The routine use of black-and-white film to make movies seems to have ended in the mid-sixties, probably killed off by the advent of colour television. Since then black-and-white has been used very sparingly; even Polanski’s `Chinatown’, obviously conceived as homage to the films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s, was shot in colour.
`Raging Bull’- a biography of the boxer Jake La Motta who for a time held the world middleweight championship- is one of the few exceptions. The use of black-and-white seems to have been inspired by the fact that the film depicts real-life events that occurred in the forties and fifties. Scorsese has tried to capture the look of both the films and the newsreels of that period. This is remarkably effective for the boxing scenes, which have a raw, brutal power and graphically depict the aggressive nature of the sport. The other remarkable thing about the film is the performance of Robert de Niro, for which he won a well-deserved Best Actor Academy Award. De Niro actually learned to box for the film, and did all the boxing scenes himself without using a stunt double, but his portrayal of La Motta’s private life is equally effective.
Some boxers- Henry Cooper comes to mind- are hard-hitting inside the ring but gentlemanly and restrained outside. La Motta, as portrayed in this film, did not fall into this category. De Niro portrays him as a man with a very short fuse, seething with anger and violence. Unlike his great rival Sugar Ray Robinson, an elegant practitioner of the art of boxing, La Motta tries to overpower his rivals with brute force rather than relying on skill. His aggression is not something confined to the ring, but rather an inherent part of his personality, and comes out in his dealings with others. He treats his beautiful wife Vicki particularly badly, frequently (and irrationally) suspecting her of infidelity and subjecting her to both verbal and physical abuse. Besides De Niro’s dominating performance, there are also very good contributions from Cathy Moriarty as Vicki and from Joe Pesci as La Motta’s loyal brother Joey, another frequent target of abuse despite his loyalty.
For me, this is a very good film, yet one that falls just short of the classic status that some have claimed for it. At times it is enthralling to watch, but at others, particularly in the first half, it seems to lack structure, as La Motta takes on a series of opponents without the significance of these fights ever becoming clear. More could have been made of the gambling-inspired corruption that infested the sport at this period and which may well have contributed to La Motta’s sense of frustration- at one time it is made clear to him that his getting a chance to fight for the world title depends upon his taking a dive in a non-title fight. The main weakness, however, is a sense of emptiness at its centre, resulting from the lack of a character who can engage our sympathies. As I said, it is De Niro’s performance that dominates the film, but for all his fine acting, even he cannot make us sympathise with a drunken, self-pitying, paranoid, violent wife-beater. As a character study of an unpleasant character it is excellent, but it can go no further than that. I cannot agree that this is the greatest film of the eighties; indeed, for me it was not even the greatest sporting film of the eighties. (I preferred both `Chariots of Fire’ and `Eight Men Out’). It is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. 7/10.