Raging Bull: A Tragedy in Three Acts

By Robert Ecksel on February 6, 2015
Raging Bull: A Tragedy in Three Acts
Vickie sits ringside and it is more than she can bear. She buries her face in her hands.

“He could beat all the Sugar Ray Robinsons and the Tony Janiros in the world, but he ain’t gonna get a shot at that title—not without us he ain’t…”

“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”—Oscar Wilde

Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece on former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, hit the big screen in 1980. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci), Best Supporting Actress (Cathy Moriarty), Best Cinematography (Michael Chapman), Best Editing (Thelma Shoonmaker) and Best Sound (Frank Warner), Raging Bull won statuettes from the Academy, Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film Critics, and the National Board of Review.

The breathtaking Raging Bull more than a boxing movie. It is fierce and poetic, raw and tender, a searing depiction of the perils of masculinity, an eloquent rendering of a man without qualities.

ACT I: A neighborhood girl

The curtain rises and the tremulous strains of the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s verismo masterwork “Cavalleria Rusticana” (“Rustic Calvary”) caress the ears and tug at the heart. Opening credits pop on the screen. Everything is in black and white, except for the words RAGING BULL in blood red.

A shimmering slow-mo figure is shadowboxing in a smoky ring. His features are hidden by a hooded boxing robe, a robe with a leopard-skin print.

According to Scorsese, “One of the few formal questions I can ever recall De Niro asking me—about anything really—he asked me, ‘Jake LaMotta’s character, if he was an animal, what would he be, in your mind?’ I said, ‘I guess a leopard.’ He said, ‘That’s funny. I see him more as a crab.’”

It’s New York 1964.

A fat former champion named Jake LaMotta (De Niro) is in his dressing room before his nightclub act. De Niro gained more than sixty pounds to portray this version of LaMotta, and it looks like it was worth every calorie.

Jake LaMotta is backstage at the Barbizon Plaza. He is bursting out of his tuxedo and rehearsing in front of a mirror. This isn’t LaMotta the middleweight champion of the world. It’s Jake the tubby troubadour making a buck in New York City.

“I remember those cheers
They still ring in my ears
And for years they’ll remain in my thoughts
Cuz one night I took off my robe
And what’d I do
I forgot to wear shorts.
I recall every fall, every hook, every jab
The worst way a guy could get rid of his flab
As you know, my life was a jab
Though I’d rather hear you cheer
When I delve into Shakespeare
‘A Horse, a Horse, my Kingdom for a Horse ...’
I haven’t had a winner in six months.
I know I’m no Olivier
But if he fought Sugar Ray
He would say
That the thing ain’t the ring
It’s the play.
So gimme a stage
Where this bull here can rage
And though I can fight
I’d much rather recite
That’s entertainment!
That’s entertainment.”

Scorsese moves us back in time and we’re in the middle of the ring. The year is 1941. The place is Cleveland. A trim and fit up-and-coming middleweight named Jake LaMotta is putting the finishing touches on Jimmy Reeves—and Scorsese kicks his film into high gear. Flying fists, showers of sweat, and the thud of punches assault the senses. The camera swoops and skitters around the ring … where Jake takes the fight to Reeves.

Don Dunphy, with his distinctive post-war sound and delivery, calls the action: “LaMotta fighting out of a half-crouch. Reeves is up against a tough fighter, a man who doesn’t know how to back up. LaMotta continues to bore in. LaMotta bobs and weaves and lands a left to the jaw and Reeves is down.” Reeves barely beats the count. “LaMotta lands a right, a left, another left, a hard hand to the jaw and Reeves is down again a second time. And LaMotta is making a great comeback here in the tenth round.”

Reeves staggers to his feet.

“Reeves is up again. LaMotta coming at him. A left to the jaw. Another left and a right to the body. Three more lefts to the mid-section. A hard right to the jaw. Two more lefts to the head. A right and a left to the jaw by LaMotta and Reeves goes down for the third time. And the referee is pulling LaMotta away. The ref picks up the count. The referee is counting over Reeves ... And there is the bell. Reeves has been saved by the bell. But did LaMotta do it soon enough?”

Reeves’ cornermen drag their semiconscious fighter to the corner. The judges tabulate their scorecards and the decision goes to Reeves. He tries to rise and collapses on his stool. He can barely raise his hand in victory.

When the decision is announced the fans express their displeasure by throwing whatever they can get their hands on into the ring. A full-scale riot breaks out. A woman gets trampled underfoot and screams. The organist plays the national anthem to try to quell the crowd. It has no effect.

Jake LaMotta can’t get a break. He blames it on fate, but another possibility is he’s thickheaded and won’t sign with the mob. Jake’s younger brother Joey, played to perfection by Joe Pesci (“The effect Raging Bull had on my career—I mean, what’s to talk about?”) is friendly with the boys, but can’t convince Jake that Salvy Batts (Frank Vincent) and his crew are okay guys. Jake has his own thoughts about Salvy: “Big shot. Get him alone in the backroom and smack him around, no more big shot. Without his gun. Yeah,” says Jake with contempt, “real tough guys.”

