Raging Bull (1980) directed by Martin Scorsese with Michael Chapman as director of photography, is far from the style of contemporary films such as John G. Avildsen’s Rocky (1976) and Silvester Stallone’s Rocky II (1979). The film does not dwell on the training and fighting as you would expect from a film about a boxer and as boxing films had done in the past. Raging Bull is a film that says much more about the character and personality of its main subject, Jake LaMotta, than it does about his skill as a boxer. The boxing is almost secondary to LaMotta’s life outside the ring.
The title sequence of the film sets up the idea of LaMotta being a “raging bull”, an animal in a cage while in the ring, but also as a metaphor for his life, never able to get away from the things that haunt him, his questions of masculinity, sexuality and self-doubt and being otherwise alone.
This section of the film is such a simple and effective way to start the film. It uses the minimum of action and camera movement to achieve its intention. It is also quite different to the rest of the film. Raging Bull contains dynamic camera work throughout, often handheld, often from unusual angles, in close and personal with the characters and the title sequence has been shot in a completely different manner. Here there is little movement and what there is, is limited and shot in slow motion.
The title sequence is reminiscent of the 1949 Robert Wise film The Set-up where under the titles, through the ropes, only the legs of two anonymous boxers are seen “dancing” around the ring before one of the fighters falls to the mat. However, the title sequence of Raging Bull is heavily stylised in comparison to that of The Set-up.
The title sequence of Raging Bull introduces us to LaMotta, warming up in the ring as music from the opera Cavalleria rusticana plays. The opera is about a soldier who returns from war to find his fiancé has married someone else. The Intermezzo, the particular piece of music is about a duel to the death between the two men (Targioni-Tozzetti and Menasci, 1902) so seduction, betrayal and violence, as well as a battle to the death, fit very well with some of the film’s overall themes.
At this point in the film the viewer is distanced from LaMotta, as we progress through the film and get to know him we also become closer to him in cinematographic terms, the shots often close-up, particularly in the fighting and intimate scenes. Here we see LaMotta as a stranger, shrouded in shadow, making judgement on him from a distance, like the other characters in the film do. Because he is almost in shadow, it is almost impossible to know if it is LaMotta we are watching. Our only clue that it could be him, is Robert De Niro’s name immediately preceding the shot.
Compositionally, LaMotta positioned on the left third, gives balance and space to the titles, without unnecessarily drawing away from him, but at the same time removes him from the centre of the ring, traditionally where the hero or winner would be at the end of a boxing match. Jake is in his corner as though awaiting the opponent, for the fight to start, getting ready for the battle that continues in the rest of the film, the winner, as yet, undecided. His opponent could be in the ring and we just do not see him, the tight crop does not include the opposing corner, or the opponent could be LaMotta himself, a fight between the man inside and outside the ring.
The entire title sequence shows a static long shot of a boxing ring and a boxer, shadow boxing in slow motion. The music gives a balletic feel, suggesting that LaMotta is graceful, dancer like and in control in the ring, when in reality, as shown in the following film, he was a particularly brutal fighter with the ability to absorb punches until he gained the upper hand. This elegant, “in control” moment in the film though is representative of the ring being the only place that LaMotta can act aggressively, the only way he knows how, the way that he was brought up.
In this shot and others in the film, thick fog or smoke hangs in the air giving an almost dreamlike quality to the shot. Although at boxing matches the arena gets very hot, the heat of the lights, the heat from the audience, the boxers, it has almost been overdone here, as though we are viewing a memory. The story could be a flashback, a memory of Jake’s, it could be that this is how he remembers it, the fog, obscuring the audience, obscuring everything outside the ring. It could also represent the fog of war, the red mist that is associated with violence and aggression, but also uncertainty, doubt, the clouded judgement of both the audience and of LaMotta both in this scene and the rest of the film.
