It's been called the best boxing picture, the best sports picture and has even appeared on lists of the greatest films ever made. But there's something odd about Raging Bull, an almost deliberate dissonance, a stubborn refusal to follow the traditional arc of redemptive sporting biopics. Most boxing movies glorify the so-called noble art, contrasting the bravery of those who choose to make a career of it with the venality of agents, promoters and hangers-on, but Raging Bull seems positively disgusted by pugilism, and misses no opportunity to debunk any romantic illusions the audience may have about it. It's a boxing picture that hates boxing, and that's probably because its creator did too.
Raging Bull was released in America 40 years ago this week, and didn't exactly light up the box office. A two-hour black and white drama about a self-hating, wife-beating boxer wasn't an easy sell, and Scorsese's film only just about managed to recoup its then-sizeable $18m budget. Though critics liked it, and Robert De Niro's performance won him the Best Actor Oscar, the film's greatness would only be fully appreciated over time.
It's De Niro's film every bit as much as it is Scorsese's. They worked on final drafts of the screenplay together, it was De Niro who persuaded Scorsese to cast Joe Pesci (an unknown actor who was running an Italian restaurant at the time) as Jake LaMotta's long-suffering brother, Joey. It was De Niro who persuaded him to make the film in the first place.
The actor came across LaMotta's memoir, Raging Bull: My Story, while working on The Godfather: Part II. He was fascinated by LaMotta's bullheadedness, his refusal ever to be beaten, and the unquenchable fury that would blight his later life. He realised straight away it was a part tailor-made for him, and begged his friend Martin Scorsese to make a movie about LaMotta. Time and again, Scorsese said no.
But by the late 1970s, Scorsese's career - and life - had reached a crossroads. The resounding failure of his 1977 musical New York New York had shaken him badly, his cocaine habit was way out of hand and, by Scorsese's own account, it was De Niro, and the distraction of making Raging Bull, that saved his life.
After nearly dying from an overdose, Scorsese found a way of identifying with Jake LaMotta's self-destructive impulses. He threw himself into the project convinced it would be his last film. When he went to watch fights in Madison Square Garden and saw a blood-soaked sponge being dipped in a bucket, Scorsese commented, "and they call this sport". But he came away determined to catch the realism of boxing in a new and stark way. Traditionally, movie fights had been filmed outside the ring, from the perspective of the audience, but Scorsese asked his director of photography Michael Chapman to shoot inside the ring, dodging about to avoid the pugilists and making the boxing matches almost unbearably visceral. Scorsese hung black drapes around the ring so that the artificial smoke he used to augment fight sequences could be seen. He shot in black and white, largely for aesthetic reasons, but honed in on the impact of punches, slowing them down so that their ugly consequences could be fully appreciated. Far from glamorising violence, the film seemed an indictment of it, and when Scorsese ran these sequences against a backdrop of Verdi's lush overtures, the jarring dissonance turned boxing into a tragedy, and Raging Bull into a kind of horror film.
At the centre of it all was Jake LaMotta: the character, De Niro's fearless incarnation of him, but also the real Jake himself, on hand as an adviser. De Niro being De Niro, he not only learnt to box but fought a series of real bouts, winning two out of three fights. And he was utterly convincing as 'the Bronx Bull' in Scorsese's choreographed re-enactments of his famous six-fight battle with Sugar Ray Robinson.
Sugar Ray had been boxing's great stylist, a peerlessly elegant middleweight, but LaMotta was more of a streetfighter, a tough, bullying boxer who had, it is said, one of the finest ever chins - meaning, he could take incredible beatings and stay on his feet.
His rage erupted in and out of the ring, and poisoned all relationships. He was married seven times, admitted having hit his wives, and fell out with his brother and manager Joey, whom he also attacked. For all his faults, though, LaMotta was not a hypocrite, and never seemed to have a problem about how Scorsese's film was going to portray him. Perhaps he knew that without Raging Bull, he might have been largely forgotten. He died in 2017.
These days people like to make fun of method excesses, and De Niro's weight gain during this shoot is often cited as a case in point. In a time before fat suits, Scorsese shut down the film for four months once the fight scenes were done so De Niro could embark on a famously rich gastronomic tour. He waddled back on to the set having gained an extraordinary 60-70 pounds to play the older, sadder, Jake.
De Niro's weight informed his performance in ways that padding never could. Panting, obese, breathing heavily through his nose, his older LaMotta struck a mournful contrast with the younger, leaner, remorseless model.
Pesci's edgy portrayal of LaMotta's at-times equally unpleasant brother was compelling and, at 37, he became an unlikely star. Nineteen-year-old Cathy Moriarty was also marked out for big things thanks to her still and sultry performance as Jake's sainted second wife. That didn't happen, but she was brilliant in a film with little room for female voices.
Indeed, like a number of Scorsese's other films, Raging Bull explored a version of masculinity so destructive it corrodes the bearer's humanity and scatters misery all around. As played by De Niro, the broken-down, has-been LaMotta achieves in spite of his shabbiness an almost Shakespearean grandeur, for he has failed, and failed big. As he recites the famous "coulda been a contender" speech, De Niro, a great film actor, impersonates a bad one mimicking perhaps the best. Cinema's past speaks to its present through the conduit of a punch-drunk hack. De Niro apparently wrote that scene himself, and acts it so well one almost feels sorry for the self-hating bully LaMotta.