In the next scene we visit Jake and his first wife in their cramped apartment in the Bronx. Jake is wearing a sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts in the sweltering summer heat. His face is nicked, bruised and swollen from the Reeves fight. And Jake and the wife are fighting about her lousy cooking as she burns a steak in a cast-iron frying pan.

“Don’t overcook it. You overcook it, it’s no good,” says Jake. “It defeats its own purpose.” His wife is stewing in her own juices, as she fries away on that steak. “What are ya doin’? I just said don’t overcook it. You’re overcooking it.”

“You want your steak?” she asks as she pokes the burned meat with a fork.

“Bring it over! Bring it OVER! It’s like a piece of charcoal! Bring it over here!”

“You want your steak?” she asks again.

“Yeah! Right now!”

She stomps toward her husband and dumps the blackened beef onto his plate. “Happy?” she asks. “Happy?”

Jake up-ends the table and food flies in every direction. All hell breaks loose. Jake’s wife screams. Jake screams back, “You call those carrots? You call that food?”

His wife shrieks something incomprehensible.

Jake yells: “I got no choice! I got no choice!”

Joey shakes his head at the mayhem. Joey and Jake are sitting at the kitchen table. Jake looks at Joey and complains that he will never be “the best there is” because he has “girl’s hands.” “Your hands?” asks Joey. “What about ‘em?” “I got these small hands,” Jake says.” I got a little girl’s hands.” “I got ‘em too. What’s the difference?” “You know what that means? No matter how big I get, no matter who I fight, no matter what I do, I ain’t never gonna fight Joe Louis.” “Yeah, that’s right. He’s a heavyweight. You’re a middleweight. What of it?” “I ain’t ever gonna get a chance to fight the best there is. And you know somethin’? I’m better than him. I ain’t never gonna get a chance.”

Jake asks Joey to punch him in the face. Joey resists. Jake taunts him. “Come on, don’t be a little faggot. Come on. Hit me.” Joey relents and wraps a dishtowel around his hand and starts punching Jake in the face. “Come on. Harder.” Joey hits Jake harder. “Harder.” Joey hits Jake harder again. “HARDER.” Joey removes the towel covering his knuckles. When Joey hesitates, Jake starts slapping his brother to get him to react. Joey hits Jake several times with his bare fist and the Jake’s cuts start opening up.

“What are you tryin’ to prove?” Joey asks. “What does it prove?”

Jake smiles and pinches Joey’s cheek.

Courtesy of Scorsese and Raging Bull, we join Jake when he first lays eyes on the love of his life, a curvaceous blonde bombshell named Vickie (Moriarty). Jake sees her at the open-air public swimming pool and she’s the sum total of shimmering pubescence: hair like spun cotton, rose petal lips, a figure to die for, and all of 15.

Jake is smitten, and he’s obsessive-compulsive, so he can’t stop thinking about Vickie. He asks Joey where she’s from. “She’s from the neighborhood. She’s a neighborhood girl.” Jake wants to know if she goes out with anybody. “She don’t go out with nobody. She’s 15 years old. Where’s she gonna go? Where you gonna take her? The Copacabana? ... She ain’t the kinda girl you just fuck and forget about.”

Jake wants to know if Joey did her. Joey denies it. Jake asks again. Joey says no. Jake rags his kid brother. Joey denies he got in Vickie’s pants. Jake says, “She knew better. She knew you were an animal.”

Jake and Joey go to a nightclub. Jake sees Vickie and Cupid’s arrows pierce his flesh.

In the next scene we see Jake and Joey in a fancy convertible. Jake is behind the wheel. He drives up to a public swimming pool. Joey jumps out of the passenger side. “Hey, Vickie!” Joey shouts. “Vickie! Vickie! Vickie!”

Vickie, in a bathing suit, walks saucily toward Joey. They exchange greetings. She asks about the car. Joey says it’s his brother’s and asks if she’d like to meet Jake. “He’s gonna be the next champ.” Vickie nods her head.

Jake jumps out of the car, moves toward Vickie, and he is charm personified. Jake likes Vickie. Vickie likes Jake. She also likes his wheels. “Nice car,” she says.

Jake and Vickie go for a spin. He is on top of the world. They stop and play a game of miniature golf. The golf ball gets stuck under the miniature chapel. Vickie asks, “What does that mean?” Jake says, “It means the game is over.”

Jake brings Vickie to his father’s apartment for some hoped-for hanky-panky. In this scene Scorsese the director becomes Marty the tender lover with a series of drawn-out, beautifully composed tableaus and wordless negotiations pregnant with meaningful hesitancies. This may be one of the longest seduction scenes in film history, but it is one of the most graceful, as Jake makes his move on Vickie.

