I’ve always been a pretty big fan of boxing movies, though I’ve never watched boxing outside of a movie in my entire life. Raging Bull captures a darker side of the sport than boxing films normally do. Like most protagonists of boxing movies, Jake Lamotta (Robert De Niro) goes into boxing because he needs to. There doesn’t seem to be much honor in it though, just rage.
In terms of boxing, Jake’s been having trouble getting a title shot. He doesn’t want to conform to the system they have in the sport; he wants to do everything on his own. Eventually he wins so many fights that nobody really wants to fight him. They’re scared. He also has problems keeping his weight at the right level. As more and more time passes with no title shot, he finally promises to throw a fight in exchange for one. He almost gets in trouble with the law for it, because he doesn’t make it look too convincing, but he gets out of that and eventually gets his shot. He wins. Two years in a row. When he defends it for the third time, he loses spectacularly to Sugar Ray Robinson. He never gets knocked down though, and he’s proud of it. He retires after that, and his personal life takes a turn for the worse.
Not that his personal life was all that fantastic to being with. He doesn’t get along with his first wife very well, and eventually she just disappears. We’re never really sure what happens to her, though they must have gotten a divorce at some point. He marries again, to Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a sixteen year old girl from the same neighborhood in the Bronx. He is obsessed with her; a lot of times she is shot in dreamlike slow motion. They seem to have a pretty good relationship at the start; they get married, have a couple of kids, and seem happy enough in the montage that Scorsese gives us (the only part of the film in color). Jake is very possessive of her. He thinks that she’s cheating on him when all she really does is talk to other male friends or kiss them on the cheek. If she so much as tries to go out without Jake, he freaks out. Strangely, he neglects her and cheats on her, giving her more reason to resent him. Abuse follows, until finally she leaves. You can see how obsessed with the idea he still is, even after she leaves. He becomes a stand-up comedian after he’s done boxing and most of his jokes have infidelity as the theme, like he’s trying to make himself feel better about it or something.
Jake not only manages to alienate both of his wives, but also his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci). They seem to be made out of the same stuff; both are pretty possessive of their wives, lash out the slightest notice, and both work on Jake’s career. Jake starts to get suspicious of Joey and Vickie doing something behind his back though, even though there is absolutely no basis for it. Because Vickie knows that no matter what she tells him, Jake will think they slept together anyway, she confesses (I’m pretty sure falsely) to it. Jake loses it. The violence that ensues is frightening not just because of the way Scorsese shoots it, but because if there was one person I thought Jake wouldn’t try to kill it was his brother who had been with him from the beginning. They seemed to have a good bond of trust. When it comes to people sleeping with his wife though, Jake has no conscience.
The way Scorsese shoots the fight scenes, both in and out of the ring, is amazing. There are a ton of them, and you always get the feeling that another one is about to burst out of nowhere. Raging Bull won a well deserved Oscar for its editing. The flashbulbs from the old-timey cameras are cut in to the matches so their sharp light and sound adds to the violence. The only other time I have seen flashbulbs from old-timey cameras used almost this well was in The Aviator, another Scorsese film. If there is a prize for using flashbulbs in film, Scorsese wins it. The fluctuation of time during the boxing scenes is also very effective. It stretches out to slow-mo and then speeds back up to regular motion (I’m not sure if he speeds it up beyond that but the punching is so fast that it may as well be). Anybody could be in those fights and you’d worry about them. There’s steam, lots of blood, and even a chair flying magically (it’s not actual magic, but it looks like it) over the ring at one point. The bells come at key moments, and add to the chaos.
I don’t remember Scorsese getting as fancy with the fights outside of the ring, but they are equally effective nonetheless because they are built up perfectly. With boxing, you know they are going to get in the ring and fight. You are not wondering when/if someone is going to explode. Outside, you do worrying about these things. Joey sees Vickie out at a club without Jake, how far off the handle is he going to fly? Is he going to take it out on her or the people she’s with? Then there’s the violence itself, which needless to say is a lot more creative than anything you are allowed to do in a boxing match. Because of what happens before, you know exactly why Jake is getting so mad, which makes it more painful to watch. I’m sure he does plenty of fancy stuff, it just isn’t as obvious as flashbulbs going off all over the place and time fluctuating. I have complete confidence that I will notice it next time!
There are a couple of things in here that remind me of other films. Funnily enough they both have to do with Marlon Brando; one is a straight-up reference and the other is just something I noticed. First was this part towards the beginning where he badgers his wife not to overcook his steak. He get really mad when he thinks that she’s doing exactly what he told her not too, and suddenly turns the table over. Stanley Kowalski, anyone? He doesn’t turn the table over but he does smash all the dishes suddenly and unexpectedly. The two of them are pretty similar actually, besides the jealously thing. When Jake gets thrown in prison, he yells “I am not an animal” over and over again, it almost seems like he is trying to convince himself of the fact. It reminds me of Stanley saying that he is not an ape, brute, a Polack, or whatever derogatory term Blanche decides to throw at him next. They both have the same sort of animalistic power, but they also have human feelings on some level and they know it. So I was going through the film, thinking this, and then towards the very end Jake recites the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront before he goes out to do his comedy act. It’s interesting that Jake sees himself (or wants to see himself, whatever the case may be) as Terry Malloy. Unlike Terry, Jake never improves himself. Terry may have failed at boxing, but he is able to stop living “like an animal” and make things better for himself and all of the other workers. Jake, not so much. He succeeds at boxing, but not much else.
That scene where recites the “contender” speech was a major film nerd moment for me. It was just so cool (outside of the depressing direction the story was going in, that is) because you have De Niro doing Jake Lamotta doing Brando doing Terry Malloy…. and it works so well. De Niro is not doing a Brando impersonation (and we know he can do one), he is still acting like Jake. He says the words almost mechanically, like a mantra or something. All of the words run together so if I were to write it out there would be no punctuation at all. Out of all the moments in the movie, and there were a ton let me tell you, this was the one where De Niro’s performance hit me the most. Another was when he was asking Joey is he ever slept with Vickie. You know at any second he’s bound to go completely nuts, but he keeps his voice so calm that it’s actually scarier than if he had just been yelling the whole time. Throughout the whole film you just get this feeling that he could explode at any second. It’s also amazing how he was able to get in boxing shape and then put on all that weight as well. It’s actually kind of scary, but I’m sure (and hope) he was supervised and everything.
Raging Bull is a masterful film. I was worried it might be hard for me to watch, and it wasn’t a bundle of laughs by any stretch of the imagination, but I really could not look away. I’m pretty sure I was holding my breath for parts of it, because I was so worried about what Jake would do next. I don’t think I have been this worried about what’s coming next in a film since I saw Vertigo the first couple of times. It may be hard to actually like Jake, but I did always feel sorry for him. It would be awful to be that mad and suspicious of everybody all the time.
“So give me a… stage
Where this bull here can rage
And though I could fight
I’d much rather recite
… that’s entertainment.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars