The Ring Master
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1980’s classic Raging Bull, reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Scorsese made this film under duress, his assumption at the time being that it might be his last major feature. Boxing was never his bag, and as a consequence his approach to the noble art totally lacked any warmth or idealisation. Indeed, the film’s lofty artistic pretensions (largely fulfilled, of course) were underscored by a strong antipathy, turning the hallowed ring into a sweaty, blood-soaked morass, with De Niro’s Jake La Motta a ball of punchy fury. Despite De Niro’s ultra-committed performance and excellent efforts from Joe Pesci (La Motta’s almost as feral brother Joey), and Cathy Moriarty (his put upon wife Vickie) this was always a film to be admired, rather than loved.
The film follows a linear course throughout La Motta’s career – in real life La Motta, despite his ability and the fact that he defeated Sugar Ray Robinson (considered to be the greatest boxer of his era) remained an also ran and eventually a forgotten figure. Each bout reflects his life as it progresses – his relationship with Vickie and his brother, his issues with mob boss Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto) and Como’s factotum Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent). Underpinning everything is the film’s mordant score, benighted atmospherics and the episodic drudge of each fight, with both boxers staring down a barrel as they pummel each other into submission. The La Mottas themselves relentlessly bicker, argue and come to blows, with Jake’s drab paranoia about Vickie proving to be destructive enough to estrange him from his brother Joey.
It’s all exquisitely rendered, the fastidiousness of Scorsese’s direction entrancing as is his evocation of time and place. The home movie footage (the only scenes in colour) are weird, rose-tinted intervals between the midnight horrors of each rematch, painting a phony, kitsch picture of a banal and unexamined existence. This is great filmmaking, with a brutal and unwelcoming centre – not only can we not warm to Jake, but he is a wholly enervating presence, except when he breaks down in jail, punching the walls and bawling that he is not an animal. But later on, post-career, he is the fat, unrepentant and still tragic boor. By this point Joey is gone, and his wife has left him, but he is no longer bothered. Raging Bull is a tough, uncompromising watch, which despite De Niro’s career-defining (all, right, he had more than one of those) performance resolutely distances the viewer. Scorsese was no doubt unconcerned with overly humanizing his protagonist (even with the real life La Motta on board as adviser, trainer and walking source material) simply because his character lacked any breadth or impulse to change. As an exercise in filmmaking it is bravura and unsurpassed in his canon, his art never more certain or consistent, echoing classic noirs and other bleak fables from earlier Hollywood pictures. It is true cinema, but it is a despairing, harrowing dirge that brushes insight aside. There’s a reason why Goodfellas bears (many) repeated viewings – its players are more amoral but the movie lets you in, and its script crackles with dark humour. Raging Bull on the other hand has no need for wit – it is intensified reportage predicated on repetition. Still, De Niro is frighteningly good, and the movie also brought the magnificent Frank Vincent and Joe Pesci (who certainly hadn’t seen the last of each other onscreen) to the world’s attention. Even with such reservations, it is still a masterpiece.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other Month Of Marty reviews so far as well