“Wanna see the rest of the place?” he asks her.

She purses her lips and says “All right.”

They walk through the apartment. “I bought it for my father,” Jake tells her. “I bought the building.”

“Oh, yeah? From fightin’?”

“Yeah. What else?”

Jake leads Vickie out of the kitchen toward the bedroom. Passing through the dining room, Jake points to a birdcage and says, “That’s a bird. It was a bird. It’s dead now, I think.”

They finally make it to the bedroom. Jake sits on the bed and tells Vickie to sit next to him. Vickie sits. Jake puts his hand around her waist. Vickie stands and moves away. Jake follows Vickie. Jake kisses Vickie. Vickie kisses back.

(End of Act 1)

ACT 2: I look like a bum

Fast forward two years. It’s February 5, 1943 and we’re in Detroit, in the ring for the rematch between LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson. Jake is clobbering Sugar Ray. Don Dunphy picks up the action.

Now LaMotta’s hurt Robinson. A right to the jaw. A left to the body of Robinson. It’s anybody’s fight at this point. LaMotta hits Robinson again. A left to the jaw. A right to the body. Robinson comes back with a right on the nose. LaMotta lands a left and a right to the head, a hard left hand to the body, and Robinson is driven out of the ring for the first knockdown of his career.”

LaMotta beats Robinson, handing the great one his first loss.

In the next scene we’re in the bedroom with Jake and Vickie. He’s wearing white boxers. She’s in a sheer white negligee. “Come here,” Jake says. Vickie plays coy. “You sure we should be doin’ this?” “Come here,” repeats Jake. “You said never to touch you before a fight. You’ve been good for two weeks.” “Take off my pants,” Jake says. Vickie hesitates. “You know how to take off my pants?” “You made me promise not to get you excited.” “Take off your panties.” Vickie does as she is told. Vickie moves to the bed. She kisses the hair on Jake’s chest. She works her way below her husband’s belt. Vickie tells Jake she likes “the gym smell.” “What?” Vickie repeats, “The smell of the gym.”

Jake fights Robinson a third time, again in Detroit, at the Olympia Stadium. Don Dunphy is ringside: “LaMotta and Robinson meet for the third time. These men are unique, becoming classic rivals. These two men – fierce, powerful fighters – dangerous – so much so that no other fighter will go near them. And so, they fight each other, three weeks apart. They’ve each won one. And they’ll probably fight again, the way it looks now. They go to close quarters at the bell.”

It’s the last round “with Sugar Ray well ahead on points. LaMotta may need a knockout. The left hook to the jaw—and Robinson is down for the second time in his career. He was down in the last fight, too. LaMotta watches Sugar Ray take the count from the referee. Robinson gets to his feet and the ref wipes off his glove. Despite being knocked down, Robinson is well ahead on points.”

Jake catches Robinson and knocks him down again. The bell sounds to end the fight.

The judges tally their scorecards. Robinson wins by decision.

In the dressing room after the fight, Joey’s trashing the dump, while Jake shakes his head in disbelief. “I knocked him down,” Jake says. “I don’t know what else I gotta do?”

In a series of short masterful strokes Scorsese parachutes us through time and space. He gives us a simulation of faded and scratched color Super-8 home movies, based on the Jake’s actual home movies, where we see the LaMottas at love and play, growing, marrying, being fruitful and multiplying, between black and white stills of Jake in action: LaMotta vs. Kochan (New York/September 17, 1945), La Motta vs. Edgar (Detroit/June 12, 1946), La Motta vs. Satterfield (Chicago/September 12, 1946), and La Motta vs. Bell (New York/March 14, 1947).

We visit Jake and Vickie’s new home on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and we’re back to black and white. The camera moves through the house and one hears, in the voice of a foreigner, these words coming from the TV: “Yeah, child. I am coming back and bash you on your head one more time.”

Jake and Joey, surrounded by their wives and kids, are arguing. Jake says, “Don’t ever do that Janiro bullshit again. No more deals like that, you hear what I’m sayin’?” “What are ya talking’ about?” “What am I talkin’ about?” Jake grabs a roll of flab from around his brother’s waist. “What am I talkin’ about? Look at that—168 pounds!” “Stop eatin,” Joey says. “I told ya I didn’t wanna do it in the first place, didn’t I?” “You’re the one who told me you could get down to 155 pounds,” says Joey. “I don’t know if I’m gonna make it down to 155. I’m lucky I made it to 160 ... You’re supposed to be my manager! You’re supposed to know what you’re doin’!”

Joey asks, “Do you wanna a title shot?”

Jake says, “What am I a circus over here?”

Joey explains: “You’ve been killing yourself for three years now, right? There’s nobody left for you to fight. Everybody’s afraid to fight you. Okay. Along comes the kid Janiro. He don’t know any better. He’s a young kid, up and comin’, he’ll fight anybody. Good, you fight him. Bust his hole. Tear him apart. What are you worried about?”

