What separates some men from animals? Is it our ability to control our urges and instincts? Animals react instinctively and bite when cornered; they eat when they’re hungry, sleep when they’re tired, and mate when they feel like mating. Do we as humans behave differently because of our ability to think rationally? Maybe, or maybe with each battle that we face, we grow less human. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), Jake La Motta climbs to the top of the ranks as a boxing phenomenon of the 1940s and 50s.
The movie portrays the boxer’s life as he goes from being on top to sinking to an all time low when the violence that he faces in the ring overflows into his everyday life. Robert De Niro plays the role of Jake La Motta and tells the story of the dark, gritty, lonely sides of middleweight boxing champion. We follow Jake through his growing career and the turmoil surrounding it all. The Biopic, adapted from the autobiography, Raging Bull My Story by Jake La Motta, centers on the rise and fall of Jake, an ambitious middleweight fighter who has struggled for years along with his manager brother Joey played by Joe Pesci.
The goal that La Motta strives for throughout the movie is to become the middleweight champion on the world. Upset with himself and the life that he’s had to lead, La Motta presents the complex mind of a self destructive man that pushes away all the people that love him, and ultimately transform him from a prize fighter into a despicable person with nothing but the clothes on his back.
From the flawless and gripping boxing scenes to the raw yet accurate portrayal of his abusive habits towards both his brother and wife Vickie, played by Cathy Moriarty, Raging Bull succeeds on absolutely every level as a classic film. Martin Scorsese is arguably one of the greatest American directors of all time. He is a filmmaker who always has a compelling way to tell a story in a realistic and natural way. Visually, Scorsese mastered the tricks and styles utilized to set the tone of the film.
He carefully captured the perfectly choreographed fight scenes to the point where they remain unforgettable in the viewer’s head. Raging Bull is a story told almost entirely from La Motta’s point of view, yet it isn’t just his story, it is also Scorsese’s. Martin employed black and white as perfect touch in achieving the gritty and cold feel of the film. A director, who feared he wouldn’t be able to deliver the story raw and true, managed to set it apart from the films of its time by creating some of the most graphically violent scenes in and out of the ring.
Raging Bull has been called one of the greatest boxing films ever made, and certainly, one of the greatest films of all time. Not only is it an exemplary cinematic work, it is also a cultural icon that represents a wealth of themes, issues, and characters that reflect American culture in ways that typical Hollywood films do not; all of these components truly make Raging Bull a classic film that will forever have an impact on future filmmakers. Scorsese’s utilization of plot, characters, and visual aesthetics all contribute to the films value as a true classic.
Scorsese presents a tale of the rise and fall of a boxing champion, a typical narrative pattern of the boxing film genre that dates back to movies in the 1930s, such as The Iron Man (1931) and Golden Boy (1939) amongst others (Hayes 18). In contrast to this typical pattern, boxing films from the 1970s, such as Hard Times (1974) and Rocky (1976), moved away from this classic plot (19). Raging Bull, however, incorporated the flashback framework that is reminiscent of the boxing noir movies of the 1940s.
The flashback initiates the nostalgic tone and sets the stage for the self-conscious reflection that marks the conclusion of the film, a true connection that Raging Bull shares with its film noir precursors. As with typical Hollywood movies, Raging Bull develops a romance in parallel with the action characteristic of a particular genre. In the boxing film, romance typically opposed the masculine world of boxing. At the conclusion of the plot, the prizefighter would leave the ring to marry his sweetheart, as seen in Golden Boy (1939) (Hayes 21).
Scorsese, however, chose to parallel romance to the rise and fall of La Motta’s ring career. He ends Act 1 with the couple marrying, rather than using the romantic union at the conclusion of the film to usher the boxer from the ring. The champion’s ultimate fall extends beyond the loss of his title in the ring to include the separation from his wife. One of the most important parallels occurs between Jake’s jealousy of Vickie and his quest for the title. Jake’s quest comes to a staggering halt when the gangster promoter, Tommy Como, will not give him a title shot unless he takes a dive on instructions from the mob.
Despite his determination to win on his own merits, Jake has to obey and take the fall against Jimmy Fox. Jake’s powerlessness to control his destiny results in impotence and jealousy. Scorsese manages to brilliantly weave together domestic scenes and prizefighting to portray the boxer projecting his guilt at having to compromise his skills onto his innocent wife. Scorsese’s utilization of the relationship between romance and La Motta’s boxing career played a central role in the film and more importantly, contributed to its essence as a true film classic.
