A film has the ability to move us not just through the story it’s telling, but by the way in which it tells the story. The technical means a filmmaker follows to convey a film’s message is often overlooked, for it can make a tremendous difference is an audience’s reaction. Few films provide as many examples of such as Raging Bull, made during Hollywood’s Post-Classical Era.
What may be most noteworthy in the film is Martin Scorcese’s use of slow-motion. The main character, Jake La Motta, leads a tumultuous personal life during and after his boxing career. A key element to his personality is his distrust of people, and his tendency to overanalyze the slightest detail of another’s words or actions to a point at which he eventually views it as a threat.
One of the film’s key moments is when Jake and his entourage, which include his wife Vicky and brother Joey, are in a hotel room and in walks Tommy, the local mob boss. At this point in the film, the audience is well aware of Jake’s jealousy toward other men regarding his wife. When Tommy is about to leave, Vicky asks him to wait so she can get up and give him a casual kiss good-bye.
Scorcese then cuts to an inquisitive Jake before cutting back to Vicky, which tells the audience that Jake is focusing on his wife. The camera follows her to where she meets with Tommy and gives him a kiss on the cheek. Within the frame now is Vicky on the left, Tommy on the right, and Joey in between them. After cutting once more Jake, Scorcese enters slow-motion. The camera focuses on Joey’s hand resting on Tommy’s shoulder before cutting to Tommy giving Vicky another kiss, this time on the lips. After the kiss and the two withdraw from each other, the camera is left focusing on Joey, who is smiling up at Tommy before staring at Vicky. The camera then cuts back to Vicky who is also smiling, one of the few times she does throughout the film.
At this point the audience is aware of Jake’s feeling of isolation from the other three. Scorcese puts special focus on displays of affection between the three of them, projecting the idea that they are enjoying a happiness that does not include Jake. Moreover, the cut back to a smiling Vicky conveys the message that she in particular is enjoying a happiness without Jake, which undoubtedly feeds his jealousy.
This is one of two moments throughout the film in which, as Valerie Orpen writes in ‘Film Editing: the Art of the Expressive’, “slow-motion becomes terrifying for it allows us into Jake’s deranged mind by dwelling on insignificant details and blowing them out of proportion.” This technique also marks a distinction from films of the Classical Hollywood era. In films of that period, it would have been more common to convey concern or obsession in a character through the use of dramatic music. In Raging Bull, music is seldom used.
While slow-motion is used in many instances throughout the film, what is worth noting is that many of these moments occur in scenes outside of the boxing ring. This suggests that Jake’s experience as a boxer has heightened his senses to the extreme. He has trained himself to always be on the look-out for the slightest hint of danger, and is therefore an ultra-sensitive human being in a world two or three paces behind him. For that reason, he never misses a detail with respect to what somebody says, the way they say it, or the way they look at him.
The character of Jake La Motta is one for whom the audience gradually loses more and more respect as the film progresses. Yet after the scene in which he beats up his brother and strikes his wife, we are aware of just what a monster he is capable of becoming. The following scene depicting La Motta’s final match with Sugar Ray, however, is one that truly stands out.
What is noteworthy is how artistically it demonstrates Jake’s self-punishment. At this point in the film, our contempt for Jake has reached its pinnacle; and yet so has his. The close-up of Jake leaning against the ropes, waiting for Ray to strike is almost iconic in the way that it illustrates his state of mind and emotion. The numb silence and Scorcese’s slow zoom allows the audience to fully witness and understand Jake’s sense of giving up and his willingness to accept the punishment he knows he deserves.
There is even a somewhat religious undertone to the scene. Jake is lying on the ropes as though he were some sort of sacrificial figure, standing before that of Sugar Ray. Ray, meanwhile, ominously looming in the shadows to the point which the audience only sees his silhouette, becomes Jake’s punisher— transcending the role of a man and becoming more of an idea. In this sense Ray becomes God, who seconds later smites the sinful yet accepting Jake. It is an exceptional example of successful lighting, slow-motion and zoom shots.
The editing in this scene breaks continuity after Ray delivers his second blow. He swings with his right fist, and then Scorcese cuts to Jake being hit from the left of the screen. Though it violates the rule of match-cutting, it works well with the moment. Orpen writes in her book that “the chaotic rhythm, conflicting graphics and subjective sound squarely align us with Jake. It is his experience, his distorted perception that we relate to on the screen…The montage is by no means realistic but it conveys a realism of perception: Jake’s dazed consciousness and Vickie’s/Joey’s pained (and fragmented, in Vickie’s case) vision.” The shots within the sequence not matching each other is intended to reflect Jake’s extreme disorientation; to project the idea of all those sins, having massed together to a point at which they can no longer stand, raining back down upon him in an overwhelmingly ferocious manner.