Jake says “I’m worried about my weight.”

Joey is philosophical. “Now let’s say you win, you beat Janiro. Which you definitely should beat him, right? If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win. There’s no way you can lose, and you do it on your own.”

“Joey’s right,” chimes in Vickie offhandedly. “This Janiro is an up-and-coming fighter, he’s good-lookin’, he’s popular. You beat him now—”

“Excuse me,” Jake interrupts. “What do you mean good-lookin’?”

“I’m not saying good-lookin’. I’m saying popular.”

“Excuse me, excuse me, what do ya mean, ‘good-lookin’? ... What are you an authority or what? Get out of here. Get outta here. Take the baby and get outta here.”

With Vickie gone things should cool down, but that’s not possible around Jake.

“Where she’d find out he’s good-lookin’ first of all?” Jake asks Joey. “When I’m away, you ever notice anything funny goin’ on with her? I want you to keep an eye on her when I’m away, all right? You and I both know any woman, given the right time, the right place, the right circumstances, they’ll do anything, right?”

Joey tries to explain to Jake that he misunderstood what Vickie meant. “She was talkin’ on your behalf.” “On my behalf? She was talkin’ about a pretty kid, sayin’ he’s good-lookin’.” “So you make him ugly,” Joey says. “What’s the difference?”

We’re at the Copa with glamorous Jake and Vickie LaMotta. Jake is introduced to the crowd of politicians, celebrities, mob guys and their molls as the future middleweight champion of the world. He stands and gives a friendly wave. They applaud the boxing sensation. Jake looks around the room and sees Salvy and the boys. Jake makes a face. Salvy walks to Jake and Vickie’s table and says, “I’m over there with Tommy Como” (the film’s proxy for Frankie Carbo). “Why don’t you come over and have a drink.” Jake smiles and waves at Tommy. Salvy returns to Tommy’s table.

Vickie tells Jake she needs to go to the bathroom. Jake wants to know why. She looks at him like he’s nuts. He looks at her like she’s his property.

Returning from the ladies room, Vickie stops by Tommy’s table to say hi to Salvy and the gang. Tommy asks her to sit down and have a drink. “I can’t,” Vickie says. “I have to get back to Jake. I just came by to say hello.” She returns to Jake’s table. Tommy says, “Not a bad kid that Vickie.” Salvy says, “She’s with that fuckin’ gorilla.”

Vickie persuades Jake to go and say hello to Tommy. Jake rises and makes his way to Tommy’s table. He sits, smiles, and looks ill at ease. Tommy, with his eye on the betting action, asks Jake what’s going to happen when he fights Janiro.

“I’m gonna open his hole like this,” Jake says with a silly grin on his face. “Please excuse my French. I’m gonna make him suffer. I’m gonna make his mother wish she never had him, make him into dog meat ... He’s a nice, a nice kid. He’s a pretty kid, too. I mean, I don’t know, I gotta problem if I should fuck him or fight him.”

Everyone has a good laugh.

When Jake meets Janiro at the Garden on June 6, 1947, he’s a man on a mission. After all, Janiro is the kid Vickie described as “good lookin’,” so he’s a surrogate for all the bums who are screwing her in Jake’s addled mind.

LaMotta rearranges Janiro’s features. With blood, sweat, and phlegm flying in a million directions, Janiro morphs into something even his mother wouldn’t recognize. Jake unleashes his hellish demons on Janiro, who finally, gratefully, in slow-motion no less, goes down ... but not before it’s too late.

As Tommy tells a friend at the end of the fight: “He ain’t pretty no more.”

We’re back at the Copa. Joey sees Vickie with Salvy and thinks something funny is going on. Joey grabs Vickie, “You’re makin’ an asshole out of my brother,” he says. When Salvy insists it’s an innocent get-together, Joey says, “Mind your fuckin’ business and shut up.” “There’s nothin’ goin’ on over here.” Joey is not convinced and smashes a glass in Salvy’s face. Outside the club, Joey hits Salvy on the head with a metal stanchion.

Tommy heard what happened at the Copa and doesn’t like it. He calls for a meeting between Joey and Salvy at the Debonair Social Club. At Tommy’s insistence, the former friends agree to a ceasefire. Salvy— with his arm in a sling and a bandage above his eye—looks considerably worse for wear. He sheepishly exits, leaving Tommy and Joey alone.

Tommy says to Joey, “Listen to me. Now, Jake—the guy’s become an embarrassment. He’s embarrassin’ me with certain people. And I’m lookin’ very bad. I can’t deliver a kid from my own goddamned neighborhood. What is it with him? Why does he have to make it so hard on himself, for Christ’s sake? He comes to me—I’ll make it easier for him. The man’s got a head of rock.”

