Raging Bull (1980) was Martin Scorsese’s swan song. The filmmaker assumed this would be his final motion picture and thus put his heart and soul into the film. Martin Scorsese has stated, “I put everything I knew and felt into that film, and I thought it would be the end of my career.” The filmmaker calls this a “kamikaze” way of making films, in which he would pour everything he knew about cinema into this film and then move on and find another way of life.
The film demonstrates his artistic skill, but it's also a showcase for visual design in cinema. The film focuses on Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a boxing champion whose professional life spills into his personal life. Martin Scorsese uses elements of visual design as a method of commenting on Jake’s rise and fall. The various shapes and sizes of the boxing rings in Raging Bull emphasize either Jake LaMotta’s domination or deterioration. Jake LaMotta is placed in small boxing rings when he is dominating, which accentuates his physical size and strength. In the course of the film, as his personal and professional life declines, he is placed in wider and larger boxing rings, creating the impression that he his physical strength is deteriorating. The size of the boxing rings also influence camera movements. The wider boxing ring allows for maximum camera movement, such as wide shots and circling around the fighters, whereas a smaller boxing ring is used for close-ups of the fighters, allowing for an emphasis in the details of their punches.
Jake LaMotta’s main rival inside the ring is Sugar Ray Robinson, and in analyzing their first and final encounters, we are provided with an understanding of how space is used. Martin Scorsese brings his camera into the ring with this film and stages each fight differently; the first fight consists mainly of objective shots, whereas their final fight consists of subjective shots, showing us Jake’s personal reaction within the boxing ring. The boxing ring in their first meeting (Detroit, 1943) is surprisingly unproportional. The wide ring allows for an objective filming style of the fight between both boxers.
Jake LaMotta’s first meeting with Sugar Ray Robinson is introduced immediately after Jake meets Vickie. In his father’s home, Jake and Vickie begin kissing, as their date transitions into the fight itself. This provides us with an immediate contrast between love and fighting. In both instances – lovemaking and fighting – Jake is physical.
In their first meeting together, we discover that Sugar Ray is undefeated. Jake begins dominating Sugar Ray, and soon knocks him over the ropes, where Sugar Ray lands on his back. The first diagram emphasizes this particular moment in the fight. This is the first time in Sugar Ray’s career that he has been knocked down. Martin Scorsese’s use of space shows us how Jake’s anger and rage spills outside the ring. Sugar Ray is literally knocked outside of the ring as he hangs on the side of the boxing ring.
In this instance, as Sugar Ray is knocked down, Martin Scorsese uses fast motion. In capturing his fall, he then cuts onto Jake, where he incorporates slow motion. The contrast allows Jake to appear superior over his opponent. Jake’s win over Sugar Ray also represents his masculinity, a characteristic that is exemplified in his love scene with Vickie. The juxtaposition of fighting and lovemaking also suggests Jake’s inability to differentiate between the two. Jake’s personal and professional life begin merging during this time in the film. The film uses boxing scenes as an emblem of the violence that encompasses Jake’s life. Jake is incapable of dealing with people around him without resorting to violence. Vickie and Sugar Ray both play essential roles in Jake’s life inside and outside the ring. Vickie ultimately becomes his life partner (personal life, outside the ring) while Sugar Ray becomes his frequent rival (professional life, inside the ring).
The use of a wider boxing ring during their first meeting allows for the camera to participate during their fight. It’s interesting to note, however, that as soon as the fight ends and the judges declare their winner, the boxing ring is back to its normal size. The fighters and coaches are no longer in the unproportional ring as exemplified in our first diagram. The ring shown is a standard size boxing ring.
The final encounter between Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson (Chicago, 1951) comes after Jake’s fight with his family members. Jake’s viciousness infests his personal life as he beats his wife, Vickie, and his brother, Joey. This provides us with a stark contrast between Jake’s first encounter with Sugar Ray, which came during a time of love in his personal life. In his final encounter with Sugar Ray, Jake’s personal life is on a decline, and the fight itself focuses on his deterioration.
This fight begins with an exhausted Jake LaMotta, unlike his first encounter with Sugar Ray, which begins on a shot of their feet, skipping gracefully. Jake sits in his corner, beaten. This image of Jake LaMotta becomes a religious illustration as well. Jake’s chest and back are sponged off with bloody water. This represents Jake’s crucifixion. The visual design of the fight itself also demonstrates his deterioration inside the ring. In their final meeting, we are provided with an intensified fighting atmosphere. In comparison to his other fights, this becomes the most intense battle of them all. The jungle-like atmosphere within the ring is exemplified with the distortion in the soundtrack, which includes a combination of animal cries and shrieks and airplanes motors, all of which are undistinguishable because of their mixing. The noise of the audience is also muffled resembling Jake’s subjective state of consciousness.
The size of the boxing ring is much smaller than their first fight together. This is primarily because of the lack of wide shots. The close-ups of the fighters in this scene bring us closer to the action. The extensive use of slow motion and dense smoke and fog contributes to the feeling of alienation. The audience is never visible during close-ups of the fighters. The photographer’s cameras are also much louder and intensified. The breaking of the flashbulbs resembles hisses that scream at the fighters. This presents us with a distortion of reality, as our focus is shifted onto Jake’s subjective reaction to the world.
Jake’s diminishing stature is also emphasized through the space of the ring and the subjective camerawork. In the final series of brutal punches, which were edited in the style of the famous shower sequence from Psycho (1960), we are provided with a point of view shot of Sugar Ray. The use of slow motion shows us Jake’s weakening state of mind. The track-forward and zooming-out of Sugar Ray makes him appear larger and more monstrous. This also makes the standard sized boxing ring appear as if it’s stretching, emphasizing the space within the ring itself. The use of space in this instance is subjective; Sugar Ray appears even more threatening. The boxing ring, in this sense, becomes overwhelming in its size. This also expresses Jake’s overwhelming feelings of insecurity, jealousy and inferiority that plague him throughout the rest of the film. Martin Scorsese closes the scene with a panning camera that captures both fighters and their coaches, ending with an image of Jake’s blood dripping from the ropes. The bloody ropes become a harsh reminder of Jake’s brutal defeat.
These decisions also portray Jake as weak, both physically and emotionally, and comments on space, not just within the ring itself, but outside the ring as well. In cutting away from the action onto Joey and his wife in their home, who are watching the fight on television, we are provided with a sense of distance. Jake’s supportive brother, who was once beside him during all his fights, encouraging him, is no longer by his side. Martin Scorsese’s use of space comments on Jake LaMotta's deterioration, and also comments on the suggested space and distance that exists between the two brothers.