Raging Bull Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of Raging Bull.

Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro) was World Middleweight Boxing Champion between 1949 and 1951, when he was defeated by his arch-rival Sugar Ray Robinson. Raging Bull, based on the autobiography he wrote with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, is his story: from the up-and-comer of the early 1940s to the world champion, to the retired fighter running a Miami nightclub who has to come to terms with the demons that drove him to victory in the ring but which destroyed his marriage to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) and his relationship with brother Joey (Joe Pesci).

Raging Bull won critics polls conducted by American Film and Premiere magazines for the Best Film of the 1980s. No argument with that, but in many ways Raging Bull is 70s Hollywood’s last gasp: character-driven narrative, with no-one to “root for”. It has certainly never been a popular favourite, bombing on its first release. This film is certainly not for everyone, with several violent scenes, considerable strong language and a protagonist who is for the most part positively dislikeable. This is perhaps the darkest portrayal ever made of a person who was still living at the time of production – but since La Motta acted as consultant on the film you can’t doubt its truthfulness. La Motta, who has been an occasional actor himself (in The Hustler amongst others), and who is still alive as I write this, apparently finds the whole story cathartic.

At the 1981 Oscars, De Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker both deservedly won. Less deservedly, Scorsese and the film lost to Robert Redford and Ordinary People. This looks ludicrous in retrospect, though we shouldn’t be too hard on Redford’s film. But the difference between Ordinary People and Raging Bull is that between a very good movie and a masterpiece. One of the other Oscar contenders in a very strong year was The Elephant Man, also a notable example of modern black-and-white photography and also a film that finds humanity where many would overlook it. (Both films feature their protagonists shouting “I am not an animal!” at key moments.)

As well as being a sports movie, this is one of the great films about men and masculinity, and what makes both what they are. It’s clear that La Motta is driven by a deep sexual insecurity. Early on, he despairs that he will be a great boxer because he has “little girl’s hands”. To be like a woman, to be less than a man, is his greatest fear; he comes from a background where “faggot” is a deadly insult. Later on, he succumbs to violent paranoia about his wife’s fidelity. When she makes a passing comment that boxer Janiro is good looking, La Motta makes it his mission to reduce Janiro’s face to a pulp (culminating in a shot featuring a horribly convincing make-up). This being a Scorsese movie, there’s a Catholic emphasis on sin and punishment: the poundings La Motta takes in the ring are his due for the many bad things he does. At his lowest point, busted on a vice charge, he sees what he has done; the final quote from St John’s Gospel emphasising the point.

Scorsese’s direction is of a very high level throughout. The fight scenes are some of the most powerful ever shot, slow and fast motion, shifts of focus and distortions of sound adding to their impact. He and director of photography Michael Chapman shot the film in black and white, inspired by Weegee’s photojournalism of the period; according to Scorsese it was also a protest against colour film stock’s fading. Actually, the film isn’t entirely monochromatic: the main title comes up in red and there’s a short sequence featuring the La Mottas’ colour Super-8 home movies. (As reality in this film is denoted by monochrome, one wonders about the status of this footage, showing the La Mottas as a happy family.) Chapman’s work, all rich blacks and shades of grey, is masterly: shot after shot could be lifted out of this film and framed.

De Niro’s performance is a tour de force. For the earlier scenes, he got himself into fighting trim, to make himself a credible middleweight boxer, then put on sixty pounds for the post-retirement scenes. The jail scene, with La Motta crying and beating his head and fists against the wall, is incredibly powerful. For total Method-like immersion into a character, this performance is hard to beat. De Niro played the young Brando in The Godfather Part II and in the final scene he pays tribute to his great Method predecessor, quoting the famous “I could have been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. (This scene was referenced wholesale at the end of Boogie Nights, not the only example of Scorsese’s influence on that film.) Together and separately, Scorsese and De Niro have gone on to do work that would grace anyone’s filmography, but they have not reached and quite possibly will not reach this level again.

Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty were both Oscar-nominated. Pesci went on to make Goodfellas, which typecast him as a gangster. Moriarty was still in her teens when she made Raging Bull; she’s still acting but has never come close to her work here.

The DVD is framed at the correct ratio of 1.85:1. The picture quality is excellent, virtually artefact-free and only marred by some dust speckles in one scene. It loses a point for being non-anamorphic, though. (The home-movie footage is meant to look grotty: in fact Scorsese and Chapman were unable to make it look bad enough, so they got crew members to shoot it!) As soon as the disc loads, you have to choose between the widescreen version and the full-frame one, which is pan-and-scan rather than open-matte. As the black bars in 1.85:1 format aren’t that wide even on a 4:3 set, one wonders at the point of including this version on the disc. Still, the choice is yours. Raging Bull was Scorsese’s first film released with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack, though Dolby cinema prints are hard to come by. The DVD has a Dolby Surround soundtrack. The sound is monophonic for the most part, with some surround effects such as rainfall; Scorsese and his sound team don’t unleash their full Dolby armoury until the fight scenes. I’d advise you to set the volume at a level where you can hear the dialogue clearly, which does enhance the impact of the fights. (If you think they’re too loud, you risk making some of the dialogue indecipherable.) There are French and Spanish mono soundtracks and subtitles in all three languages.

The only extra on the disc is the trailer, though there is a booklet as well. Since Scorsese has now started recording commentaries for his own films (Criterion’s edition of The Last Temptation of Christ), and considering the importance of this particular film, I look forward to a Special Edition with a commentary and hopefully a documentary. In the meantime this certainly will do.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Raging Bull Review | The Digital Fix