Joey understands. “You know, it’s hard to explain, Tommy. Jake respects you. I mean, he don’t even say hello to anybody. You know, you he talks to, he likes you. It’s just that, uh, when he gets somethin’ on his mind, you know, he’s got a hard head, he likes to do things his own way. I mean, Jesus Christ he’d come off the cross sometimes. He’s gonna do what he wants to do. He wants to make it on his own, you know. Thinks he can make it on his own.”

“Make it on his own,” Tommy repeats in disbelief. “He thinks he’s gonna walk in there and become champion on his own? … You tell him, I don’t care how colorful he is or great he is. He could beat all the Sugar Ray Robinsons and the Tony Janiros in the world, but he ain’t gonna get a shot at that title—not without us he ain’t.”

Tommy and the boys made some good money off Jake when he fought Janiro, so it’s time to make some good money off Jake again. Dangling the lure of a title shot in front of the contender, Jake agrees, with Joey’s encouragement, to take a dive in his fight with Billy Fox. (“The good news is—you’re gonna get the shot at the title. And the bad news is—they want ya to do the old flip-flop for ‘em.”) Jake meets Fox in Madison Square Garden on November 14, 1947 and his performance is abysmal. The ref calls a halt to the sham at 2:23 of the fourth round and awards a technical decision to Fox.

In his locker room after the fight, Jake is despondent. “What’d I do? What’d I do?” He is beyond consolation. “Why’d I do it? Why’d I do it?”

Back home the next morning, Jake is back to his old self and slams a newspaper on the kitchen table. The headline of the New York Daily News from November 22, 1947 reads BOARD SUSPENDS LAMOTTA.

“They got some balls,” Jake says to Joey. “Some balls. I take the dive. What more do they want? They want me to go down too? I ain’t goin’ down for nobody!”

Joey tells Jake that Tommy won’t forget him.

“I look like a bum,” says Jake, “like a mammalucco. Like a mammalucco of the year.”

(End of Act 2)

ACT 3: I’m the boss

Two years have passed and LaMotta gets his shot at the middleweight crown held by the French-Algerian champion Marcel Cerdan. The fight is scheduled for June 16, 1949 in Briggs Stadium, an open-air arena in Detroit, but the bout has been delayed 24 hours due to rain. Jake is on edge in his suite of rooms at the Book-Cadillac Hotel. Vickie is there. Joey is there. The cornermen are there. Jake is snappy with everyone. He is trying to kill time, and time is trying to kill him in return.

Tommy drops by to wish Jake good luck.

All Jake can think about is the fight.

As Tommy is leaving, he gives Vickie a goodbye kiss. Tommy holds her face in his hands and says, “Would you look at that face? What a face. Can you believe that girl? Look at that beauty. Just as beautiful as ever.” Vickie smiles at the compliment. Jake sees what’s going on and seethes.

When Jake meets Cerdan he forces the champ to quit on his stool after ten. Jake LaMotta is finally middleweight champion of the world.

In the next scene we see the new champ and his brother in Jake’s house messing around with the TV and squabbling about Jake’s weight.

Vickie comes home after running some errands and casually kisses her brother-in-law hello. She goes upstairs, leaving Jake and Joey alone. Jake asks Joey, “Did you fuck Vickie?” Joey can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You really let this girl ruin your life,” he says with disgust. “Look at you. You’re killing yourself the way you eat, you fat fuck. She really did a job on you. You know how fuckin’ nuts you are?” Jake asks again, “You fuck my wife?” “How could you ask me a question like that? How could you ask me? I’m your brother. You ask me that? Where do you get the balls big enough to ask me that?” Jake says, “Just tell me.” “I’m not gonna answer that. It’s stupid. You’re a sick bastard. You know what you should do? Try a little more fuckin’ and a little less eatin’. You won’t have troubles upstairs in your bedroom and you won’t take it out on everybody else. Ya understand, ya fuckin’ wacko? You’re crackin’ up. Fuckin’ screwball ya.”

Joey storms out of the house.

Jake goes upstairs to confront Vickie. She’s puffing up the comforter on the bed. “Where were ya?” he asks. Vickie says she went to the movies. “What did ya see?” “Father of the Bride.” Jake asks Vickie, “What about the Copa?” and slaps her. Jake grabs Vickie by her ponytail and slaps her again. “Did you fuck my brother?” “Get off me, you fat pig!” “Did you? Did you?” Vickie runs to the bathroom and locks the door. Jake breaks down the door. “Why’d ya do it? Why’d ya do it? Why’d ya do it?” Jake slaps Vickie again.

The middleweight champ goes to his brother’s house. Joey is sitting with his wife and kids in the kitchen when Jake bursts in. “You fucked my wife, huh? You fucked my wife?” Joey’s wife screams as he tries to run away. Jake gets hold of him, grabs him by the throat, and starts punching him in the face. Vickie arrives and tries to help Joey. Jake takes her out with a single punch.

Back home, Vickie is packing her bags; she has had enough. Jake arrives and does his sorry act and Vickie falls for it again. She wants to leave Jake. She knows it’s the right thing to do, but their bond is strong. So they stay together, despite her black eye, swollen jaw, cut lip and wounded pride, despite her better judgment.

