Raging Bull

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (based on the book by Jake La Motta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage) )
Stars: Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie La Motta), Joe Pesci (Joey), Frank Vincent (Salvy), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenore), Mario Gallo (Mario), Frank Adonis (Patsy), Joseph Bono (Guido), Frank Topham (Toppy)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1980
Country: U.S.
Raging Bull Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Raging Bull

The great irony of Raging Bull is that 38-year-old Martin Scorsese believed it would be his final feature film. Despite having won the Palm d’Or for Taxi Driver (1976), which elevated him to the heights of the New Hollywood, Scorsese was in an existential crisis following the massive critical and commercial disappointment of his follow-up film, New York, New York (1977), an homage to Old Hollywood musicals into which he had poured his heart and soul. Fearing the end was near, he turned to a project that actor Robert De Niro had proposed to him while he was making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974): an adaptation of contentious middleweight boxer Jake La Motta’s 1970 autobiography. Despite Scorsese’s initial reservations, Raging Bull became a repository for his artistic intensity and vast knowledge of film history, a dark well into which he poured everything he had, thinking he would never have the opportunity to make another film. Instead of being the end of his career, it reinvigorated it, reestablishing his preeminence among American directors. At the end of the decade, Raging Bull topped two different critics’ lists of the greatest films of the 1980s.

In every conceivable way, Raging Bull both disregards convention and embraces the many contours of cinema history. The screenplay, originally penned by Scorsese’s regular collaborator Mardik Martin (Mean Streets, New York, New York) before being substantially rewritten by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader, defies the typical structure of the psychological biopic, cutting out virtually all of Jake La Motta’s formative years and instead dropping us initially into his post-boxing career as a battered, overweight nightclub owner in Miami circa 1964 before jarring us back to his dominance in the ring circa 1941, when he was young, muscular, and on the cusp of winning the middleweight crown. That initial juxtaposition is crucial, because it shows us from the outset where La Motta will end up, which stands in stark contrast to the lyrical opening credits, which show him dancing in the ring in slow motion, his grace matched by the soaring chords of the “Intermezzo” from the opera Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. Beauty and brutality collide head-on, which belies Scorsese’s professed disinterest and lack of knowledge of the world of boxing (which is partially why he resisted making the film for so long).

Aesthetically, Raging Bull is a masterpiece of cinematography, sound, and editing. Scorsese’s crucial decision to shoot the film in black and white was driven by both aesthetic reasons to align it visually with the public’s memory of monochromatic newsreels and television broadcasts of that era and commercial reasons to distinguish it from the numerous post-Rocky boxing films that flooded the market in the late 1970s. Cinematographer Michael Chapman had previously shot Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and his concert documentary The Last Waltz (1978), as well as Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979). Raging Bull is arguably his best work, as he produced images of intense clarity and depth that are simultaneously lyrical and dreamlike. The manner in which he lit the boxing matches, where everything falls off into darkness just beyond the ropes, produces an evocative sense of loneliness and isolation despite being surrounded by barely controlled chaos (which we hear on the soundtrack). The depiction of New York City in the 1940s and ’50s has a documentary-like quality that draws us directly into the action in a way that circumvents our awareness of the film’s highly attuned aesthetic design. Channeling both classical Hollywood style and European art film, Raging Bull is a compendium of compelling imagery that editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a regular Scorsese collaborator who won the first of her three Oscars for her work here, stitches together with deft fluidity.

The tragic arc of Jake La Motta’s life is fueled by a constant stream of violence and jealousy. The viciousness with which he beat opponents in the ring and his ability to withstand intense pummeling follow him outside the ropes, particularly in his vexed relationships with the women in his life: his first wife, Irma (Lori Anne Flax), and his second wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), who he meets as a teenager when he is still married to Irma. Whenever we are not in the ring with La Motta, we are witnessing a different, but no less violent, match in which he struggles to maintain a relationship with Vickie, who he can only see as an object to be possessed. It is in these moments that De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance is at its sharpest, as we see La Motta watching—always, always watching—Vickie, and we can imagine the gears in his brain racing, filling in all manner of paranoid worries about her infidelity, worries that eventually spiral into a torrent of violent rage. Much has been made about De Niro’s physical transformation—from muscular and agile, the result of a full year of training with the real-life La Motta, to the soft and portly, the result of months of stuffing himself with rich European food that packed on 60 pounds—but the real strength of his performance is in his eyes: his stare, which is unrelenting and eventually terrifying.

