Raging Bull (1980) movie poster

(1980) director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 11/24/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It had been decades since I last saw Martin Scorsese’s hands-down masterpiece, Raging Bull.  And then, at the time, that was probably on VHS.  So, the opportunity to see it on the big screen and an early pre-holiday release from work had me down at the Castro Theatre to witness the great boxing bio-pic that earned Robert De Niro as Oscar and should have earned Scorsese one as well.

Shot in black-and-white, with an aesthetic nod to crime scene photographer Weegee, the film depicts a great deal of brutality and violence, not all of it simply in the boxing ring, not all of it merely physical.  This is the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, who won the middleweight world championship in 1949 and was known for his bullying style of fighting, known as “the Bronx Bull”.

The film starts out with LaMotta in middle age, overweight, divorced, and making a living as an entertainer in clubs and bars, doing recitations and telling jokes.  But the bulk of the film goes back to his early years in professional boxing, recounting four of LaMotta’s six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson, who hadn’t lost a match until he fought LaMotta, but who also beat LaMotta in the most brutal match of his career.

LaMotta’s home life is more of the story.  Much like the fighter in the ring, he runs his life with his brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, and his young second wife Vicky, played by Cathy Moriarty.  It’s funny because he only slaps her around a couple of times and knocks her out once, but the feeling of the menace and violence is much more, with his brooding, jealous rages and non-stop suspicion and insecurity. 

Like many of Scorsese’s early films, Raging Bull is about working class New York, hardscrabble kids honed by their world, with the mafia an ever-present, looming figure in the world.  And the De Niro and Pesci almost define the dialogue and delivery with their tough wiseguy repartee whose stilted ineloquence doesn’t all hamper their communication.

The film is energetic and exciting, Scorsese’s best work as a director.  The fight sequences, which aren’t over-long, nor the bulk of the narrative, have brutal impact, even in black-and-white, highlighting the hardest hits, the slow-motion breaking of a nose, the spurting of blood.  Shot for shot, there are much more gruesome films, but Raging Bull gives such weight and impact to the violence, it hits the audience a lot harder, right in the gut.

Scorsese uses sound, the lack of sound, camera movement, slow-motion, quick cuts, a smorgasbord of techniques in great virtuosity.  For as stylish and artistic as the film-making gets, the every bit drives the narrative, each sequnce works for impact, and the film, while not the most enjoyable of subjects, is a riveting and masterly experience.

It’s long held as Scorsese’s best film, though he certainly has others that have qualified as masterpieces as well.  It stands out, however, and is often cited as one of the greatest films of the 1980’s.  And I have to say that I concur.  It’s a hell of a film.