Though technically they both take place within the same scene, Ray about to strike La Motta and Ray actually striking La Motta are very much their own separate moments. The scene conveys Jake’s rise and of fall, or rather judgement and punishment. The use of slow-motion and shadows in those seconds before Ray strikes Jake mirrors the idea of judgement by some divine entity. The sense of divine comes through the change in lighting with respect to Sugar Ray. Within seconds he goes from being clearly seen in the light, to a mysterious figure which stands menacingly in the dark. At the same time, the noise of the crowd has diminished as Scorcese cuts back zooming in on Jake, defeated and standing openly before his almighty judge. What follows is the moment which depicts Jake’s punishment. It is a horrible penance of confusion and pain that he must fulfill; projected by Scorcese breaking continuity, limiting shot length to an instant and throwing in strange animal noises to accompany each of the shadowy figure’s blows.
The breaking of continuity once Ray begins attacking Jake marks a clear departure from the conventions of the Classical Hollywood Era, a time in which the 180 degree line was almost never crossed, as is done several times in this scene. As Orpen points out in her book, a violation of continuity occurs when blood spurts out from the left of Jake’s face, with the next shot showing the photographers being splattered from the left. The extreme violence in this scene counts for one other difference from Classical Hollywood tradition. While back then, a director might have shown little to no blood at all, Scorcese clearly wants to convey just how brutal this fight was. Ray unleashes himself on Jake and for the next few seconds, the camera shows Jake’s blood showering on his own legs, blood squirting from above his eye, blood squirting from his mouth, and finally, a horrible splash of blood onto the photographers in the crowd. This would have been a stark violation of Hollywood’s first self-regulating code of 1927, which states that gruesomeness and brutality ought to be treated delicately.
The theme of companionship plays a strong role in Raging Bull. It is interesting to note that the dynamic of Jake and Joey’s relationship seems to play a much more substantial role in the film than that of Jake and his wife. We see a great deal more of the conversations, for example, between Jake and Joey than those between Jake and Vicky. Though he has lost both his brother and his wife by the end of the film, it is the brother’s absence that clearly takes a greater toll on Jake. When Vicky finally decides to leave him, there is no clear feeling of concern on Jake’s part, he makes no effort to pursue her. Moreover, it is Joey’s departure that precedes his sad decline, not Vicky’s. By placing greater emphasis on the brothers’ relationship throughout the first half of the film, Scorcese effectively evokes in the audience a similar longing for Joey to that which Jake feels. This marks another break in convention from the Classical Hollywood Era, a time in which relationships were a prevalent theme in film if they were between a man and a woman, as in many of the period’s romantic films. Raging Bull is very much a love story of its own, one that exists in pure form between Jake and his brother.
A particularly striking moment in Raging Bull occurs in the middle of the film. Shortly before the fight with Billy Fox, we see a low-angle medium tracking shot of Jake and his brother walking along one of the corridors in the arena. As they walk, however, Jake has his arm around Joey while looking confidently ahead, with Joey looking down. We then hear a low rumbling of noise which gets louder toward the end of the take, its origin somewhat ambiguous. It sounds either like that of a train steamrolling above them or of the crowd from the following scene. Regardless, the fact that it gets louder while Jake and Joey walk down the corridor projects the idea that they are walking into the limelight or into something bigger than themselves, together as a team facing whatever challenges lie ahead.
It is striking from a technical standpoint mostly because the low angle effectively demonstrates confidence in Jake, who at this point in time is near the peak of his career. The inclusion of Joey in the shot with Jake’s arm around him is equally important. Whether the fact that Jake is looking ahead while Joey looks down was a decision by the actors or by Scorcese is undetermined. What is important is that it puts greater emphasis on the dynamic of their relationship. With his unwavering self-confidence, Jake gives off the impression that he is very much the driving force behind the team which the two of them make up. At the same time, Joey is looking down, which suggests that even during this period in which they are on the rise together, he maintains his composure and weariness, balancing out the gusto of his brother. The choice to include Joey in this shot reflects the idea that all of Jake’s success and confidence results from the support and guidance of his little brother. The moment suggests that they are in this plight together, and it more effectively illustrates the love they hold for each other.