Blu-ray Review: Raging Bull

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese | CAST: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto, Theresa Saldana, Mario Gallo, Frank Adonis
7/12/22 | PRICE: 4K UHD/Blu-ray Combo $24.99
BONUSES: New video essays by film critics Geoffrey O’Brien and Sheila O’Malley; three audio commentaries, featuring Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, crew and cast members, and boxer Jake LaMotta and screenwriters Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader; a making-of program featuring Scorsese and key members of the cast and crew; three short programs highlighting the longtime collaboration between Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro; TV interview from 1981 with actor Cathy Moriarty and the real Vikki LaMotta; 1990 interview with Jake LaMotta; program from 2004 featuring veteran boxers reminiscing about LaMotta
SPECS: R | 129 mins | Drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | 2.0 Surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

The end of the “maverick era” in Seventies Hollywood is generally agreed upon as occurring when Jaws and Star Wars came out (’75 and ’77, respectively). However, the actual end of that movement came with the releases of Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull. (Heaven’s Gate was another nail in the coffin, a very messy one.)

Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic and Scorsese’s much smaller-in-scope 1980 boxing biopic were perfect embodiments of the period in which directors with personal visions could get full studio backing to make smart, intense, innovative and, most importantly, adult films. The supplements in this Criterion edition of Raging Bull spell out how, despite his initial disinterest in boxing, Scorsese took on the story of Jake LaMotta’s personal and professional downfall and made it personal to himself, elaborating on themes that distinguished his previous three films with De Niro (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, New York, New York).

The film is thus an incredible coda to the maverick period (although United Artists kept releasing “small” movies like Cutter’s Way throughout the early Eighties), as it illustrated just how disturbing, moving and thought-provoking a film could be when it was the personal vision of a director executed with a major studio budget.

Producers Chartoff and Winkler note in the extras here that their success with Rocky allowed Raging Bull to exist. After 1980, the major studios preferred “tentpole” pictures like Rocky and would rarely (if ever) back a film about as unpleasant a character as Jake LaMotta.

Rewatching the film more than four decades after its release, one is still struck by how jarring it is. It contains equal measures of beauty and ugliness, breaks down the lines between real events and fictionalized ones, and is at once a glorious tribute to the great noir boxing films of the Forties (Body and Soul, The Set-Up) and a perfect example of the kind of modern sports character study that appeared  in the maverick Seventies (Fat City, The Longest Yard).

The scripting by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin also perfectly encapsulates the virtues of the maverick period, with no concessions made to targeted demos and a possible teenage viewership.

The crowning glory of the film is De Niro’s Oscar-winning turn as Jake. A brutal, ridiculously jealous figure, De Niro’s LaMotta is a success in the ring but a fuck-up in every other possible way. It is only in the famous prison cell sequence (where Jake’s bad decisions all come back to haunt him) and in a final reunion sequence with his brother (Joe Pesci) that Jake seems sympathetic, and yet De Niro makes him a compulsively watchable brute throughout.

The trio of then-unknowns who filled out the top level of the cast also give unforgettable performances, with Joe Pesci inaugurating a nearly two-decade career of scene-stealing roles as Joey, Jake’s steadfastly loyal and level-headed (compared to Jake) brother. Cathy Moriarty (recommended by Pesci to Scorsese) is excellent as Jake’s younger second wife Vickie, who admirably tries to put up with Jake’s out-of-control temper and jealousy. Frank Vincent (also a Pesci “find”) as the dapper yet sleazy Salvy contributes a colorful supporting part that basically became the character he played in several dozen movies and TV shows from the Eighties to the 2010s.

The raft of supplements included here were made for different releases of the film from over the years. Two video essays are the only newly made supplements, both focusing on the themes in the film and the way that the visuals support them.

In one of these essays, Sheila O’Malley explores the relationship between Jake, Vickie, and Joey in the film, noting that they are “characters linked by jealousy,” comparing them to the leads in Othello. Her notes on Joey being a “safe harbor” for Vickie (although he often turns into “Jake’s surrogate” when watching out for her) and Vickie’s “survival techniques” in an openly abusive relationship are interesting, but her most valid insight is that, despite Joey and Vickie being “fighters” themselves, “Jake sets the rules and makes a hell of their lives.”

In the other new video essay, Geoffrey O’Brien reviews the opening scenes of the film, showing how they prepare the viewer for what is to come. He notes that initial outbursts show that “violence is always a possibility” in Jake’s world. He also perfectly sums up Scorsese’s visual approach to the material by saying that Bull is all about “fragmentation” alternated with “fluidity.”

