the original release, the overall package certainly is and MGM have done a very good job on this disc. Raging Bull is a complex, brilliantly made film which gets better with repeated viewings and the extra features present on this new release are detailed and fascinating.

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