Raging Bull – A Study of Jealousy

Another day another review.  Another Martin Scorcese film.  Perhaps THE Martin Scorcese film.

Raging Bull opened the 1980s.  Filmed in gritty black and white and shot in an authentic documentary style, this film is an artistic marvel.  Scorcese is at his best here, filling every frame with total, uncompromising power.

This is a truly brutal film.  Physically and emotionally brutal.  There are devastating scenes of emotional and physical abuse… make no mistake, this is not a popcorn flick.  This film is no Shutter Island.  In fact it shares more with a film I have reviewed previously, Taxi Driver.  For this film too is like an essay on relationships and violence.  This film is, more specifically, a study of jealousy.

Raging Bull is, at face value, a film about boxing.  However, it is actually nothing of the sort.  Let me explain.  Raging Bull tells the story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta and his battles with the people around him, and most importantly the war with himself.  You see, Jake LaMotta is a jealous guy.  He is also an intensely unlike-able character.  Whereas, for all his faults, I could relate in many ways to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and find a modicum of  ‘goodness’ deep within,  Jake LaMotta is a more detestable prospect.  There are parallels between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and perhaps we are viewing portrayals of men with mental health issues.  These films are studies.  And for my money, Raging Bull is the ultimate character study.  Boxing takes a back seat.  Boxing is the vehicle used to forward the story, but this is not a boxing film.

I love the Rocky films.  I regard the first film in the series extremely highly.  And in some ways, Rocky wasn’t actually a film about boxing either.  Rocky was the story of a loveable loser who overcame the odds to make something of his personal life.  Raging Bull is the story of an unlovable loser who overcomes the odds stacked very much in his favour, to destroy himself.  I try to give nothing away in my reviews.  I want you to be able to watch the film and experience it for the ‘first time’.  Safe to say though that you can expect a rough ride with the story of Jake LaMotta.  The film is based on the memoir ‘written’ by LaMotta himself.  It has been adapted by Paul Schrader who also wrote Taxi Driver.  Between the recollections of LaMotta, the known facts, and the filter of Schrader’s very much opinionated mind we get one of the bleakest portrayals of a jealous man ever committed to celluloid.

The film’s opening titles are an amazing sequence combining classical music with a boxer in the ring.  The story itself is bookended by an older LaMotta, a cabaret LaMotta, going through the motions backstage at a comedy club.  This allows the flashback for the main film.  Robert De Niro plays LaMotta and this is probably De Niro’s best performance.  He is gripping, scary, brutal and awe-inspiring.  It is one of those ‘movie clichés’ that in preparing for the role, De Niro became so good at boxing that people suggested he could have won the middleweight title for real.  I don’t know about that… but I do know that I wouldn’t have wanted to have met Di Niro in a back alley in 1980!  (besides which, I would only have been 5 or something!!!).  This is truly De Niro’s film, his tour de force.  LaMotta’s intense violence is shocking.  De Niro’s playing of that violence is magnificent.  Who the hell could play a supporting role to this majesty of acting? Step forward one Joe Pesci.

Joe Pesci is absolutely outstanding in the role of LaMotta’s brother.  Anyone who has seen him in action in Casino or Goodfellas perhaps knows what to expect.  I think this is the first time Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci had worked together.  Joe Pesci is a frightening presence.  Even cowering in the huge shadow of LaMotta, Pesci’s character Joey is a scarily violent, knife-edge presence.  De Niro and Pesci are like a double act… a shocking double act.  In fact, for the two lead performances alone this film should be a 10 out of 10.  Hmmmm… 10 out of 10.  This film could be a 10 out of 10!

Brutal boxing scenes.  I haven’t even really mentioned the brutal boxing scenes.  These scenes of carnage litter the movie to advance the story – to show the onward march of LaMotta’s career.  They are filmed with so much trickery, so much magic. Scorcese is at the very top of his game.  The boxing is so real it hurts to watch.  The documentary style of cinematography is absolutely fitting for this film.  I have been watching the Blu-ray disc and I’ve got to say it looks superb.  The film grain and the searing black and white makes the film leap from the screen.

