By John H. Foote
(****) On Criterion Blu Ray
There is no doubt that Raging Bull is among the greatest films ever made, a visceral and punishing biography of middle weight fighter Jake LaMotta from the forties and through his retirement. I first saw the film opening night in Toronto at the Uptown Theatre with my good friend Kevin McDonald who went on to be part of the comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall. We were acting students at the time at Humber College, though my heart was really wanting to direct. Both film junkies, we had bonded quickly, becoming fast friends very quickly. Incredibly we still are all these years later! We staggered out of the cinema two and a half hours later, stunned at what we had just seen on the screen.
Robert De Niro had done something beyond Method Acting, inhabiting the role of La Motta as no actor had ever portrayed a role before. We each admired De Niro, very aware of his gifts, but this was something beyond extraordinary. The opening credits told us what the film was going to be about visually as La Motta (De Niro) danced in the ring, shadow boxing before a fight. Yes, he was going to spend the film fighting himself, and that was exactly what we saw. This man raged in the ring, obliterating his opponents but it was not contained to the ring, it exploded into his personal life too.
La Motta was a dark and complicated man, trusting no one, even those closest to him. Scorsese’s powerful film explored the horrors of being a friend or family member to Jake, he was a monster.
In what has become a genius cut of editing, we move from that credit sequence to a fight where La Motta is taking a beating. Needing a knockout, he viciously beats the other fighter until the man can barely stand but is defeated by points when the bell sounds.
Years later, a club in New York City where Jake is in the dressing room warming up for his “comedy” act. Grossly overweight, he is now obese, his face battered and scarred, a shadow of the fighter he once was. It was brilliant of Scorsese to show De Niro as the young Jake and then cut to the older Jake, as much had been made in the press of his 80-pound weight gain. How many audience members were there out of curiosity to see De Niro fat? This ended the speculation and permitted them to fall into the story. Once seen, once accepted they now wanted to know how he got there.
The film follows Jake’s career, refusing to take help from the mob who control the fights he is clearly the best of the challengers but will not get his shot until he does a fight for the mob. He finally does but is chastised for throwing the fight so obviously. He does come back and indeed, hammers his opponent becoming the new champ.
Much is made of his marriage to Vicki, a gorgeous blonde (Cathy Moriarty) who endured years of beatings and jealous rages from Jake. Even his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), his best friend, was beaten and accused of sleeping with Vicky (he never did). La Motta eventually drives everyone out of his life and when he done with boxing opens a club where he permits minors in to drink and sometimes sleeps with them. Charged eventually, he is ruined, and takes to the stage as a comedy act.
Robert De Niro does not act La Motta, he inhabits him. The actor goes so far into the character all sense of De Niro is gone; he IS Jake La Motta. Upon seeing it, I knew I was watching the single greatest performance I had ever seen. Yet exiting the theatre I knew I might not ever see the film again, it is that punishing.
Obviously I have seen it again, but in the 40 years since seeing the film for the first time, I have watched it again only five times. Consider I have seen The Godfather Part II (1974) at least 25 and you get some idea of what I speak of, Raging Bull is just too difficult a viewing. La Motta is a horrible human being, and De Niro fearlessly portrays him as such.
The acting, all of the acting is superb, with Pesci spectacular and Moriarty magnificent.
Scorsese’s direction is astounding, putting his audience inside the heard of the fighter while in the ring. We hear what La Motta hears, feel every punch, every cut, it is a relentless experience. Shooting in black and white was a superb decision, as it plunges us into the past and New York always looks best in black and white.
Is there any film that truly captures what it is to be inside the boxing ring fighting another man? Not like this. Here the punches rock the men back on their heels, we hear the sound of cuts being opened, the sounds of ribs breaking, and see the devastating results of those punches. Scorsese accomplished something quite astounding with the film, however dark, however raw and angry.
The furious energy that drives the film comes from Scorsese, de Niro and editor Thelma Schoonmaker
Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is electrifying, especially the sequences in the ring. After on brutal battle the camera lingers on the ropes and Schoonmaker allows it to finally track to the blood dripping off the ropes of the ring. Those closest to the ring, as ancient Romans were, find themselves often splattered with blood, this truly is a blood sport.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro), Best Director (Scorsese), Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Pesci and Moriarty) winning only for Best Actor and Best Film Editing. There were howls of protest that Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture and Director over this masterpiece, but in the years since I have come to understand the choice. The Academy has always had issues with films like this, they fear them. Such a dark and unrelentingly bleak film, I myself might have found it hard to vote for it as Best Film. No question it is, or was, but it is not a film I pull off the shelf very often.
The extras are magnificent, and I will watch them over and over to learn more about the film, the actors and of course Scorsese.
Another great release from the Kings of Blu Ray, Criterion.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.