The artistic peak of the Scorsese-De Niro partnership and the first truly great film of
the 1980s, Raging Bull leaves the viewer punch drunk every time. The level of achievement
is stupefying, from the awe-inspiring fight scenes to De Niro’s Method madness as the
animalistic fighter who, over two decades, journeys from world beater to after-dinner
The high-contrast cinematography captures the 1940s like a period newsreel. Need proof?
There’s one sneakily hidden among the DVD’s special features, showing the real
Jake La Motta defending his title against Frenchman Laurent Dauthuille. It’s
incredible to see just how well Scorsese nailed the fight choreography—right down to
the detail of Dauthuille’s head bouncing off the ropes as he headed for the canvas.
There’s not a brick out of place in Marty’s vintage New York, even the
soundtrack feels like it was laid down on an old 78.
A 25-minute documentary on The Bronx Bull gives La Motta himself a chance to have his
say. The old pug is clearly delighted with the notoriety—and legendary status—De
Niro’s portrayal conferred. The actor himself cudda-beena contender, according to La
Motta. While De Niro’s four-month binge, in which he gained 60-pounds to play La
Motta in decline, is well documented, he also spent an entire year in training before
shooting even began, racking up over a thousand rounds with the Bull so he would look the
part in the ring. Jake also turns joker, regaling us with some of the groanworthy one
liners that kept him in cigars through his nightclub years.
Thelma Schoonmaker, editor on almost all Scorsese’s movies, guides us through the
technical aspects of the film, and her illustrations of how Scorsese created atmosphere in
the ring fascinate. To reproduce the confusion of a fight La Motta lost to Sugar Ray
Robinson, the director and cinematographer, Michael Chapman (who also lensed Taxi Driver)
placed a fire in front of the camera and shot through the heat haze. Schoonmaker also
comments on the freedom that De Niro and Pesci (giving an early runout to the firecracker
character that would become his trademark) were given to improvise. Scorsese apparently
saw their double act as a twisted version of Abbot and Costello or Bing Crosby and Bob
Hope. All said and done, La Motta’s jokes are funnier.
Published: September 27, 2001