Monday, May 4, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XI: Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin based on the Book by Jake LaMotta & Joseph Carter & Peter Savage.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Jake La Motta), Cathy Moriarty (Vickie Thailer), Joe Pesci (Joey La Motta), Frank Vincent (Salvy Batts), Nicholas Colasanto (Tommy Como), Theresa Saldana (Lenore), Charles Scorsese (Charlie), Johnny Barnes (Sugar Ray Robinson), Martin Scorsese (Barbizon stagehand).

It is easy to see why many critics consider Raging Bull to be Scorsese’s finest film. It is, quite simply, one of the best films ever made and it may in fact be Scorsese’s one “perfect” film. There is not a misstep in the whole movie. Each individual scene is perfect in and of itself, and adds to the fabric of the overall film. It is the most brutally bloody boxing film ever made, but it’s not really about boxing. It is a story about jealously, and yes, rage. Many critics have called the film an Othello for our times. It is not faint praise to say the film is just as good as Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) is a middle weight prize fighter in the 1940s and ‘50s. When we first meet him, he’s already fairly famous and successful – married to Leonore (Theresa Saldana) and managed by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Because of his record, and reputation, he should have a shot at the middleweight belt, but boxing is as much politics as it is fighting, and LaMotta has angered the wrong people. Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto) runs things in New York and wants Jake to come over to him – but LaMotta refuses. He wants to do things his way. He’s like this is every aspect of his life.

When Jake first sees Vicky (Cathy Moriaty), time seems to stand still. Scorsese shoots the scene in slow motion (much like he does in Taxi Driver and Casino among others, and much like Hitchcock used to do when he introduced his blondes). She is a gorgeous 15 year old girl, and although Jake is married, it doesn’t matter. He moves in for the kill. He is strong, powerful, has lots of money and seems glamorous. Soon Jake has left his wife and married her. And soon the jealously starts.

LaMotta is a man who is sexually insecure. He cannot imagine that a woman who would be willing to sleep with him would not be willing to sleep with everyone else. Vicky knew Tommy, and his associates – namely Salvy (Frank Vincent, a Scorsese regular making his first appearance in a Scorsese film here) before she knew Jake, and it angers him that she still wants to hang around them. Why would she want to do that, unless she was sleeping with him? It never occurs to Jake that the answer maybe that Vicky is a teenage girl looking for some excitement, and he keeps her at home with their kids all the time. No, she must be cheating. When Vicky comments that a young fighter Jake will be going against soon is “good looking”, Jake tears him apart in the ring. Pummeling his face so bad that it is likely he won’t be good looking after the fight ever again. “He ain’t pretty no more” Tommy says to his friend in the crowd. LaMotta seems glares at Vicky in the crowd, a satisfied look on his face.

LaMotta’s jealously and rage effects every relationship he has in the film. His brother Joey has been his one loyal friend through everything – he manages him and tries his best to keep him out of trouble. When he sees Vicky out with Salvy and some friends, Joey reacts swiftly and violently, dragging Vicky from the club, and beating Salvy brutally. He doesn’t tell Jake any of this, because he’s afraid of what he’ll do to Vicky – with good reason. Later in the film, Vicky comes home to find Jake and Joey trying to get a new TV working, and she walks over and kisses Joey and then Jake, and walks upstairs. LaMotta reacts immediately, questioning Joey about their relationship, eventually coming to perhaps the film’s most famous line “You fuck my wife?”. Over and over again he asks Joey, who is so offended, he won’t dignify it with a response, and storms out. He then questions Vicky, who is so fed up with all the crap she has to take from Jake that she says she did – even though she didn’t – just to anger him. The beating he lays on Joey after will forever end their relationship. It’s like this throughout the movie. LaMotta drives everyone away. Anyone who tries to help him, everyone he cares for, and who cares for him, he will eventually alienate with his jealously. Because he’s a boxer, Jake doesn’t really know any other way to express his rage except through violence. When he becomes violent, he is scary.

The boxing scenes in the films, that took almost half the shoot to film although they make up a fairly small part of the running time, are brutal and unrelenting. Scorsese’s camera gets right inside the ring from LaMotta, and we feel every punch he both delivers and receives. The audience is often obscured by billows of smoke coming from them – it’s like we’re in hell. The film is shot in stark black and white, and this works for several reasons. Firstly, it does a great job of making us feel in that time and place – movies of the era when this one was set were in black and white, so although the film is more brutally unrelenting then they were at the time, it still creates the same air. As well it keeps all the blood in the film from being overwhelming – the blood here, which at one is point is simply dripping off the ropes, appears black. In color, it may have been comical, but in black and white it is somehow more brutal. Scorsese and his cinematographer Michael Chapman have made one of the most distinct visual films ever made.

I am not sure how many movies can also claim to have the same caliber of performances as this one does. DeNiro justifiably won an Oscar for his portrayal of LaMotta. It is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. From the time LaMotta is a young man – a muscular 155 pounds at that – to the time when LaMotta is much older, and grossly overweight, DeNiro never misses a beat. His performance is filled with subtle ticks, and as well as grandiose posturing. He captures LaMotta’s inner turmoil perfectly. Pesci, in his first major role, is also brilliant as Joey. People who remember Pesci mainly as a psychopath in later Scorsese films GoodFellas and Casino, maybe surprised by his sensitivity here. True, there are elements of those later characters in this one, but Joey is essentially a good guy who is trying his best to keep his brother in check, but eventually simply gives up. Cathy Moriaty is also great as Vicky. She starts out as simply a sex object to Jake, and Scorsese’s camera views her with the same sort of lust that LaMotta does, but gradually she gets deeper and deeper. How an actress as young as Moriaty was at the time was able to play her scenes as a middle aged woman tired of all the physical and emotional abuse she suffers is beyond me – but somehow she does.

I realize that I have made Raging Bull sound an unrelentingly bleak film, and in many ways, it is just that. And yet, I the film is not a complete downer. It is a movie that observes its characters in all their ugliness, but also their more sympathetic side. You watch the film, and you feel bad for LaMotta, as he never realizes that he has it all, and should be happy. But he doesn’t recognize that at any point in the film – until perhaps the last scene. Now that LaMotta has driven away everyone in his life, you would he would be completely miserable, but instead in that last scene he seems almost at peace. This doesn’t mean that LaMotta is happy, or that he’s really learned anything during the course of the movie, except perhaps who he really is. By the end of the movie, he seems to accept the fact that he cannot change who he is. The poor bastard is all by himself by that point, and in truth that is what he deserves, but he has found some sort of inner peace. In a Scorsese film, perhaps that counts as a happy ending.

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