La Motta’s boxing nickname “The Raging Bull” describes him both inside and outside of the ring, suggesting an inability to control his inherent violence, which is what destroys all of his relationships, including the one with Joey (Joe Pesci), his brother and manager. Joey understands Jake, especially that there is little he can do to control him, which irks the local mobsters who want to control Jake in order to fix fights. When he is eventually convinced to throw a fight, he wails in the locker room like a hurt child, both indignant and pathetic, a foreshadowing of one of the film’s final scenes that finds him in a Miami prison, pounding senselessly at the concrete wall and screaming, “Why, why, why?” The film pointedly refuses to answer that question in direct terms, which is why it sticks with us so profoundly after the credits have rolled. For all that we see of Jake over more than two hours, he remains enigmatic, frustrating, detestable, but utterly compelling.

Raging Bull Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker
  • Audio commentary by director of photography Michael Chapman, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, casting director Cis Corman, music consultant Robbie Robertson, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, and sound-effects supervising editor Frank Warner
  • Audio commentary by boxer Jake La Motta and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader
  • Video essays by film critics Geoffrey O’Brien and Sheila O’Malley
  • “Fight Night” making-of program
  • Three short programs highlighting collaboration between Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro
  • Television interview from 1981 with actor Cathy Moriarty and the real Vikki La Motta
  • Interview with Jake La Motta from 1990
  • Program from 2004 featuring veteran boxers reminiscing about La Motta
  • Trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 12, 2022

    COMMENTS
    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Raging Bull comes from a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative that was supervised and approved by director Martin Scorsese (editor Thelma Schoonmaker also supervised the transfer). The image is beautiful and thoroughly impressive, with dark blacks and bright whites that highlight the intense contrast while leaving room for a wide range of grays that give the image depth and texture (I can only imagine how good the 4K UHD edition looks). There is a fine presence of grain throughout, but overall the image has a smoothness that contributes to the film’s aesthetic fluidity. There are no signs of age or wear except in the purposeful artifacts and splices in the film’s color 16mm segments. The original two-channel soundtrack was mastered from the 35mm three-track magnetic track and sounds great. The music and atmospheric sound effects of the crowded fights fill the room with depth and detail.

    As for the supplements, we have seen most of them before, but there are also many that are new. We get three audio commentaries, all of which come from previous editions. First there is one with Scorsese and Schoonmaker that was originally recorded for Criterion’s 1990 laserdisc edition; the other commentaries, one with cinematographer Michael Chapman, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, casting director Cis Corman, music consultant Robbie Robertson, actors Teresa Saldana and John Turturro, and supervising sound-effects editor Frank Warner, and one with Jake La Motta with his nephew Jason Lustig and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, were recorded for MGM’s 2005 DVD edition. All of the commentaries are well worth the time, as they each offer a different perspective and insight into this great and complicated film. Also from MGM’s DVD edition is a four-part, nearly 90-minute making-of documentary that includes then-new interviews with Scorsese, Chapman, Schoonmaker, Martin, Schrader, Chartoff and Winkler; De Niro; actors Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent; and sound-effects supervising editor Frank Warner. We also get two featurettes that were produced for MGM’s 2010 Blu-ray edition: “Marty and Bobby” and “Marty on Film”, which focus on the long-standing relationship between Scorsese and De Niro. From the archives we get “Robert De Niro on Acting,” which consists of audio excerpts from a 1980 Harold Lloyd Master Seminar that was recorded at the American Film Institute. There is also an 8-minute interview with Cathy Moriarty and Vikki La Motta that was recorded for Belgian television in 1981; a 5-minute interview with Jake La Motta from 1990; and a 10-minute featurette from 2004 in which veteran boxers talk about their memories La Motta. New to this edition are two video essays: one by film critic and poet Geoffrey O’Brien that focuses on the film’s wide range of aesthetic techniques, and one by film critic Sheila O'Malley about De Niro, Moriarty, and Pesci’s performances. The set also includes a trailer and and a thick insert booklet with essays by poet Robin Robertson and film critic Glenn Kenny.

    Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)




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