Raging Bull is one of the great character studies of the cinema. I have seen it derided as an inaccurate depiction of boxing technique by those who emphatically miss the point, but otherwise Scorsese's biopic has been rightly accepted as a modern classic, and perhaps the last creative gasp of New Hollywood as Heaven's Gate et al. dragged it down into the abyss. Every choice, from the decision to shoot in black and white to Robert De Niro's refusal to fake the vast body changes middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta underwent during his life, is the right one, one that finds verisimilitude in pure cinematic construction as only Scorsese can manage.
Scorsese happened upon the idea to shoot in black and white when he reviewed some initial test footage of De Niro in the ring with his friend and mentor, the legendary Michael Powell, and found that it didn't look right. Powell noted that, not only were the bright red boxing gloves De Niro wore distracting, they were not period-accurate. So, Scorsese decided to shoot in monochrome, allowing him to not only bypass the issue of the gloves but to avoid the then-disastrous quality of color film stock. The director, who used the film to overcome his crippling drug addiction -- made worse after the reception of New York, New York -- believed this film would be his last, and he wanted to make sure it would last if he didn't pull himself out of his tailspin to keep an eye on it.
The color shift wasn't the only influence Powell had on the production, however. The scenes inside the ring openly reference Powell's masterpiece The Red Shoes. Rather than film the fights from the perspective of the audience, Scorsese stays almost exclusively in the ring. His idea of Madison Square Garden is a vast, roaring blackness surrounding the stage with only those audience members close enough to bask in the radiance of the ring visible. LaMotta, like Vicky, lives for the stage, and what we see on-screen is Jake's perception of his fights; for him, only the opponent matters.
It's remarkable how much Scorsese makes his warped version of Madison Square Garden like his demented view of '70s New York in Taxi Driver: its infinite blackness is disturbing, made further obscure by the rising smoke of cigarettes (which recalls the sewer mists swirling about Travis Bickle's cab) and the blinding pops of flashbulbs. Scorsese further paid homage to The Red Shoes by choreographing the fights as ballet movements, though it's hard to tell just by looking at it (the opening credits, featuring De Niro shadowboxing to loosen up, have a dance-like quality though). “The only logical fight I ever saw was a Buster Keaton film," Scorsese later said. "He’s in the ring with this big guy. The guy comes out swinging. Keaton goes to the corner and gets a chair and hits the guy with it." That's more or less the finesse he gives to LaMotta, who earned his reputation as a fighter who never let an opponent out of arm's reach. De Niro, who trained with the real-life LaMotta, is terrifying in the ring: he bursts out of his chair at the sound of the bell and pummels his opponents -- "victims" seems a more apt term -- until they collapse or somehow retain consciousness long enough to vacantly listen to the result announcements.
Outside the ring, LaMotta is scarcely better. He's vindictive and insecure about his weight, at first because he's too small to fight in the heavyweight division to prove that he's the best and later when he begins to put on flab. By the time we meet him in 1941, his first wife has cracked from the pressure of living with him, throwing tantrums by the minute because she refuses to be beaten or insulted one more time. Jake, of course, accepts no blame, and he quickly moves on to his next conquest, 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty in a sadly overshadowed performance), a young but mature lady who catches Jake's eye -- along with everyone else's -- at the local pool. We then see the cycle repeat, despite having only seen the final moments of the last one, as his mixture of boxer swagger and shy dope charms Vickie into marrying him, at which point their relationship turns cold as he saves all his energy for the fights, which in turn makes a repressed monster out of him.
He beats Vickie for even glancing at a man the wrong way. When she makes a passing comment on the attractiveness of a boxer Jake's set to fight, he can't stop thinking about it and pulverizes the kid when they eventually fight. "He ain't pretty no more," one of Jake's Mafia connections drawls at the end of the fight. He makes his brother, Joey (Joe Pesci, who's surprisingly heartbreaking here) punch him in the face earlier in the film to prove his toughness, but soon we see that it's his way of both addressing his own hangups and to accept punishment for what he knows is wrong but does anyway. Eventually, Jake's jealousy so overwhelms him that he believes Joey is sleeping with Vickie and viciously beats his own brother, shattering the only stable relationship in his life.
At some point it must become redundant to discuss the pristine excellence of Scorsese's direction, the way that every tracking shot is at once eminently noticeable but never distracting or a celebration of itself, yet if I accepted his direction as read I would also have to sweep aside the accomplishment of editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It's strange to think that Scorsese's vision and skill could find such a perfect foil, but Schoonmaker is every bit as integral to the power of this work -- and so many others -- as the director. She gives enough time to each shot in the ring to give us a sense of space, but her cutting is as quick and brutal as LaMotta's fighting style. She travels through LaMotta's life in a montage blending Super8 color "home movies" with black and white still frames of Jake's fights, those misleading images of the foggy warmth of polychromatic 8mm of LaMotta's growing family juxtaposed with clear, definitive looks of bruised and bloodied opponents falling to the unstoppable Bronx Bull.
The most shocking cut of all jumps from LaMotta's final fight with rival Sugar Ray Robinson, which ends in LaMotta's first unmistakable loss and a lingering final shot on his blood dripping from the ropes to a photo shoot and interview a few years later as Jake announces his retirement. Suddenly, Jake is revealed as a bloated whale, and the fact that the film opens with this iteration of Jake in no way lessens the shock of the sudden leap forward. Of the many remarkable aspects of De Niro's all-encompassing approach, his weight gain is perhaps the most overrated. His refusal to wear a fat suit and to gain the 60lbs himself is admirable -- and it probably guaranteed him the Oscar -- but it's the manner with which he captures the animal that is LaMotta, and how he somehow makes a man -- however awful -- out of him, that gives the performance lasting resonance. I do get a kick out of an assessment of LaMotta's ballooning, however, from British critic Peter Ackroyd: “The man without a soul has nowhere to go but outward.” Even as a tub of lard who runs a crap nightclub where he peddles the kind of stand-up we saw him chuckle at 15 years ago, Jake still thinks he's the champ, and there's something tragicomic about the way he discusses his retirement as if he's leaving the game on top.
Only twice in the film does Jake cry, and it's important to note the difference between the two. He does so the first time after he throws a fight for the Mafia, an almost humorous affair as LaMotta nearly knocks the guy out with one punch then has to dance around for four rounds as everyone in the stadium jeers. That comic moment disappears when Scorsese cuts to Jake in the locker room sobbing uncontrollably for what he's done, to the point that his trainer can barely fight back tears. The second comes years later, after he drove his brother away, lost his wife and kids and got busted for allowing underage girls into his club. As he sits in solitary confinement, he's given just enough time to mull over what he's done with his life and beats his hands and head against the wall, screaming in agony and regret. In the first instance he sobbed because he'd allowed someone to interfere with his boxing life for the first time; in the second, he realized how little it mattered.
I've heard Scorsese labeled as a "cold" director before by random forum users and even the odd critic, but if Scorsese is cold, who could possibly be "warm"? He does not hate LaMotta; indeed, he may be the only director who could have plausibly given the character redemption, as he does with that prison scene and the final moments of the film, set after an uneasy reunion between brothers. As he stands before a mirror, practicing the monologue he's about to foist onto a bored audience and psyching himself up -- I'd forgotten how much Paul Thomas Anderson took from this to end his own Boogie Nights -- we finally see a bit of humility in him, though LaMotta's still got some energy to him. The possibility for quiet redemption presents itself, underlined by a textual coda reading the Biblical quote, "Once I was blind, but now I see."