- Movie Rating -

Raging Bull (1980)

| December 19, 1980

It is a little strange, to me, that the most unforgettable image of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is one of the quietest. Jake La Motta stands defiantly in the boxing ring with his hands out to his side, bloody and peering from beneath his sweaty, swollen brow. It reminds me of close-ups of a Tiger ready to attack. There is a fearsomeness to his gaze, a warning not that La Motta might attack his opponent but that in a matter of moments the man will be destroyed. The moment contains no words but it speaks volumes.

Raging Bull is a biography only in the clinical sense, it is absent of all the trappings of biopics, there are no cliches, no unnecessary flashbacks to help us understand where his temperament comes from. This is a movie about a professional boxer but it is not a boxing movie. It is simply an examination of a man caged by his own demons who uses his profession as a manner of venting violent tendencies and sexual repression. Of course, they leak at home too, especially in the direction of his brother Joey (Joe Peschi) and his long-suffering wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).

In some ways Jake La Motta reminds me of Travis Bickle, the subject of Scorsese’s earlier film Taxi Driver. Both are men who manage to succeed in doing something that makes them a celebrity. Jake demolishes his opponents in the ring while Bickle murders pimps and child molesters in a tenement building. Both are volatile men and both are doing something reprehensible, but somehow they managed to become pseudo-heroes in their pursuits.

Scorese never tried to give La Motta a heroic foothold. LaMotta is a hero in the ring because of his fearsome strength, but personally it affords him an outlet for pent up violent tendencies that won’t land him in jail. Just as Travis Bickle destroyed pimps and child molesters, so to does Jake destroy men in the ring as penance. In both cases, outsiders credit them as heroes.

Also like Bickle, there is never an effort to make La Motta sympathetic or heroic. He is a bastard, he knows it, everyone around him knows it and so there you are. It is tempting to label him as one-dimentional, and that’s not inaccurate. He is a one-dimentional man filled with loathing, rage, sexual insecurity and frustration. He reminds me of the kinds of people who release aggression by cutting themselves, only in his case he found absolution in the ring, beating his opponents to a bloody pulp.

Raging Bull continues a theme present in most of Scorsese’s films, the hero’s inability to relate to women. Just as Travis couldn’t relate to the 12 year old prostitute Iris in Taxi Driver, Jake can’t relate on a realistic level with this wife Vickie. They’re relationship (at least from Jake’s point of view) takes on a kind of “from my cold dead hands” attachment. What fuels him sexually is his rage at the very thought of another man attracting her. There is a moment when Jake destroys a man in the ring that she had earlier spoken of as “good looking”. When the fight ends he looks, not at his opponent, but at his wife seated at ringside. It is both acknowledgement and a warning.

For Jake, violence in the ring is the sexual stimulation that he is missing. Twice in the film Jake breaks into childish crying fits: The first comes after he throws a fight (thus robbing him of his sexual dominance) and the second after he had been jailed for selling an underage girl for sexual favors. In both cases he seems to have been robbed of something that he dominates. Also, Jake’s reputation in the ring is that he has never been knocked down. In the losing decision against Suger Ray Robinson, Jake leaves the ring but reminds his opponent “You didn’t get me down, Ray – You didn’t get me down”.

His opening lines in the film are almost like a man describing his best sexual encounter:

I remember those cheers / They still ring in my ears / After years, they remain in my thoughts. / Go to one night / I took off my robe, and what’d I do? I forgot to wear shorts. / I recall every fall / Every hook, every jab / The worst way a guy can get rid of his flab. / As you know, my life wasn’t drab. / Though I’d much… Though I’d rather hear you cheer / When you delve… Though I’d rather hear you cheer / When I delve into Shakespeare / “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse”, I haven’t had a winner in six months.

Read those lines carefully and note that it is only afterwards that he lights a satisfying cigar.

It is appropriate that Jake chooses a woman with whom most men would want to seek company. He dares them to so much as look at her and she does little to fuel their fantasies. Jake’s insecurity and sexual inadequacies keep him distant, sexually, but he replaces it with the jealous rages. Impure thoughts about Vickie are, to Jake, a sin and the wages of sin is death or at least severe punishment. His brother Joey receives the worst of the violence, but so does Vickie. That volatile relationship becomes the theme of the film. He can’t enjoy sex with Vickie because his sexual release comes in the form of violent jealously. For his inadequacies he married a woman that is, to him, perfect. She’s angelic but not a waif, she’s friendly but (from what we see) not easy. In a way, Jake would like to see her that way because it allows him a certain amount of contact, even if he is knocking her to the floor.

The casting of Cathy Moriarity was, I think, a masterstroke. She is tall and solidly built. She seems to dwarf La Motta who is strong, but a small man. This disadvantage fuels his insecurity. She’s not a weakling and she fights back. If she were a waif who trembled in the corner, the relationship wouldn’t have the psychological complexity. Consider how Jake sees Vicki. There are point of view shots in which he observes the way she seems to float toward other men. He has won her for his prize and now obsessively convinces himself that she is cheating on him.

Raging Bull is one of the saddest and difficult portraits of sex and violence that I have ever seen. It is the best film ever made about the pure nature of human violence. Most movies are extremely violent but I can’t think of another film that sees violence from the inside out. Watching Robert de Niro’s performance as Jake La Motta is to play witness to the basest human animal. He is caged inside the form of a man, a lion in the jungle full of rage and hunger and sexual fury, and a fearsome sense of territoriality. Freud could have written volumes about this man and, indirectly, he probably did.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized