While Scorsese was making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Robert De Niro gave him his copy of Raging Bull, La Motta’s as-told-to autobiography, cowritten with Peter Savage and Joseph Carter. Scorsese knew something of the public story—the New York kid born in his part of town, the Italian American Lower East Side, and raised in the Bronx, who had boxed professionally from the early forties to the midfifties and become world middleweight champion—but was distracted by the preparation for two films with De Niro, Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York (1977). Following the underwhelming reviews for the latter, perhaps the director came to the realization that, after making two authentic, emotionally committed classics with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver—movies that spoke urgently about low-rent, high-crime New York City and a country in recession—the film he should have made, and that would complete the cycle, was buried somewhere in that battered memoir.
Adrift in London in the late seventies and early eighties, I discovered the solitary pleasure of cinema—the small, independent repertory film houses that flourished then in those prevideo, precomputer days. My favorites were the Electric, the Scala, the Ritzy, and the Everyman, but there were film theaters everywhere in those days, and they offered an escape from the austerities of Thatcher’s Britain: smoking, drinking, coming alive.
I remember seeing Raging Bull,
around the same time as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror,
at the Electric on Portobello Road in early ’81. I was drawn to the intensities of both films: the souring of the American dream and the American man in the former, its showing of contact sport as a kind of expressionist, ritualized violence, and the close examination of the oneiric, the symbolic, in the latter—those tableaux vivants
of remembered childhood and early adulthood. Both deal with youth, desire, and aging, and present them as a kind of iconography. They spoke to an outsider, a young Scot lost in the big city: these two films, moving in their different ways—sudden acceleration, clattering stops, and drops into silence; slow-moving, gravid, and visionary—both burning in, like memory.
I have long been particularly interested in the Hollywood films made during the period covered by Raging Bull—the early forties to the late fifties—when the American dream was sliding into nightmare: when a young, optimistic country, already challenged by the Depression, was brutally exposed by being drawn into war and the attendant loss of insular security, then forced to deal with the social upheavals occurring during that war—migration, class and racial friction, urban development, rampant corruption—anxieties that continued afterward, along with a growing sense that all established orders (including white patriarchy) were becoming imperiled, and a deepening paranoia triggered by totalitarianism, communism, and the bomb. Hidden among the popular crime films of the time—the Chandler and Hammett detective stories, the Bogart and Bacall vehicles—were the dark jewels: The Killers, Out of the Past, T-Men, Force of Evil, Criss Cross, Gun Crazy, Night and the City, The Big Combo, Kiss Me Deadly.
These movies looked unflinchingly at this new America: aggressive, turbulent, morally incoherent, and alienating. Many of their directors—Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Joseph H. Lewis, Jules Dassin—were Jews who had fled, or whose parents had fled, a Europe in a similar state of social breakdown. They worked their way up at the studios to be introduced to a technological sweetshop of high-speed lenses; handheld cameras; portable power supplies; sensitive, fine-grained negatives—all perfected during the war. But they didn’t come empty-handed. They brought a new European sensibility to American city culture, informed by both societal dread and an array of confident cinematic styles and techniques—low-key lighting, compositional tension, deep focus, chiaroscuro, vertiginous camera angles—resulting in a unique fusing of existentialism and romanticism, German expressionism and urban realism. It was a new American art form, and it became known, of course, as film noir.
While not strictly a noir film, Raging Bull shares many of the genre’s stylistic tropes. It’s shot in black and white, due partly to Scorsese’s growing concerns at the time about the deterioration of color film stock, but mostly, I’d guess, as an aesthetic choice—a nod to the hard-nosed movies he had watched in his first twenty years, growing up in New York, the years of La Motta’s prime. From the first scenes, there are the familiar noir motifs of enclosure: the roped ring, staircases, cramped rooms; the tunnels under the boxing arenas; the chain-link fence of the community pool through which Jake meets Vickie, soon to become his wife. Young Jake shuttered in a phone booth; older Jake, and his belly, in another phone booth. Even an empty birdcage. All nudges toward carceral paranoia. Mirrors (particularly the one in Jake’s backstage dressing room) are used to suggest doubleness and self-division. The fight camera work is fast and close, with jarring collision cuts, apart from one remarkable Steadicam long take that brings us from safety to peril, from the dressing room to the ring, through the dark and silent tunnel into the lights and noise of the arena—a fluid tour de force, rivaling any of Scorsese’s other bravura tracking shots in terms of impact and technique. Different-sized boxing rings were built, both to facilitate shooting and to manipulate perception, and ways were found to heighten the look of the ring: flames placed under the lens to cause a rippling, mirage effect in the image; contained smoke used to give the clamminess of fog.
s high-contrast images, dramatic shadows, extreme high- and low-angle shots, and fractured time scheme, with flashbacks, also strongly signal the noir cycle’s themes of insecurity, a preoccupation with betrayal, disintegration, and loss, fear of the future. We are watching violence, sexual threat, and sexual inadequacy; characters searching for dignity and order in a corrupt, chaotic world—searching for any restorative ritual, even if that ritual is taking a drink or a beating. But the greatest of these subjects is loss: loss of the home, moral certainty, ties to the community, a compass for our lives in the world. For noir men, who always keep emotional involvement to a minimum so as to secure some sense of power and self-dependence, the price paid for these losses is paranoia and entrapment.
The genesis of Raging Bull, we are told, was crisis. A last throw of the dice for Scorsese after disappointing reviews of New York, New York, drug problems, and hospitalization: “I put everything I knew and felt into that film, and I thought it would be the end of my career,” the director has said. “It was what I call a kamikaze way of making movies: pour everything in, then forget all about it and go find another way of life.” The film he made was pivotal in his career, and remains one of his greatest and most widely acclaimed, and though it’s set in familiar territory for him, recognizable from the time and place of his childhood and adolescence, it still feels like a departure.
Everyone seems to have something to say about Raging Bull. They talk about Robert De Niro’s extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance as La Motta—his intense fight training and sixty-pound weight gain—and the recruitment of two unknown actors to play, mesmerically, the other leads: Cathy Moriarty as Vickie and Joe Pesci (a man who, like the director, was by the late seventies thinking of giving up) as Jake’s brother, Joey. They mention the brilliant editing of Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, which won her an Academy Award, and the cinematography and sound (also nominated for Oscars, though not awarded), and perhaps refer to De Niro’s mumbled delivery of Brando’s famous “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. But what they mostly want to talk about is the violence. How excessive, brilliant, unnecessary, or pornographic it is. But what do you expect? It’s a film about boxing, after all.