Jake tells her, perhaps a little too convincingly, “I’m a bum without you and the kids.”

We leave the Bronx and revisit Detroit. It’s September 13, 1950. Jake LaMotta is defending his middleweight title against Laurent Dauthuille. Don Dunphy is ringside: “Less than a minute to go and LaMotta is losing the title that he won from the gallant Marcel Cerdan. After the tragic plane crash that took Cerdan’s life, Laurent Dauthuille vowed to bring the title back to France. And tonight, he only has to last this 15th round to be crowned the new middleweight champion. LaMotta is taking terrible punishment on the ropes as Dauthuille bangs him with lefts and rights to the head. Another left, another right to the jaw — And LaMotta turns around. He’s been playing possum! He’s got Dauthuille hurt! He rips a right hand to the body, two left hooks to the jaw, another left and a right to the head! Dauthuille is reeling around the ring! The tide has turned. No question about it!”

LaMotta lands hard and Dauthuille is out on his feet. He goes down and his head bounces off the ropes, coming to rest on the final strand. The ref picks up the count. “Six ... seven. He’ll never make it. Nine ... ten! You’re out. It is all over. He is knocked out. And Jake LaMotta, with thirteen seconds left to go in the final round, has made one of the most remarkable comebacks in all boxing history. — Jake LaMotta!”

LaMotta’s victory over Dauthuille was one of the greatest comebacks in boxing history, but there will be no comeback at home. Jake and his brother Joey no longer speak. Vickie gives her husband wide berth. It seems the only place where Jake can really and truly be himself is inside a boxing ring.

It’s February 14, 1951. The place is Chicago. Jake is fighting Sugar Ray Robinson for the sixth and last time—and he’s getting the shit beat out of him. LaMotta is on the ropes, using the ropes to keep him upright. He taunts Robinson—“Come on, Ray. Come on”—and Sugar Ray obliges.

The call from ringside: “Robinson hurting LaMotta. He’s hurting him now. He has LaMotta on Queer Street, holding on. Certainly, that was one of the most damaging evidences of punching that you have seen in recent years.”

“Come on!” LaMotta says to Robinson, waving him on with his hands at his sides. “Come on!”

Joey is watching the fight on TV, sees just what’s going on, and is sick to his stomach.

“Come on! Come on! What are you standing there for? Come on!”

Robinson pummels LaMotta with lefts and rights.

Vickie sits ringside and it is more than she can bear. She buries her face in her hands.

“Come on, Ray! Come on!”

Robinson, dramatically lit from behind, lets it all hang out and it’s like the wrath of God let loose on a masochist.

“These are clean, whistling shots. How he can survive them, nobody knows. No man can endure this pummeling!”

Robinson unloads on LaMotta with every weapon in his arsenal ... and Jake takes it like a man.

It’s the thirteen round, the so-called “hard-luck round,” and the ref has seen enough. Jake loses the fight and his middleweight title. But he proved a point. He stumbles toward Robinson and his cornermen. “Hey, Ray. I never went down, man! You never got me down, Ray! You hear me? You never got me down.”

Robinson laughs and brushes off LaMotta likes he’s out of his friggin’ mind. Jake collapses in the arms of his cornermen.

A dozen bouts later and Jake has had enough of the fight game. He has given up boxing for the good life with Vickie in Miami.

“It’s over for me,” Jake tells some reporters joining him by the pool in the back of his home. “Boxing’s over for me. I’m through. I’m tired of worryin’ about weight all the time. That’s all I used to think about was weight, weight, weight. After a while, you know, you realize other things in life. I mean, I’m very grateful. Boxing’s been good to me. I’ve got a nice house. I’ve got three great kids. I’ve got a wonderful, beautiful wife. What more could I ask for?”

Jake fulfills a lifelong dream and opens his very own nightclub on Collins Avenue. It’s called Jake LaMotta’s and “It’s a bar, a package store, everything.” It’s also where Jake plays out his ambitions as an overweight master of ceremonies before a thankless crowd of celebrity gawkers. Men with pompadours and women with cleavage are less than amused when Jake tells them, “I haven’t seen so many losers since my last fight at Madison Square Garden.”

After a series of jokes as flat as day-old champagne, Jake wobbles off the stage to meet and greet some of his distinguished clientele. He says to State’s Attorney Bronson, half-jokingly, “You shouldn’t be here this week. It’s next week we got the shakedown payment, right?” That’s Jake for you, the big kibitzer. Then the champ plants a big, wet, sloppy drunken kiss on the bureaucrat’s wife’s cheek—and knocks a cocktail onto her lap.

Jake calls for a busboy to clean up the mess.

There’s some trouble with a couple of guests that needs Jake’s attention. Two female patrons claim they’re 21 but have no identification. No problem. Jake relies on an age-old tradition for determining a woman’s true age.

