From the onset of the film with the Cavalleria Rusticana Intermezzo from Mascagni with slow-motion photography and the fog behind the ring you know you’re witnessing a masterpiece
The sequences in the ring I think have a strong case for being the greatest directed cinema in the art form’s history – Scorsese masterfully speeds up and slows down the photography. He uses flashbulbs for lighting, for psychological effect, and for those exquisite freeze-frames to accentuate the violence and brutality of the moment
Plain documentary like black and white titles on the date and time – which grounds the film in realism but I agree with this take as well— Jeffrey M. Anderson from Combustible Celluloid “The boxing sequences have little to do with reality, but cinematically they explode.”
I forget, even after seeing the film 8-10 times we start with the older Jake LaMotta in 1964— sad, fat, and it’s jaw-dropping to see De Niro (our greatest actor in his and (our collective) greatest performance) with the transformation – Cole Smithey from Cole Smithey.com “Robert De Niro’s metamorphosis into boxing legend Jake La Motta (AKA the Bronx Bull) is one of the most impressive acting transformations on celluloid.”
When we go back to 1941 we get the bell ringing and Scorsese’s trademark rolling tracking shot in on the boxing corner—magnificent
I think the servicemen fighting in the stands, the chaos, is important to understanding the Scorsese worldview. This isn’t Norman Rockwell’s 1941—and the riots in Gangs of New York, the mob in Last Temptation– this is an edgier New York—an tenser world—very East coast NYC, Philly, Boston
This is the rare auteur masterpiece (and my current #4 film of all-time) where I think you could reasonably start the praise and appreciation of the film with the acting achievement as well. De Niro’s LaMotta is truly one of cinema’s greatest character. There’s an odd nobility “I ain’t going down for nobody” in him wanting to make it without the mob. It’s tragic when he cries (along with his trainer) when he throws the fight and you feel it. The boxing world is a metaphor for the world and it’s, again, a hard world—a rigged game. And he’s a sinful man (at best— he’s a monster as well).
Both the film and LaMotta are relentless. It’s a difficult watch—unbearably uncomfortable at times like a von Trier film.
Strong take from Camby at the NY Times- “Though Raging Bull has only three principal characters, it is a big film, its territory being the landscape of the soul.”
It’s also a great pairing with Taxi Driver in so many ways including the characters of Travis Bickle. Cathy Moriarty’s “Vickie” (with her low Lauren-Bacall or Scar-jo-like voice) is his Cybil but he has the clout as a boxer to land her as his wife. He’s clearly as toxic as Travis. Scorsese shoots their obsession (Ebert talks about the Madonna/Whore complex of LaMotta here and in Scorsese’s work) of these women with dazzling slow-motion photography. At first it’s infatuation and arguably love—then it becomes a very unhealthy possession and paranoia—from Ebert—“From LaMotta’s point of view, Vickie sometimes floats in slow motion toward another man. The technique fixes the moment in our minds; we share LaMotta’s exaggeration of an innocent event”
The first fight with Sugar Ray is Michael Chapman (the cinematographer) and Scorsese on fully display—rolling around the ring on roller skates for smooth tracking shots. We speed up the photography, whip pan, slow down the photography, freeze, flashbulbs. It’s the full display of cinematic abilities and the scene previously mentioned in consideration for the greatest display of film style in a two minute span. It’s loud— bravado– expressionism. In the second Sugar Ray fight there’s just fog/smoke pouring in.
Another Copa scene and here it’s Pesci’s turn to carry the film. The entire film he’s brilliant- what a revelation in 1980—to have the acting chops to spar with De Niro and not get blasted off the screen is almost unfathomable. In the Copa scene he carries large chunks without De Niro in it at all. He beats Frank Vincent here and it’s spellbinding.
Before the title fight there’s the stunning tracking shot “oner”- that would be repeated by Creed with Ryan Coogler showing off his abundance of talent as a young auteur.
I see it as a companion to Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York New York as we get to see the crazy talents of De Niro as an improvisational artist. In each film he has a jousting partner—here it’s largely Pesci and they’re incredible together. This is the first of their 5 collaborations (this, one short scene in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas, Casino and soon, The Irishman)
The scenes between fights are difficult for the horror on display—the psychological and physical violence he inflicts. The scene of him knocking down the door before he punches Moriarty out is reminiscent of the stalking by Michael Myers in Halloween or Jack in The Shining.
Laughable take from David Kehr of the Chicago Reader– “I can’t pan it, but this 1980 fantasy biography of fighter Jake LaMotta seems unquestionably Martin Scorsese’s weakest work, at least to that point in his career.”
For the Sugar Ray Robinson title fight (where he loses it) we have the expressionistic display of lighting- genius. It goes dark in the ring. Steam pours out. And then we get an exaggerated violent montage that is an editing sequence on the level of Hitchcock’s shower editing sequence. The flashbulbs are there again, the line about never getting knocked down, the blood dripping off the rope in a perfect wall-art photography—
it’s Thelma Schoonmaker’s greatest moment as a editor (she won the Academy Award for her work here)
The acting is such a tour-de-force—brash—big. He’s evil, complex, tortured and the physical transformation level of method inspired generations of actors
The breathtaking finale is a nod to On the Waterfront and Brando. It’s a bookend with the opening. It also have connected tissue to PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights (17 years later of course)—the text is so rich. Scorsese holds on the empty mirror and then we go to the passage of John about the sinful man