Now, sometimes, at night, when I think back, I feel like I'm looking at an old black-and-white movie of myself. Why it should be black-and-white I don't know, but it is. Not a good movie either, jerky, with gaps in it, a string of poorly lit sequences, some of them with no beginning and some with no end. No musical score, just sometimes the sound of a police siren or a pistol shot. And almost all of it happens at night, as if I lived my whole life at night.
Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull
As long as we possibly can, we must preserve the innocence of childhood. We must preserve it in our children, protecting them from the storms of age and agony, of the pain and cruelty so widespread in our world, of sin in its deceptive and myriad guise. But we must also preserve it in ourselves. So often are adults informed of their immaturity by wiser minds, usually as a means to explain why the world doesn't quite fit them like some oversized coat or shoe. Yet on occasion it is immaturity in the form of faultlessness, an inability to see the world for the den of iniquity it most certainly is, that can absolve a soul. And at other times, it is the expiation of sin in a troubled being that can restore a faint trace of childhood lost: a hand print on a window pane, a taste of cinnamon candy, a beautiful pink ribbon amidst beautiful curly locks. Something akin to an imposition of penance redeems the protagonist in this famous film.
The bull in question is Italian-American prizefighter Jake LaMotta (a marvelous Robert De Niro), twenty troubled years old as our film opens in 1941. In one of life's little ironies, an adolescence of crime and bare-knuckle brawling has left LaMotta medically exempt from military service but fit enough to become one of the most feared middleweight boxers in the world. His manager and only friend is his younger brother Joey (Joe Pesci), whose flabbiness, squeakiness, and insecurities embody what professors of literature like to term a "perfect foil." Joey does not come off as a particularly bad fellow until we hear his advice on how precisely LaMotta should extricate himself from his marriage. There is also the small matter of Joey's "friends," a relationship far less easily shed – yet I digress. In the opening scenes we begin to sense the undercurrent beneath the Bull: his ambition lies not with belts of silver and gold but with hearts and minds. Like any artist worth his salt, LaMotta's dream is to be acknowledged by true connoisseurs (including, of course, other fighters), by those who know his sport inside and out, by those who will inscribe his terrifying force into the annals of pugilism and make him eternal. A championship, the layman's understanding of who is the best at a given time, matters little to the Bull, as does, to some extent, the concomitant fortune and fame. All throughout our film, we are afforded glimpses into the ruthless rings in which LaMotta annihilates his enemies (as Joey boasts, "he knocked [an opponent's] nose from one side of his face to the other"). It is then perhaps not surprising that LaMotta's father exploited the teenage Jake as one might a gamecock: as a gladiatorial pawn against other child ruffians with a purse earmarked for the family's rent. It is equally predictable that LaMotta would develop a profound disdain for any sort of authority, be that authority a parent, brother, spouse, or promoter. What matters to the Bronx Bull, as he is often billed, is the understanding that no one has ever knocked him off his feet or hurt him: only he can do that to himself. Which brings us to his ruination in the tall and very blonde form of Vickie (Cathy Moriarty).
Many viewers will know that Beverly Thailer, dite Vickie or Vikki, will become the second of LaMotta's seven brides; it is up to the actors, therefore, to make an historical fact a dramatic inevitability. Vickie, for her part, doesn't express much initial interest – but someone of LaMotta's fitness, determination, and utter lack of fear can usually mate with whomever he chooses. That Vickie is but fifteen and LaMotta twenty at the time of their introduction is less remarkable than the fact that Moriarty was herself a teenager (De Niro, by contrast, was thirty-six), if one with innate poise and polish. Moriarty is perfectly cast for many reasons, but mostly because she is the lean mean De Niro's size (a petite leading lady would have been no match). When he calls her over to sit on his lap, she takes up more space than he expects. This equation is repeated in a Technicolor fast-forward when he tosses her into a pool, and when, after a scene of brief but vicious domestic violence, her face resembles his own post-fight countenance. They court the only way LaMotta knows how: by simple displays of what has made him a man. He drives her around in his convertible, takes her to mini-golf, and shows her his father's apartment with a lovely observation about a neglected cage ("That's a bird. It was a bird. It's dead now, I think."). In time, she will become both his inspiration – he is but a knight of the rubber gauntlet – and his distraction, and here I will permit myself an aside. It is a commonly held belief among viewers of Raging Bull that what propels LaMotta is jealousy: of a sexual nature as far as Vickie is concerned, and of a fraternal kind with Joey, especially given the attention Joey bestows upon his "friends," but yet again we must demur. As in most films by Scorsese and Schrader, the true focus is not upon an individual tragic flaw, but sin itself. LaMotta's only path to purity is in the ring, his trials and tribulations very similar to those of an artist who will not compromise (which makes his own sell-out, his one thrown fight to curry favor with power brokers, all the more painful, like a potboiler a true artist will forever rue). His life, his work, his thoughts, his ethics, should be pure, because he is pure, bottled rage, to be unleashed only on his opponents, whom he pummels with force available to few men. Artists also unreasonably expect their loved ones to be as true to them as the artists are to their own works, a near-impossible task that begets the most savage disappointment. That his rage spills out of the squared circle, and gets the better of him on more than occasion, means ultimately that he has failed to achieve his destiny – the worst nightmare any artist could ever imagine. And Jake LaMotta's nightmare will only begin in the ring.
Raging Bull enjoyed a tepid reception upon its release in 1980, in no small part because it was very different from that Philadelphia story of four years earlier. Black-and-white like the real LaMotta's dream, the film was as tragic as its operatic soundtrack, which suits it perfectly and suggests the Bull's idealized vision of himself as a knight-errant. Although boxing's brutality does not lend itself to much enjoyment, especially since its long-term consequences are now properly understood, there is something Romantic about such a life. A life about combat, rigged or not by underworld krakens who drain betting pools, about being alone and fighting with one's hands, about becoming world-feared as well as famous. Underworld? Well, for Joey LaMotta they hover quite above the surface. Almost from our opening scenes, Joey's "friends" function as a third layer to the sport and life of Jake LaMotta, because it is they who steer bulls and other ringed beasts to their own greedy ends. LaMotta's refusal to kowtow to some very powerful and very dangerous characters would, in a far lesser film, result in cruel retribution; yet somehow the mafiosi are just as proud of their native son as they are puzzled at his recalcitrance ("The man's got a head of a rock"). Joey, of course, would never have the audacity to stand up to the mob, which is one of the many reasons he adores his older brother. An uncanny sibling rapport allows many things to be left unsaid, although Joey insists that he "always tells [LaMotta] the truth the first time." But LaMotta knows the company his brother keeps and weighs that claim repeatedly. It does not help matters that Vickie was plucked from the selfsame milieu and that LaMotta also ponders her "friends," especially when these "friends" keep showing up at inopportune times (which, for LaMotta, means any time at all). So when the much older LaMotta turns to stand-up comedy and a bon-vivant lifestyle, it is a wonderful – and completely logical – departure from the young LaMotta, so serious and so focused as to have become the proverbial agelast. And how are we to understand the final scene, ostensibly one of redemption, at least in LaMotta's eyes? Perhaps he's the only one to see the events as such. Or perhaps his eyes have simply been swollen shut for years.