Scorsese gave his characters in Raging Bull a fresh, more complex humanity than what was typically seen in the boxing film genre. The most striking aspect of character in Raging Bull is its repellent protagonist, Jake La Motta. Most mainstream films engage the audience through their sympathy for its characters. Scorsese, however, did not take this route of having the audience sympathize with the main character. La Motta’s thuggish self-indulgence emphasized by his abusive treatment of women, his racism, and his semi-literate obscene language, make him one of the most vile protagonists ever seen in film history.
Scorsese and De Niro build La Motta’s character in Raging Bull through a combination of perverse realism and a disturbing subjectivity ultimately directed at audience understanding (Hayes 32). The realism of Raging Bull is what makes this film such a classic. For example, the fights were carefully based on films and written records of the actual contests, and Jake La Motta himself even coached De Niro’s skills in the ring (Evans 82). One of the most famous aspects of realism seen in Raging Bull is De Niro’s enormous weight gain in order to play the latter day Jake La Motta.
For the actor to shed is fighting physique and put on the weight, production needed to be shut down for months. At that time, De Niro ate his way through France and Italy by embarking on a daunting regime of waking up at 6:30 am every day for breakfast and constantly eating throughout the entire day (83). Initially, production was against the idea of having De Niro physically gain the weight and they wanted to use prosthetics and make-up in order to make him appear heavier. But De Niro, refused and wanted to truly become the latter day La Motta by actually putting on the weight himself.
De Niro explains by saying, “As far as my gaining the weight, the external speaks for itself. But the internal changes, how you feel and how it makes you behave – for me to play the character it was the best thing I could have done. Just by having the weight on it really made me feel a certain way, and behave a certain way” (83). When De Niro returned to the United States, his weight had increased from 150 pounds to around 210 pounds, and it began to take a toll on his health (83).
The public was so amazed that the actor was able to disfigure his body to such an extent. De Niro’s true internalization of La Motta’s character certainly contributed to why the film is revered as such a classic. Visually, Raging Bull can be regarded as a classic film because it gives the audience a very interesting and unique perspective on each scene. Scorsese mixes home-movie style color footage (spliced into each exhibition print by hand because the footage used different print stock), still photography, and television footage (Hayes 56).
The stylization and visual complexity of the fight sequences contrast with the documentary-like realism of the sequences outside the ring (56). Although there is some visual contrast, Scorsese also employed visual continuity with various harmonizing elements that provided a connection from shot to shot and throughout the film. The black and white cinematography creates high contrast images and dramatic shadows both inside and outside the ring.
This particular technique gives Raging Bull the look for film noir as well as 1940s press photography, both of which influenced the film’s visual style (58). Furthermore, although each fight scene was shot in a distinct style, all of the sequences have the camera mostly in the ring and make use of slow motion cinematography, extreme high and low angle shots, and zooms. Also, most of the fight scenes have an aura of drama surrounding them, which Scorsese portrays by shots of smoke filled arenas, heated discussions between La Motta and his crew, and photographers incessantly snapping photographs.
Despite the chaos surround some the stylistic elements employed by Scorsese, the film feels stabilized by a narrative purpose. According to Hayes (58), the narrative purpose seen in Raging Bull generally conforms to the principles of classical Hollywood narration: the protagonist has a clearly defined goal (to win the middleweight championship) and must overcome obstacles (mobsters, a boxing scandal, weight problems, and family arguments) to achieve it in a definitive climax (the 1949 Cerdon fight).
This particular observation made by Hayes illustrates that although Raging Bull has some stylistic disharmony, the film is certainly unified with its strong narrative purpose. In conclusion, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is certainly considered a classic film based upon all of the reasons discussed above. Scorsese’s use of classic narrative and the visual choices he made to portray the story of Jake La Motta all contribute to the film’s classic essence.
A prime example is Robert De Niro’s drastic weight gain to truly internalize the role of La Motta; this is considered to be classic because he was one of the first actors to do so and has since then inspired future actors to do the same. One example amongst many can be seen in Christian Bale’s employment of this technique in the film The Machinist in order to physically and mentally become the character he is portraying.
Raging Bull is considered a classic because it has influenced many films of all genres, especially of the boxing film genre. Most recently, Darren Arnofsky has stated that Raging Bull played a significant role in influencing his film The Fighter. Scorsese was certainly successful in depicting Jake La Motta’s story and in doing so, made one of the greatest films of all time that will forever be considered a classic and will forever be a universal influence to filmmakers.