The scene where LaMotta asks his brother to punch him in the face is one of those classic moments of cinema.  10 out of 10 written all over it.  This film is a complete study of dysfunctional relationships, jealousy and violence.

So far so good… any negatives?  Hmmmm.  Well, I have to mention Cathy Moriarty as LaMotta’s abused wife Vicky.  I’ve just never been sure about her performance.  She’s stunning to look at… but, well… I just don’t know.  At the start of the film I think she’s supposed to be about 15.  I just don’t buy it.  Her acting seems out of sorts too.  I could draw comparisons to Cybil Shepherd in Taxi Driver – a similar kind of detached playing of a role.  But whereas I buy into Cybil Shepherd, I just remain unconvinced by Moriarty.  This is not a huge negative for there are points in the film where she excels.  I just don’t think she quite competes with De Niro and Pesci…. but then, realistically, who could?

Some of the make-up worn by De Niro throughout the film, the prosthetics perhaps rather than the make-up, to give him a beat up look do not always totally convince.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t gonna knock a mark off the score, and most of the time it looks excellent… it’s just that ‘sometimes’ it looks to me a little odd.

And… what is up with Joe Pesci’s hair?!?  Again, not enough to knock a mark off… but his hair is just mad!!!

I think my main concern with the film would be the pacing.  This is a slow film.  I like it.  I love it.  But I can imagine others finding it really tough going.  I would compare it to Bladerunner, a similarly slow film.  I love the building of layers in film.  I love the intensity created by having the freedom to linger on a subject.  The kind of lingering that was tolerated in 70s cinema.  But others won’t love the linger… they will just turn off.  Consider the type of films that you like.  If you like Transformers you will HATE Raging Bull!!!  I am not joking.  One of the best films of all time or not… you will HATE it!  For me, I would have liked the pace to have been tightened a little… but this is not a film you watch for fun.  This film is an educational experience!

Overall… this is a monumental film.  A work of art.  As I said with Taxi Driver… if you want to read the score as a 10 out of 10 then go ahead.  It really is that good.  However, due to Cathy Moriarty and the issues with pacing I have to knock two marks off.  Remember though… I use the whole scale.  I have no issue with giving a film 5 if it’s average.  I don’t know where the idea of only using the 7 – 10 range of a ten point scale came from?!?

Raging Bull – 8/10

Taxi Driver // Rain

It’s late and it has been a tiring few days.  Everything has caught up with me and I feel like I’m running on empty.  So it seems kind of apt that I’m about to write my thoughts on one of my favourite films, Taxi Driver.  Taxi Driver is one of those films that spawned a poster that adorned every teenage male’s wall.  Well, it was certainly on my wall!  Taxi Driver is a film that could in many ways be considered ‘cult’ and yet it is actually pretty mainstream.  It is a film that can appeal very specifically to the loners, the lost, the angry, the bitter, the disillusioned, the pessimistic, the betrayed, the ‘insert your descriptive word here’.  Taxi Driver is an extremely important film… but one that was lost to me for many a year.  I picked it up on Blu-ray recently and checked it out again.  I rediscovered it!  Taxi Driver is a very influencial film.  Taxi Driver is a film that I’m going to write about without giving too many spoilers.  You can read this and then watch the film in relative safety!!!  The basic story can be summed up as follows (without spoiling it!):  Loner played by Robert De Niro can’t sleep.  Gets a job as a Taxi Driver by night.  Falls for girls that are in different ways not right for him (to say the least!).  Tries to hurt/save the girls.  Ends up becoming a kind of vigilante character – the ‘typical’ loner who goes psycho.

