Michael Powell once said of Martin Scorsese: “He breakfasts on images”. But it still seems surprising that, while editing Raging Bull, Scorsese would watch Powell’s ballet film Tales Of Hoffman over and over again “because of the movement in it”. Raging Bull is now considered Scorsese’s most perfect film and one of the few American masterworks of the last 20 years. Boxing and ballet clearly have some parallels.
Not everyone thought so at the time. Pauline Kael described De Niro’s portrait of boxer Jake La Motta as “a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of a character inside”. And though the film got Oscars for its editing (Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s widow) and for De Niro, Scorsese’s nomination as director was unsuccessful.
Where Kael was undoubtedly right was in her opinion that the film was as much a biography of the genre of boxing movies as about a particular fighter. Films such as Body and Soul, The Set-Up and Golden Boy are recalled in the film’s slow motion sequences, rapid cutting and sweeping camera movements.
What was new was the emotional and psychological intensity of a time (the 40s and 50s), a place (mostly New York, Scorsese’s home ground) and a person (a champion fighter who in the end loses everything).
When describing La Motta – the man who let himself be hit in order to exhaust his opponent’s strength – Scorsese cited St Thomas Aquinas, who said that animals served God better than man because they lived their natures so purely, without guilt. But at the end of the film, he allows La Motta, whose brutality has hitherto extended from the ring into the lives of his wife and brother, to shout in his Maimi jail cell: “I am not an animal!” and begin his redemption.
It is a typical Scorsese moment – in nearly all his films there is a character who eventually recognises his own soul. Scorsese’s Catholic antecedents are never very far away, nor is the thought that the destructive instincts of man are capable of atonement.
Yet Paul Schrader, who wrote the first screenplay, loosely culled from La Motta’s own ghosted book, has said that Raging Bull was not a film either Scorsese or he wanted to make. De Niro talked Scorsese into it and then the two of them talked him into it. It is by now common knowledge that De Niro was obsessed with the part and not only spent 10 weeks perfecting the fight scenes but took two breaks away from the shoot to eat his way around Italy and France to gain weight for the second half of the film.
He went from his usual 145lbs to 160lbs for the young fighter and then up to 215lbs for the flabby older man. This isn’t acting but, as De Niro has said, it made him feel different and perform differently. As for the fight scenes themselves, they were brilliantly shot – heightened and precisely choreographed. Even the real La Motta was less frenetic than this in the ring.
Schrader’s original script was darker and much more sexual than the finished film. At one point La Motta, who abstained from sex for several weeks before a big fight, douses an erection with a glass of cold water. Everyone liked the scene but it would almost certainly have made Raging Bull into an X-rated film and it was never shot. As it is, the film looks perfect, imbued with a European sensibility, as someone once said of Scorsese, but “molto Hollywood”.