A Bruising Tale of Inadequacy, Jealousy and Self-Destruction: ‘Raging Bull’ Turns 40

Raging Bull is a violent film.

That in itself is no surprise, considering that it captures the brutality of boxing in a brazen manner.

It is, however, a film which lands its toughest blows outside of the ring. More about resentment and conflict than sport, this is a film with a man at war with himself at its heart.

Scorsese’s seventh film, which turned 40 this month, is arguably his greatest work. Shot in elegant black and white, it charts the life of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta, the eponymous Raging Bull. He’s portrayed here by a peerless performance from Robert De Niro, who was rightly awarded with an Oscar for Best Actor.

In 1941, Jake is a promising boxer from the Bronx in New York, managed by his brother Joey (a then-unknown Joe Pesci) and potentially on his way to a title shot. He is, however, an explosive and damaged individual, dominated by feelings of self-hatred. By 1945, he has left his first wife and married Vikki, played by Cathy Moriarty in a remarkably assured debut. In 1949, he even becomes world champion. By 1964, though, where the film begins and ends, he is overweight, washed-up and alone, practising a comedy routine in a New York club. Though his circumstances change in a rise and fall story somewhat similar to the director’s other work, Jake’s flaws remain constant.

At no point do we fall for him – Scorsese and De Niro do not let us. There is no slick charisma to be trapped by, this is a tale of a violent, broken man, captured by a phenomenal performance in a film which pulls no punches. Even when on top of his sport, Jake is a man consumed by his demons. Fierce yet vulnerable, his story is one of inadequacy, jealousy, rage and flailing masculinity. A potent combination which ultimately leads to self-destruction and isolation.

In differing manners, themes of masculinity and virility, and the way in which they relate to success, are at the heart of many of Scorsese’s films. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, ‘God’s lonely man’, longs to be a hero. Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Casino exist in the male-dominated world of organised crime, where their characters get to the top through a combination of machismo and loyalty. When misread, The Wolf of Wall Street is a laddish fever dream of sex, power and money. While Frank Sheeran, the protagonist of the director’s latest, The Irishman, is an old-fashioned figure of almost impenetrable stoicism.

Despite their common interest in what it means to be masculine, these films are not the male power fantasies that some would have you believe. Rarely are Scorsese’s ‘heroes’ meant to be viewed as such. The director, a devout Catholic who initially wanted to become a priest, is more interested in sin and penance than he is in triumph. The men of his films are deeply flawed and rarely end on top – none more so than Jake LaMotta. The boxer’s sins are central to Raging Bull, a film that the director might not have made, but became his masterpiece.

Having read LaMotta’s 1970 memoir Raging Bull: My Story, Robert De Niro pitched it to Scorsese while the director was working on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Harbouring no love for boxing, or sport in general, Scorsese was not interested in adapting the book. Instead, he chose to make Taxi Driver, followed by New York, New York.

The former was a great success, the latter was not. New York, New York’s muted critical reaction and commercial failure was said to have exacerbated Scorsese’s cocaine addiction and sent him into depression. When this hit its nadir and he was hospitalised by an overdose, the director began to relate to the story of self-destructive boxer Jake LaMotta.

That’s not to say that he became any more interested in boxing, or so he says. Despite often featuring at the top of lists of great sports films, Raging Bull is not about boxing as such, nor is it classic sporting film fare. There is no underdog’s rise or great victory against the odds here. Instead, boxing becomes an unrelenting vehicle to examine masculinity, to demonstrate pain and to capture what is meant by being a ‘contender’.

However, the fight scenes, edited in a revolutionary manner by the Oscar-winning Thelma Schoonmaker, are extraordinary. Fast-paced, exhilarating and expansive when La Motta is on top, unflinching and claustrophobic when he is on the ropes. The scenes are pure cinema, edited to perfection. Every punch more brutal than the last, camera flashes prove disorientating while flying blood and sweat provide an unerring corporeal edge.

Scorsese’s supposed lack of interest in the sport would have you fooled.

These fights retain an abstract feel, their dizzying lights and intrusive cinematography hinting at the fight within Jake’s head. His life and worldview are encapsulated by the sport. As a man plagued by feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, boxing is both a purpose and punishment for him. It is at once his prize and his penance. His view of masculinity is rooted within boxing’s clear, unavoidable distinction between winning and losing.

To him, masculinity and virility are about winning, reigning supreme. Though he often triumphs in the ring, Jake remains consumed by inferiority. This might be because he is denied a title challenge for so long, but the ‘Bronx Bull’ always appears more comfortable facing punches than throwing them. Somehow, winning doesn’t suit Jake.