First, and slightly off topic, I gotta say that the Blu-ray transfer itself is majestic.  Absolutely superb.  Anyone who has doubts about the difference between DVD and Blu-ray should simply take a look at Taxi Driver.  It just drips class.  The rain, the grime, the paintwork, the neon lights… just beautiful.  The darkness has never looked so alive.

The Taxi Driver I remember from my youth was a film that very much appealed to the unsocial side of me.  Let’s be clear here. Taxi Driver is a pretty dark film.  It has been compared to other ‘loner’ films such as Falling Down or First Blood.  But Taxi Driver is very much its own man.  It has so many levels… only one of which is the level that appeals to the teenage boy.  Taxi Driver is just as much a journey into the heart of darkness as Apocalypse Now.  Taxi Driver is a film that kinda defines the ’70s.  And you have to remember that the ’70s were already defined by grime and realism.  The ’70s marked a foray into great BIG meaningful, intelligent films.  All the President’s Men.  The Conversation.  Deliverance.  Even Rocky (if you don’t agree then you obviously haven’t watched it recently).  In fact, Rocky actually beat Taxi Driver at the Oscars that year – a decision that could drive home another whole article!

Taxi Driver was directed by Martin Scorsese.   I would find it hard to name my favourite director.  It would be like having to name a favourite band or album.  They are decisions that are affected by mood, time and space.  But Scorsese would certainly be in my top one or two!  Ha ha!  I think Taxi Driver is a defining Scorsese film.  Unlike certain other great directors Scorsese has many great films.  You could pick Raging Bull or Goodfellas for example and no-one would dispute their challenge for the title of “Greatest Scorsese Movie”tm.  But, whilst I would agree with their greatness, and possibly that they are even greater than Taxi Driver… I would still say that Taxi Driver is the defining moment of Martin Scorsese’s career.  I can already sense that my writing here is sloppy.  I’m drifting around the subject without hitting the facts home.  I’m not firing on all cylinders here.  Bear with me.  I’m just typing what I’m thinking.  Hmmmm…. key points of note:

1) The amazing score.  This was Bernard Herrmann’s final score, completed shortly before he died.  Herrmann was responsible for some of the greatest soundtracks in movie history.  I adore his work with Hitchcock, and even those who aren’t familiar with film would recognise some of his signature pieces.  His screeching strings from Psycho are perhaps the best known in cinema history (alongside Jaws‘?).  I love his work on Vertigo too.  But for me… nothing surpasses his final work.  The masterpiece that is the score for Taxi Driver.

2) Robert De Niro.  This is a tour de force performance.  De Niro plays the insomniac Vietnam vet Travis Bickle.  Travis is a loner.  De Niro gets the portrayal spot on.  He IS Travis Bickle.  There is no acting.  You get that ‘method’ thing.

3) Cybill Shepherd. Now, here’s the thing.  I’m pretty sure that Cybill Shepherd is generally derided as an actress.  But I’ve gotta stick up for her.  She was great in The Last Picture Show and I thought she was cool in Moonlighting.  But she is something else in Taxi Driver.  The criticism of her acting tends to be that if she was standing in a forest you really wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from amongst the rest of the trunks.  Saw her in half and you could probably count the rings.  Well… okay, in fact, in Taxi Driver she is indeed a little stilted.  But, and it’s a big but… she is totally radiant.  Absolutely stunning looking.  She plays the part of Betsy, a woman sooooo out of Travis’ league.  And she plays it well.  Betsy benefits from being slightly dislocated from Travis’ world.  I wouldn’t change Shepherd for anyone else. Pretty simple really.

4) Jodie Foster.  Foster was a good little actress.  I think she was only 12 when she played the part of Iris in this film.  12!!!  If you’ve seen the film you’ll know why I’ve put all those exclamation marks!  This is a really adult role.  And Jodie Foster proves that she had the makings of one of the greatest actresses of all time.  I’m not much of a fan of her to be honest, but in this film she is outstanding.

