Ring Cycle
Michael Koresky on Raging Bull

Raging Bull has the oddest grandness. Of all those agreed-upon Great American Movies, Martin Scorsese’s sort-of-biopic about fighter Jake LaMotta is surely among the most conceptually strange and discomfiting to experience. It’s a sports picture blown up into tragic opera, a film about a small—and often, as depicted, small-minded—person who somehow attains mythic grandeur. And the film achieves this majesty despite what feels like constant resistance—from Paul Schrader’s grounded screenplay; from the richly pitiful performances by Robert De Niro as LaMotta, Joe Pesci as his put-upon brother, Joey, and Cathy Moriarty as his wife, Vickie; from the grainy, gritty Life-magazine aesthetic of cinematographer Michael Chapman. Despite all these forces striving for intimacy, Scorsese’s vision nevertheless explodes into a behemoth of a film, the ultimate boxing movie, which ironically has little interest in the sport of boxing.

Scorsese himself has said he had little use for boxing pictures: “I didn’t know anything about boxing. It was always one angle on TV or in the movie theaters. . . . I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was sports, which took me out of the picture.” With his immersive approach to scenes of physical and emotional violence, in the ring and in the home, Scorsese ensures that the viewer will never be taken out. It’s an immense tale of one possibly very silly man’s downfall—he’s the Charles Foster Kane of bruisers, the Italian-American Terry Malloy, the Scarlett O’Hara of big, dumb lugs. The difference is that Jake LaMotta is no made-up character—in fictionalizing a real man, Scorsese at once elevates him and brings him down to earth. You could use the term larger than life, but life seems to swallow him up. As expressed in the film’s justly famous credit sequence—in which a distant LaMotta bounces and shadowboxes in elegant slow motion on the left side of the 1.85:1 frame, accompanied by the effusive flourish of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana”he is eternally, like all of us, a small man in the corner.

In a career filled with works of uncommon glory, Raging Bull is maybe Scorsese’s most iconic film. It stands alone, and not just because it's the only black-and-white feature he has directed since his 1967 debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Yet despite it being for many the Scorsese film, it wasn’t an endeavor that originated with the director; rather, it was a passion project initiated by De Niro, who saw something appealing, challenging, and quintessentially American in a film about a prizefighter turned lounge-act sad sack. The film, as De Niro saw it, was to be an adaptation of LaMotta’s 1970 autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story, written with his longtime friend Peter Savage and the author Joseph Carter; Scorsese wasn’t immediately persuaded that this man could inspire an entire film—and he wouldn’t be entirely convinced until Paul Schrader, who had written Scorsese’s last major sensation, Taxi Driver, stepped in to work on the screenplay, which had already been drafted by Mardik Martin (Scorsese’s NYU friend and scribe on Mean Streets and New York, New York). Schrader and Scorsese have always had a similar penchant for the sublime, and together they envisioned LaMotta as something harrowingly huge, an anguished antihero. At the same time, Schrader’s draft wasn’t quite right for the project he and his star envisioned—too cold, not animalistic enough—so De Niro and Scorsese together rewrote the script and dialogue. Nevertheless, Schrader’s imprint undoubtedly remains visible on the final product. Though most of us, thankfully, cannot relate to LaMotta on any conventional level (he’s too violent), we are made to understand his humanity through the film’s vivid spirituality—Schrader refers to LaMotta’s onscreen progression of self-torture as “redemption through physical pain, like the Stations of the Cross, one torment after another.”

As pseudo-religious experience, Raging Bull clearly intends to make the audience feel more than think. Despite its status as one of the greatest movies ever made, it’s certainly among the least overtly intellectual of them, and it feels like an especially wild animal in the context of Scorsese's career, coming in between the brainy Hollywood pastiche of New York, New York and the talky satire of The King of Comedy. Running on pure instinct, it’s an intimidating, pummeling work, and most memorably so when it’s in the ring. These were Scorsese’s versions of those fighting scenes from the mammoth biblical epics and gladiatorial combat films he grew up on. Most previous boxing films kept the camera at a safe distance, outside the ropes (an exception, Scorsese has noted, was Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul); Raging Bull puts the audience right in the thick of it, with a seemingly endless arsenal of inventive camera angles, positions, and movements that allow us to see each droplet of sweat and blood as it trickles down face and chest or sprays across the ring. The credit must go equally to Chapman (who, under Scorsese’s orders, had to adjust the frames per second in the camera—between 24, 48, and 120—during the filming of the fighting matches to create a heart-pounding start-stop effect), editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and sound-effects editor Frank Warner for so remarkably pulling off this redefinition of boxing-film grammar. Together they create something far more tremendous than a simple “you are there” feeling—it’s like we are inside a stranger’s skull as it’s being beaten to a pulp, while at the same time we’re on the outside looking in, being handed an X-ray. The result is a strange form of empathy: we feel vulnerable (in other words, human).

These wrenching bouts are essentially the film’s musical interludes; rather than any action sequences, Scorsese has compared them to the ballet sequences of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. They grow less bloody as the film progresses. The 1949 fight in Detroit that wins LaMotta the middleweight championship is surprisingly calm, a cleansing succession of religious, even slightly erotic, imagery (water cascading down bare torsos, ravaged faces looking heavenward between rounds). It’s a shock when Scorsese then sharply cuts to a heftier Jake in his Pelham Parkway home, his belly poking out through his unbuttoned shirt as he shakes a television on the fritz, much to the chagrin of brother Joey, who can’t help but call him out on his fatness. The triumphant pugilist is again a common schlub, scarfing down a sandwich and bickering with Joey over such unheroic matters as antenna reception and who-fucked-who. The constant fight between the big and the small goes on.

Raging Bull’s uncommon emotional brutality might be partly explained by the fact that the film’s production came at a particularly desperate time in its director’s life. During Labor Day weekend 1978 at the Telluride Film Festival, Scorsese had the first of two collapses. After the more startling second one, which occurred back in New York, Scorsese was told that he was in danger of a fatal brain hemorrhage, due to a combustible mix of cocaine, sheer physical exhaustion, and asthma medication and other prescription drugs. Scorsese’s decision to make the film—at De Niro’s incessant encouragement—coincided with his gradual recuperation from this scare. So Raging Bull is the story of a man plunging to extreme depths from a director climbing back from rock bottom. Scorsese’s newfound perspective on his own mortality could then account for the film’s frightening smallness, its constant reminder that we’re all just groping our way toward some sort of transcendence, whether it be artistic or purely, ecstatically physical.

It was as pummeling to make as it is to watch. “I put everything I knew and felt into that film and I thought it would be the end of my career,” said Scorsese. “It was what I call a kamikaze way of making movies.” While Scorsese was potentially flying himself into the side of a mountain, professionally, his producers were looking the other way. United Artists executives didn’t seem to notice they had a major film on their hands, too preoccupied were they wrestling with the destructive giant they had coming out that same year, Michael Cimino’s infamous, studio-slaughtering Heaven’s Gate. Raging Bull must have seemed so tiny in comparison. Today, few films loom larger. In an end-of-decade critics’ poll conducted by Premiere magazine, Scorsese’s colossal portrait of a negligible man would be crowned the best film of the 1980sa telling fact, since today it is regarded as the kind of rigorously conceived and executed American auteurist vision that defined the 1970s. Raging Bull would cut a swath through any era, however, defying all comers to stand, lonely, at the top of the heap.