When he cannot produce a victory, Jake feels that he deserves punishment. If he can’t win, taking the beating is not only how he deals with his self-hatred, but how he then proves himself – his perception of masculinity is caught up in masochism. Front and centre in the unrelenting Robinson fight (above video), an already beaten Jake urges his opponent to keep hitting him – he welcomes the punches as penance for his sins.  

This continues outside of the ring, as Jake is overwhelmed by doubt. Ashamed of his “little girl’s hands”, Jake asks his brother to punch him, seemingly as punishment for his supposed inferiority. He is not content until blood has been drawn from his own face. ‘What are you trying to prove?’ asks Joey.

Pain is the only feeling that Jake understands. Absorbing so much of it, he then unleashes it upon those around him. Raging Bull’s domestic scenes are played somewhat like a kitchen sink drama, often confined to tight, almost boxing ring-esque rooms, as pressure builds. Jake proves hellish to live with and his masochism develops into a violent, jealous rage. When Vikki makes an off-hand comment that Jake’s next opponent Tony Janiro is attractive, her husband makes it his goal to change this. Convincing himself that Vikki’s observation about Janiro means that she’s unfaithful to him, Jake fears that he isn’t man enough for his wife.

In the subsequent fight, we watch as Jake once more lets his fists deal with his feelings. He absolutely pummels Janiro, with blow after blow striking his face, disfiguring him. Again, Scorsese’s direction and Schoonmaker’s editing prove exemplary, as the camera moves dynamically with a purposeful Jake, fighting with more than the bout on his mind, before lingering on Janiro’s face. ‘He ain’t pretty no more.’

It’s a performance inspired by jealousy – fighting is how Jake deals with his emotions and it is not something that he can keep confined to the ring. Unable to manage his bruised ego, Jake proceeds to watch Vikki like a hawk, before submitting to his violent urges.

These feelings are, however, meant to be ‘fixed’ by the time that Jake becomes the world’s best middleweight boxer. Midway through the film, as Vikki’s marriage to him is floundering, she speaks to Joey, who says of his brother: “He’s just been a contender too long. He’ll be all right as soon as he gets his shot and then everything will be OK.”

This optimism is wildly misplaced. The film’s most devastating scene – approximately ten minutes of extraordinary-acted two-handers between De Niro and Pesci and then De Niro and Moriarty – takes place in 1950, a year after Jake reaches boxing’s zenith. Affronted that Joey has greeted Vikki by kissing her, Jake targets his brother with a deluge of anger before accusing him of sleeping with his wife. The smouldering anxieties which came to the boil during the Janiro episode rage once more.

Soon, Jake’s questioning of “did you f*** my wife?” turns into “did you f*** my brother?” as he interrogates Vikki and quickly becomes physically violent. In response, playing on her husband’s anxieties, Vikki yells: “His cock is bigger than yours”. The possibility of Vikki’s lack of faith to Jake, combined with the idea that his brother is more man than he, is a more painful defeat to him than any lost fight. Here, there is no way to save face, no chance to stand up on the ropes and take the punishment. His virility bruised once more, he takes out this internalised hatred on Vikki.

If Jake cannot satisfy his wife, in his eyes, he remains inadequate. These doubts were meant to end once he became the champion, but he will always see himself as a contender, never on top. Lacking control, unable to banish his own demons, and haunted by his shortcomings, he embraces the quick fix of violence, exorcising his pain by abusing those close to him.

In Raging Bull we are not invited to like Jake La Motta. It is a tough film, with little respite for its characters or viewers. We watch in horror as De Niro’s masterful performance captures a man enraptured by his worst instincts, turning jealousy to rage in a split second.

Jake views life as a losing battle, there to be tempered, not overcome. Whether a prize fight, an argument with his brother or monitoring his wife, he exists in conflict. In his own eyes, he is the eternal contender, never ‘man enough’ to be the champion.

The tempering of opposing forces is how he proves himself. After being beaten to a pulp by Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake wanders over to his opponent to and, through a mouthful of blood, proudly declares: “You never got me down Ray”. He settles for being the immovable object, priding himself on standing up to the unstoppable force.

Welcoming his punishment, Jake could absorb every blow, but could not overcome their lasting impact. Then, the danger was to those around him. Languishing alone in a Florida jail near the film’s conclusion, Jake has nobody left to hurt. He submits to pain once more, punching and then slamming his head against the cell wall. Overcome by his emotions, he returns to the only feeling that he understands.

At the film’s end, quoting Marlon Brando’s iconic scene from On The Waterfront, a washed-up Jake laments: “I coulda been contender, I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am”. The truth is that Jake was, in his eyes, always a contender. That was his problem.

A remarkable study of masculinity, inadequacy and self-destruction, Raging Bull remains a masterpiece 40 years on. Never have human flaws been examined so brutally.

Words by Dan Haygarth

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