5) Martin Scorsese.  There are moments in this film that are directed with intelligence and beauty.  The phone call where the camera seems embarrassed to be eavesdropping.  It actually wanders off mid shot.  You’ll know it when you see it.  It’s touches of class like this that raise the bar with this film.

6) “You talkin’ to me?”  Say no more.

7)  The beautiful irony/madness of Travis’ outlook on life.  On the one hand he is so self-righteous.  He wants proper order.  He denounces the drugs and the criminality.  He comes across as such a moral guardian.  … And yet… he stays up all day and all night.  He basks in pornography and takes drugs.  He IS the seedy side of life that he so appears to despise! I like that Travis is such a difficult character to interpret.  Taxi Driver is a much more ‘difficult’ film than, say, Falling Down.

8 ) New York.  The setting, the scenery.  You can almost smell the grime of the streets.

9) The duality of Travis’ relationships with Betsy and Iris.  This is a man who wants what he can’t have.  And then when he can’t have it he wants to destroy it.  For better or for worse.  It takes some thinking about.  And it has taken me many viewings and many years to fully appreciate.

10) The ending.  This is a film from a time before ‘twist endings’.  Yet, there is certainly an intriguing end to the film.  The final moments make you question whether Travis is a hero or a villain.  And it makes you question the society that creates such a man as Travis, and then crowns him a hero.  Or a villain?  For you see the ending all depended on which of the father figures Travis succeeded on destroying.  Betsy’s or Iris’.  One makes him a hero, the other a villain.  Or do they both make him a villain?  I like the uncertainty of the film’s tone.

Hmmm…. I’m not keen on writing a ‘review’ as a series of bullet points… but I’ve started so I’ll finish.  It’s getting late and I’m knackered!

There are a few things about the film that I’m not so keen about.

1) The carnage at the end.  The censors apparently would not let the violence at the finale go without cuts.  So, instead Scorsese just drained the colour from the ending.  Drained the visceral red from the blood.  This was enough to satisfy the censors.  And when you hear Marty explain the colour drain you can both understand, and appreciate how in some ways it actually improves the end.  But… I’ve never been too enamoured with it… so it probably loses the film a point.

2) The ending.  As a teenager I never truly understood the very end of Taxi Driver – the coda after the violence.  I didn’t know if it was a dream sequence, some kind of heaven, some kind of hell, or just an unlikely reality.  Having watched it again on Blu-ray 5 times I can now appreciate that it’s probably meant to be taken pretty literally.  I think in the past I was trying to be too clever.  I was trying to project upon the film a whole host of levels that just weren’t actually there.  I now see that the ending is more a scathing social commentary.  I can appreciate the view that the film has an uncertain tone.  And yet I now think that the film is actually quite certain with its tone.  I think the film has a single point to make and it is all very simple.  And I now see that the film could be viewed as a recurring loop.  If you started watching Taxi Driver again as soon as it finished everything would make perfect sense!!!  Anyway… the film loses a point.

3) The forcing of the “Everything is viewed by Travis.  Everything is observed.”. Basically the film sets out to show everything as a kind of first person, ‘as happens to Travis’ point of view.  So when other events need to be seen, Travis is shown as ‘observing them’ in his Taxi – usually sitting outside where the scene we need to see is happening.  Marty has explained the need for this approach many times.  I’m just not sure that it actually works.  However, certainly not bad enough to knock a point off the final score.  And I’ve got to say that the scene between Iris and her Pimp is indeed probably necessary and quite touching.

Let’s be clear.  This is probably the closest you’re gonna get to a ten out of ten film from me.  So, if that’s what you want to read the score as I’m happy for you to read it!  This film is a towering work of art.  A dissection of a troubled soul.

Taxi Driver – 8/10

I used Taxi Driver as the source of inspiration for the opening track of my new album “The Galton Detail“.  The song is called Rain.  I think I’ve captured the essence of the film.