Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
People often say that in order to find the light, sometimes you have to get lost in the dark for a while. It's one of those sayings that would normally annoy the pants off me, but in the case of Martin Scorsese and his epic 1980 film about middleweight boxer Jake La Motta (played by Robert De Niro), these words couldn't ring more true. The director made 'Raging Bull' at one of the lowest points in his life, following a near-fatal drug overdose, and initially believed the film might be his last. In the beginning, it took a lot of convincing to shoot the biopic from friend and collaborator Robert De Niro, but Scorsese saw it as a lifeline and eventually connected to the story on a deeper, personal level. In this light, the choice to shoot the film in black and white takes on another level of lyricism. Of course, they don't come more black and white than Jake La Motta. De Niro portrays The Bronx Bull as an everyman -- one so broken and fueled by his own self-hatred that we can't help but feel for him, despite bearing witness to his vile nature.
'Raging Bull' was inspired by La Motta's 1970 memoir and picks up in the middle of the fighter's career -- detailing his rise and fall, through to the start of his retirement. Joe Pesci stars as Joey, La Motta's brother and manager who essentially acts as his conscience. Cathy Moriarty is the middleweight boxer's teenage wife, Vickie, who often takes a beating outside the ring at home. As the fighter struggles to keep his championship title, he battles his inner demons -- including his relationship with the local wiseguys and his jealous paranoia surrounding Vickie's imagined infidelities.
This isn't the first Scorsese film I've discussed for 'Framed,' and 'Raging Bull' doesn't prove to be any less difficult when it comes to selecting a single image. While the film's dramatic scenes provide a multitude of theatrically lit, richly symbolic shots -- where Scorsese's trademark themes surrounding guilt and redemption, the outsider, Madonna-whore associations and more abound -- the allure of the boxing ring is too strong to ignore. While La Motta's family serves as a foil for his emotional turmoil, the ring is his life's arena where La Motta's anxieties, successes and tragedies are played out.
Scenes like the "Do a little more f*cking and a little less eating" conversation between De Niro and Pesci were largely improvised, but 'Raging Bull's' fight sequences were painstakingly choreographed and meticulously storyboarded. Our frame is pulled from La Motta's final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson -- the boxer's nemesis who he defeated during their first head-to-head bout, but lost to a technicality the second time around. Their final showdown is a particularly violent and spellbinding scene where Scorsese makes effective use of sound (sometimes lack thereof), unique panning shots and other complex setups to thrust us into epicenter of Jake's downward spiral. Round 13, "the hard luck number," is where La Motta loses his title and descends into a miserable decline of girls, booze and prison.
To achieve a third fighter perspective, cinematographer Michael Chapman used a single camera to capture the action of the boxing sequences, where the mens' emotions are at their most raw and uncomfortably on display. As editor Thelma Schoonmaker explains in the behind the scenes DVD commentary, Scorsese modeled each fight according to La Motta's state of mind at the time. The boxing ring fluctuates between wide and bright, to dark and smokey like "the pit of hell." There's a rippling or mirage effect in some of the fight scenes where things become indistinct and unfocused (faces are blurred or obscured, sometimes the rope obstructs our view, etc.). Scorsese supposedly modeled the Robinson/La Motta finale after 'Psycho's' famous shower scene to help him figure out how to cut the scene -- something that worked to his benefit given how visceral and disturbing each frame is.
There's a ritual to the entire fight scene that has an air of Catholic symbolism (similar to a funeral) -- from the way the trainer, corner man and cut man help prep La Motta's prone body by bathing and massaging him, to the way Robinson crucifies the boxer against the bloody ropes. Throughout the scene, we watch La Motta possessed by a series of emotions -- rage, bravado and surrender to name a few -- but it's in this portrait that we feel an overwhelming sadness. Even though La Motta makes a point of telling Sugar Ray, "You never knocked me down," we know it's the death of a champion.
The Two-Disc 30th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD Combo of 'Raging Bull' is now available.