Most of the film was shot in black and white, which gives a period feel to the film. Set in the forties but shot in 1980 as a tribute to classic Hollywood films, but also for nostalgic reasons “connected to the depiction of Italian-American male characters, anti-heroes that are symptoms of the failure of the American Dream” (Cook, 2004: 167-8). LaMotta fits this description perfectly, although here the impression of calm and coolness is given rather than of failure. Scorsese also “wanted Raging Bull to have a tabloid look, like Weegee” (Biskind, 1999: 389). Weegee was a photographer who documented New York and its crime scenes during the 1940s. His photography was black and white, gritty and depicted often gruesome reality. Weegee also plays a timekeeper, the first person seen in the title sequence of the 1949 film The Set-up (Maltin, 2015).
The title sequence is the calm before the storm. There is a build-up in any boxing match: the warm up, the long walk to the ring, waiting for the fight to start, as this scene is the build-up to the storm of the film. The “Raging Bull” locked in its cage is waiting to be unleashed upon the world, the ropes, bar-like in their dark, static, geometric lines. Even those lines of the ropes act as a cage within a cage, a ring within a ring, entrapping the boxer.
In the background of the shot, the flash of flashbulbs from photographers: the press capturing the spectacle that is Jake LaMotta, the trapped beast pacing its cage. The flashes are like moments and incidents in LaMotta’s life. The straight line of people at the side of the ring are like a jury waiting to judge Jake on his actions, the way that he is judged throughout the film, tying to the theme of redemption which arises in the scene immediately following the title sequence and to the biblical quote at the end of the film.
Jake continues his graceful dance, ignorant or unaware of those outside the ring, silhouetted against the fog that obscures the onlookers, isolating him even more from the outside world. His face can hardly be seen beneath his hood, perhaps to anonymise him, so that he could represent anybody, the viewer, “the everyman”. “You could take anyone, you see; the ring becomes an allegory of whatever you do in life,” Scorsese is quoted as saying (Friedman, 1997: 115). This silhouetting also shows LaMotta as a beast, less than a man. “Jake LaMotta, the Bronx Bull, is a throwback to primeval man. A barely civilised human beast” (ibid.).
The lettering used in the main title, “Raging Bull” is bright red, red for blood, danger, anger, aggression, a label on the cage of the boxing ring, like the label on the cage of an animal. It jars against the black and white of the scene. It arrives suddenly, filling the right two thirds of the frame, those not occupied by LaMotta, captured between the bars or ropes, just like LaMotta himself. The text is all in capitals, the larger R and B of the respective words strengthening the impact. The words “Raging Bull” have no space implying the violent and obsessive nature of LaMotta in the film, like two boxers clashing, the two parts of LaMotta’s life colliding. As another suggestion of the violence to come, when the titles for Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty appear on the screen, LaMotta throws punches towards those names, as though referring to the way he treats their characters in the film.
Not only does the title sequence of Raging Bull leave the impression of LaMotta as a “Raging Bull” behind the bars of the cage, but they confirm his isolation and give suggestive pointers for the film about to commence. This is a very simple shot, but each element has been brought together to give suggestive pointers to rest of the film. Framing and positioning have been used to suggest LaMotta’s loneliness and isolation, and to portray him as a caged animal, the true “Raging Bull”. The titles have been coloured and placed to reinforce all of that, even the typeface has been chosen, coloured and positioned to add even more to the suggestion of aggression and violence, while seemingly interacting with the character in the ring.
Biskind, P. (1999) Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, London: Bloomsbury
Christie, I. (2003) Scorsese on Scorsese. London: Faber and Faber
Cook, P. (2004) “Martin Scorsese And Postclassical Nostalgia” Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema, Oxford: Routledge
Friedman, L.S. (1997) The Cinema of Martin Scorsese. Brighton: Roundhouse
LaMotta, J., Carter, J. and Savage, P. (1997) Raging Bull My Story, Boston: Da Capo
Maltin, L. (2015) The Classic Movie Guide. London: Michael Joseph
Extract available at: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/406/The-Set-Up/notes.html
Perkins, W. (2017) Dan Perri – A career retrospective. Available at http://www.artofthetitle.com/feature/dan-perri-a-career-retrospective/ (Accessed 30 Sept 2017)
Targioni-Tozzetti, G. and Menasci, G. (1902) Zanetto and Cavalleria Rusticana. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/14370/14370-h/14370-h.htm (Accessed 30 September 2017)