Jake and the broad lock lips.

“Any girl that can kiss like that,” he says with a laugh, “can drink at my joint any time.”

The party atmosphere at the club goes on into the wee small hours of the morning. When Jake finally calls it a night, he leaves the club and the hot Florida sun burns a hole in his bloodshot eyes. Vickie sits in her Cadillac, with the engine running and her window half-cracked open. Vickie says “I’m leaving you Jake.”

“What else is new?”

“No, this time I mean it. I didn’t wanna tell you until I had everything worked out ... I got a lawyer. We’re gettin’ a divorce. I’m gettin’ custody of the kids. I already made up my mind. I’m leavin’. That’s it. The kids are gonna be with me. And if you show your face around, I’m gonna call the cops on you, all right?”

Vickie speeds away in a cloud of dust. Jake hitches up his pants and reenters the club.

The next thing we know Jake is being awakened by two detectives from the DA’s office. “C’mon champ,” one of them says. “Wake up. C’mon champ.”

Jake asks what they want and they show him a photo of an innocent-looking schoolgirl with pigtails. “Do you recognize this girl?” Jake shakes his head. Then they show him another photo of the same girl, but this time she’s all dolled up with makeup, jewelry, and a bouffant hairdo.

It’s the 21-year-old from the club.

Jake asks, “Is this the same girl?”

“She says you introduced her to some men.”

“I introduced her to men,” Jake repeats. “I introduce a lotta people to a lotta people.”

“She’s 14,” the detective says.

“She’s how old?”

“She’s 14.”

“Let me ask you something’. You gonna tell me that girl looks 14?”

“We gotta go downtown.”

Jake LaMotta is in big trouble. Introducing a 14-year-old girl to “some men,” even in a place as loose as Miami, is serious business. Call it pimping, call it pandering, call it what you will, Jake is facing hard time. He can’t rustle up the ten grand his lawyer says he needs to have the case against him dropped, so they lock the former champ in the Dade County Stockade for a year.

He pounds his fists and forehead against the wall of his cell. “I’m not an animal,” Jake cries. “I’m not an animal.”

No one is listening.

When Jake emerges from the joint, he’s a changed man; if only slightly.

In the final scene of Raging Bull we’re right back where we started. Fat and used up Jake LaMotta is sucking on a cigar in his dressing room. The old trouper looks at himself in the mirror, likes what he sees, and recites Budd Schulberg’s immortal words from On the Waterfront (1954), where Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando/Jake LaMotta) confronts his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger/Joey LaMotta) in the backseat of a dark sedan.

“It wasn’t him, Charley! It was you. You remember that night in the Garden, you came down to my dressing room and said: ‘Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.’ You remember that? ‘This ain’t your night!’ My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors in the ball park—and whadda I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me—just a little bit—so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.”

Charley tells Terry “I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.”

Terry is shot through with regret. “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it ... It was you, Charley.”

LaMotta throws a left at the figure in the mirror. He throws a right. Then he throws another left and right in quick succession. “I’m the boss,” he says. “I’m the boss. I’m the boss. I’m the boss.”

The Bronx Bull lives. Knock ‘em dead champ.

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  1. nicolas 10:29am, 02/13/2015

    JIM: Perhaps this will be De Niro’s great comeback film. Though with the nomination he got for Silver Lining Playbook, which is perhaps the best performance of his in a while. Yet he certainly in recent years does not have the films on his resume as he once did. I don’t think that anyone in the 80’s would have thought that Clint Eastwood would have had a far greater career resume in film than Deniro.

  2. Jim Crue 05:17am, 02/13/2015

    DeNiro is playing the part of Ray Arcel in a bio of Duran. A Scorsese film.
    You guys are harder on him than I am but I’m easily entertained.

  3. nicolas 02:53am, 02/13/2015

    The irony of calling this film a tragedy in three acts is interesting. This film came out in 1980, yet Jake LaMotta of all people is still with us today, having gone past 90 years of age. I don’t think anyone would have thought that would be possible, but it is true. It is almost as if this film gave him a new life, and perhaps gave him some sense of worth to his life after boxing. So tragedy, i don’t know about that, sound more like Sugar Ray Robinson is far more tragic now.

  4. nicolas 02:50am, 02/13/2015

    BOB: I never had a desire to see THE DEPARTED. I saw the Chinese film that it was based on called INFERNAL AFFAIRS, and found it very strange that Scorsese would be one of those directors who would remake a foreign film that not many people in America would see. Found it very wrong of him to do that, and don’t like that Hollywood practice of making remakes of foreign movies just a few years after the original. Scorsese should have been ashamed of himself. Now have to admit though when I saw the American remake of GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I found it somewhat compliments the other Swedish film in some way, like your watching a different angle of the story.