A four-part, 81-minute doc made by DVD-supplement expert Laurent Bouzereau for the 2004 MGM release offers interviews with all the principals and trivia galore. De Niro speaks about his deep desire to do the film, and how he had to persuade Scorsese, who disliked boxing. The actor also worked in tandem with the two scripters and Scorsese to develop the script although all involved praise Schrader for realizing the best way to focus the story was to concentrate on Jake and his relationship to Joey.

Scorsese speaks about a physical breakdown he had in September 1978 that landed him in the hospital, which is when he finally realized he wanted to make Bull. He describes this moment as a turning point in his life where he was asking himself if he “could… ever feel strongly about something again.”

De Niro’s physical transformation, in which he gained 60 pounds to play the older LaMotta, is discussed at length. It is noted that not only did he have to become fatter, he also had to lose all the muscle he had gained to do the fight scenes shot in the first half of the film’s production.

Top-notch cinematographer Michael Chapman talks about his joy at working in black-and-white (his first time doing so), while the producers have to bring the lofty talk back down to Earth by saying that the reason they were so free to do exactly what Scorsese wanted on Bull was that the heads of United Artists were busy worrying about Heaven’s Gate, which was shooting at the same time.

Three of the supplements cover De Niro’s work with Scorsese from different angles. Audio of De Niro at the AFI in 1980 finds him in his characteristic Seventies/Eighties state of not being all that eloquent about his art (when he was truly at his best as an actor). Thus, there is little gleaned in this extra, except that various items he and other cast members ad-libbed on the set were indeed carried over into the film proper and that De Niro, at this very close time with the filmmaker, called him Martin “Scor-say-se,” rather than the now-accepted (and popularized by Roger Ebert, among others) “Scor-sez-e.”

Another supplement, “Marty on Film,” moves through the filmmaker’s career. The video short “Marty and Bobby,” on the other hand, includes tantalizing-but-tiny snippets of video from the rehearsal period, with Moriarty giving as good as she gets in one of the more violent argument scenes with De Niro. For his part, Scorsese says he wanted the fight scenes to mostly stay in the ring and not show the reactions of audience members. De Niro tries to articulate how he thought of LaMotta and carefully uses the phrase “empathetic” to describe his performance (rather than the much handier, but not accurate “sympathetic”).

There are three audio commentaries that were prepared for early releases of the film. The one that is the most fascinatingly jarring contrasts the very eloquent Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader with the colorfully ineloquent Jake LaMotta being interviewed by his nephew, Jason Lustig.

The screenwriters are at their best when discussing the use of profanity in the movie. Schrader says that the cursing wasn’t in his drafts of the script, it was from “a foul-mouthed competition that Pesci and De Niro were having in rehearsals.” Mardik Martin discusses it in more depth, saying, there was “10% of the word ‘fuck’ in the script. The other 90% was improvised…. That’s actor’s shtick, somehow if there’s one fuck in let’s say four pages, it will become four fucks in one page…. They think it’s more effective to say fuck after every line…. There’s a lot of fuck improvs!”

Jake, however, takes watching the film as a jumping-off point for lecturing his nephew on various topics including throwing fights, how hot his wives were (especially Vickie when he met her and she was 15), morality, the concept of karma, and the fact that Jews are nicer to their own than Italians. (“The Jewish people are not that way. They say if somebody’s successful, ‘Mazel tov’ but the Latin race is a jealous race!”) He mocks the most poetically shot of Scorsese’s fight scenes, noting “Look how they milk it… It was pretty bad [in real life], but they’re makin’ it more dramatic!” And, the high/low point comes when he sees De Niro as “Fat Jake” and begins telling jokes himself. “One of my wives was very peculiar. She liked to make love in the back seat of the car. The only problem was she wanted me to do the driving!”

A vintage TV interview shows the real Vikki LaMotta with Cathy Moriarty, but that isn’t the most jarring piece of “real McCoy” footage. That distinction would go to Jake again, who turns a serious 1990 interview into a shticky affair by recounting his youthful friendship with Rocky Graziano. Showing that De Niro’s characterization of the older Jake doing painfully bad howlers was right on the money, the real Bull deadpans that he and Rocky “were very sophisticated thieves. We would only steal things that began with an ‘A’ — like A bike, A car, A fur coat. That’s how we ended up in A reform school!”


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”