#9 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
This feels like a companion piece to La Strada. Both are about violent men who have trouble expressing anything other than aggression, ultimately left alone as little more than sideshows at the end of a long life, having cast aside everything that really mattered to them. Jake LaMotta ends up sitting in a crummy little dressing room, reciting the words of Budd Schulberg from On the Waterfront, long past his glory days, talking like he’s been denied by outside forces from his happiness. Another way that this compares to La Strada is that the consensus on both seems to be that they’re both redemptive stories, but I don’t agree on either, especially Raging Bull.
Jake LaMotta was a real man and a real boxer, but considering this is a movie I automatically assume that about 90% of the movie is bologna and just take it as a tale of a man. He’s a boxer, a rising middleweight from the Bronx, who suffers his first loss (on points), and goes home to a wife he can’t stand made none the better by the fact that he treats her terribly even when she’s cooking for him. His brother, Joey, is his manager and probably the one person Jake can feel really open to. Perhaps because Joey grew up with the violent Jake, he’s developed enough emotional calluses to understand how to deal with his older brother.
One afternoon Jake sees Vickie, a local girl of fifteen at the local swimming pool hanging out with Salvy Batts, a local hood that Jake has an unfriendly relationship with, and he’s smitten. He gets Joey to introduce him, and he latches onto her, woos her, and marries her (with Jake’s first wife appropriately just disappearing from the film with no explicit explanation). The problem is that Jake’s tumultuous marriage with his first wife wasn’t his first wife’s fault. It was largely his. His second marriage isn’t going to be any more peaceful than his first, and it actually has the seeds of a far worse situation for Vickie. The way Vickie is introduced in the film is similar to how Betsy is introduced in Taxi Driver. She’s dressed predominantly in white and filmed in slow motion with the main character looking at her in an almost reverential manner. This is the critical idea used towards Fellini’s treatment of women as either Madonnas or whores (a simplistic reading I’ve never really bought into personally) and applied directly to Jake LaMotta in a more purposeful manifestation. When Jake looks at Vickie for the first time, we can tell by the filmmaking that he’s looking at what he considers to be an ideal, a woman that will never match to his mental image of her. That he marries her, and she cannot stay home to be his ideal forever.
Jake is a controlling, violent man of some limited intelligence. He’s provided a level of income to his family because of his ability in the ring, and in between bouts he has little to do but indulge himself. That manifests in a couple of major ways. The first is food. He loves to eat, racking up pounds that he needs to quickly knock off before his next fight. The second is indulging in fantasies around his wife. Not fantasies of pleasure, but fantasies that she’s sleeping around on him with everyone from Salvy Batts to Joey himself. Being a violent man, he doesn’t really know how to address these concerns except through aggression, going so far as to attack Joey based on his own suspicions and Vickie’s angry and sarcastic confession, breaking his bond with his brother in an instant.
Jake LaMotta’s life in this film is the life of a tragedy. He’s like a figure of Greek drama undermined by his faults no matter his desires. He wants the pretty wife, big house, children, and level of fame he attains, but the same impulse that attracted him to the fifteen year old Vickie gets him into hot water when he kisses a fourteen year old at his club in Miami and lets her drink, he loses the club. It happens on the same day that Vickie decides that she’s had enough and leaves him with the kids, leaving him with nothing at all. He never changes, never able to see the fault within himself and do anything about it.
One of the reasons this movie works so well is the boxing scenes. Not only is there a level of believability about them brought on by de Niro’s training, but Scorsese hates the sport. He doesn’t view the boxing scenes as moments of excitement brought on by the conflict of two men at the apex of physical training like in Rocky, instead he sees a blood sport. As an extension of Jake LaMotta’s story, it’s a perfect addition to the character’s journey. The physical beatings he gives and takes feel as brutal as those emotional beatings he gives and takes outside of the ring. When he makes sure that Janiro is pretty no more because Vickie made an off-hand comment about his looks in a kitchen conversation, that’s Jake taking his rage directed towards his wife out on the world. When he lets Sugar Ray Robinson beat him bloody but refuses to fall to the mat, it’s Jake quitting boxing the only way he knows how, without falling.
LaMotta really is a tragic figure. He gets to the top as middleweight champion, but who he is, his own faults, cannot let him be happy. The things that got him there drive him down at the same time. It’s an ultimately very sad portrait of a man who can’t maintain success or even basic happiness. De Niro is fantastic as the violent La Motta. Joe Pesci feels like he has a real bond that breaks apart as Joey. Cathy Moriarty, the young non-actress that Scorsese discovered, is great as Vickie. The movie looks fantastic as well. The black and white photography (either chosen because of the color of the gloves, a line from the source book, or to separate it visually from Rocky depending on who’s talking, it seems) was used beautifully with deep blacks especially in club scenes and in the ring. Scorsese is able to capture subjective moments that highlight the reality for Jake in the ring while looking fantastic at the same time, like the look of the blood soaked sponge and the blood dripping off the ropes.
Scorsese thought that this would be his last movie, and he threw himself into it completely. After a near death experience rooting from his drug use, Scorsese made his darkest, hardest hitting movie in Raging Bull that was perhaps rooted in his own fear that he would be unable to escape from his own demons and failings. This is a tough, hard-edged film filled with anger and sadness centered on a man who can’t express himself in any way other than through violence. It really is one of Scorsese’s best.