  5. nicolas 02:45am, 02/13/2015

    I have to agree with Clarence about Deniro. I think he really has somewhat given up on making quality films. Except for great cameo he has in WOLF OF WALL STREET, he has not starred in a Scorsese movie in some twenty years, the last being CASINO. I would also suggest that overall he dos not prepare for a movie like he used to, as he supposably did with Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, etc, he just goes and acts and gets a paycheck. I think what may have been bothering him at one time, probably starting in the late entries, that I while he was noted as a great actor, his films were not what you would call making him a great star. He tried to change that, I think first with that film he did with Charles Grodin playing a bounty Hunter, can remember the name.

  6. Bob 06:10am, 02/08/2015

    Right on, Clarence. I finally heard there is someone else who thinks “The Departed” was terrible. While there several good scenes, the last 45 minutes made it seem like a parody like an old ABC Movie of the Week. And the Nicholson characterization was just the a rehash of a zillion other of his performances.

  7. Clarence George 02:23pm, 02/06/2015

    It’s one thing, Jim, for an actor to make an occasional so-so or even bad film, and another for him to knowingly and cynically capitalize on his name solely for the sake of money, appearing in one unambiguously shitty movie after the other.  Particularly egregious in De Niro’s case, as he once said that he would focus on quality rather than quantity.  At least Neeson has been honest about it, openly proclaiming that he’ll appear in just about anything as long as the money’s right.  Scorsese is usually, but not always, brilliant.  I’m in the minority on this, but I find “The Departed” unwatchable.  That said, “The King of Comedy” was great, though a box-office failure.

    Appreciate the tip on the Zale book.  Tony’s my favorite middleweight (I envy you taking boxing lessons from him), but I rarely read biographies written or co-written by family members (and almost never read autobiographies).  I’m surprised that Robinson gets short shrift, but not that Graziano does, given that he’s indefensibly underrated today.

  8. Eric 11:23am, 02/06/2015

    I enjoyed De Niro in the movie, “Jacknife.” Not a well known movie like, “Taxi Driver,” or “Raging Bull,” but one of my favorite De Niro movies.

  9. Jim Crue 10:50am, 02/06/2015

    De Niro did a great job in Goodfellas. He’s an actor. Every roll can’t be a classic. I don’t agree that he’s a “sell out” whatever that means. He and Martin Scorsese have done a great service to the cinema over the years. Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Cagney, Bogart and on and on also made movies that were not classic. I just can’t be as hard on people as some of you guys. I wish we’d stick to boxing.
    Read the new book about Tony Zale The Man of Steel. It’s a bit of hagiography by his nephew but well worth the read. If you have not read it Clarance I think you would like it but he sells Graziano and Robinson short. I took boxing lessons in Chicago from Tony. He was kind and decent man.

  10. Eric 10:27am, 02/06/2015

    “Now go home and get your f*ckin’ shine box.” Pesci vs. Vincent the greatest trilogy since Ali vs Frazier.

  11. Eric 08:11am, 02/06/2015

    ch….You are right. Forgot about, “Casino.” That was a brutal beatdown. Frankie got some payback and then some with that one.

  12. ch. 08:06am, 02/06/2015

    I thought that Joe Pesci had a contract that said that if Frank Vincent is in a movie with you, you get to bludgeon and maim him at will (Raging Bull, Goodfellas). Ah, but Frank got his revenge on Pesci in “Casino” by beating him almost to death and then burying him alive. Nice comeback Frank !

  13. Eric 08:03am, 02/06/2015

    Everytime you turn around Joe Pesci is smacking around Billy Batts. Pesci had to be the toughest 5-footer since James Cagney. Cagney is listed at 5’7”, if Cagney was 5’7” then Robert De Niro is 6-foot, which is approximately how tall they made De Niro out to be in “Cape Fear.” Cathy Moriarty? What ever happened to her? Great looking and a decent REEL version of Jake’s wife, but not as good looking as the REAL Vickie LaMotta. I read that Ray Mancini had a fling with Vickie at one time. Wonder if Jake knew?

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:55am, 02/06/2015

    Can’t recall if Scorsese found a spot for his Mom in this film….if he didn’t he should have…..kind of nice when you’ve got a real deal Italian Mom to put the stamp of authenticity of your films about the “neighborhood”.

  15. ch. 06:03am, 02/06/2015

    Great recap, Robert. I felt like I was watching the movie all over again. You captured the story almost verbatim.

  16. Clarence George 05:30am, 02/06/2015

    Outstanding, Robert.  One thing, though:  Joe Pesci uses more than a stanchion on Frank Vincent; he repeatedly slams a taxi door on him.  Worth noting, if only because it’s one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite films.  As for Cathy Moriarty…we’d all be in serious trouble if 15-year-old girls actually looked like that.  Funny thing is, she was only 20 at the time, but looks considerably older, never mind 15.

    De Niro is a total sell-out, making one godawful movie after another for at least the past two decades.  Liam Neeson is another one, appearing in the same stupid film over and over again.  His own personal and hellish (however lucrative) Groundhog Day.

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