Martin Scorsese’s film “Raging Bull” is considered by many to be one of the greatest “sports” films of all time. The plot focuses on the professional and personal life of boxer Jake LaMotta. In the opening sequence, the film uses narrative, mise en scene, cinematography, editing, and sound to provide a framework for the rest of the picture. These elements also help to establish the film’s themes of nostalgia, isolation, loneliness, and suffering. In addition to setting up the film’s themes, these elements also help to create two distinct personas of the main character Jake LaMotta.
The narrative form exhibited in the opening sequence seems simple at first glance, but actually conveys a multitude of information to the audience. The opening sequence is comprised of three scenes, the first and third scenes being longer, while the second, middle scene is much abbreviated. These three scenes, the ring, the theatre sign, and present day LaMotta, help suggest the three act structure of the film’s overall narrative; LaMotta’s early boxing career and life, his post-championship boxing career and life, and his post boxing life. Between the first and second scene, a black placard reads “New York City 1964.
This non-diegetic device is used to tell the “where” and “when” for the following scene. This device is used again in the third scene to supply the audience with the “whom,” being Jake LaMotta. The syuzhet of the opening sequence can be jarring for the audience. The transition from the young, fit, graceful, boxer to the overweight and broken man preparing to perform on stage, not only frames the film, but also draws the audience in. It forces the viewer to wonder, how did this transformation occur and what happened in this man’s life to bring him to this. It also serves as a snap to reality and present time.
The sudden jolt helps the audience realize the boxing ring scene was just a memory of the Jake LaMotta they now see. The fabula is also framed by the opening sequence. The audience has seen the beginning and end. The rest of the film will fill in the middle of the fabula. The framing of the narrative form drops the audience in on the middle of LaMotta’s life. They do not have the luxury of a backstory. It makes the viewer judge LaMotta on the man they see in the given moment. The form also establishes a clear pattern of cause and effect, the audience can identify the difference between present and memory.
This contributes to the theme of nostalgia throughout the film. The mise en scene captured in the opening sequence plays heavily into introducing the audience to the various themes of “Raging Bull,” and the idea that there are two different personas to the character of Jake LaMotta. The film opens on a tightly framed, static, black and white shot of a boxing ring. The composition is unbalanced, LaMotta dances back and forth across the left side of the ring, never venturing towards the right as he shadowboxes.
This asymmetry focuses the audience on LaMotta, especially when combined with the static camera, as he is the only thing moving in the picture. Even though the shot is tightly framed around the ring, all four sides of the ring are at least partially visible. Even though LaMotta moves gracefully and poetically and seems at home in the ring, this tightness conveys a sense that he is caged. This gives the boxer a very animalistic feel, an effect enhanced by his leopard print robe that flows with his movements. Even the smoke filled air evokes the image of a haze filled jungle.
The foreground of the shot is dominated by the silhouette of the ring’s ropes. Entrapped between the top and middle rope, the film’s title appears in bright red. Again, this red contributes to the animalistic sense that comes from LaMotta. The red also alludes to the film’s theme of suffering through violence and abuse. The background, past the ring is barely visible through all the smoke and shadows. There are figures of men sitting in the rows beyond the ring, but they are just spectators and therefore at a distance to LaMotta, just like the viewer at this point.
Occasionally, the scene will be interrupted by the sudden appearance of flashbulbs penetrating the smoky air. This not only lends a feeling of authenticity for the setting and time period, it also reflects the sudden outbursts of violence prevalent throughout the rest of the film. LaMotta himself is shrouded in his robe and shadows, making his face impossible to see, however his gloved fists are easily seen as he gracefully throws jabs and stalks the left side of the ring. This introduces his fists as a motif that is repeated throughout the film.
For example, LaMotta sees his hands as being too small, later he abuses them against a cell wall, and most obviously are a symbol of his livelihood. His fists are a tool, which he uses to punish others, as well as himself. The scene cuts to a sign, in the middle of the screen, that reads “An Evening with Jake LaMotta” and the audience hears the voice of LaMotta for the first time, which will lead to the next scene. The use of the word “evening” signals the transition that is about to take place. The audience has seen LaMotta early in his career and now are about to witness him in his career’s twilight.
This short scene ends when a man crosses in front of the sign, creating a swiping effect. Now, the third scene begins. The viewer is presented a medium shot of an older, overweight, and sloppy LaMotta. Juxtaposing the composition of the opening scene where LaMotta is seen on the left side of the screen, LaMotta now appears on the right side. The audience should now understand that the opening scene was his memory of the beginning of his career and now that he appears on the right, his career is already long over. His robes that were loose fitting are now contrasted by the tightness of his tuxedo.
LaMotta recites poetry and jokes that show a stark contrast to the poetry and grace of his movements in the ring. The once fit LaMotta now stands smoking a large cigar as he rehearses his act. This shows how some of his life choices lead him to his current position. In concordance with the opening scene, LaMotta is again seen by himself. He is totally alone in his cramped dressing room. These two scenes have now combined to underscore the film’s themes of isolation and loneliness. In the small and dirty dressing room, two lights hang above a mirror.
The first light bulb is brightly lit and appears in the extreme left. The light bulb on the right is broken and burnt out, a visual metaphor for LaMotta himself. After LaMotta extends his hands and declares, “That’s entertainment! ” the scene cuts to a medium close up. This view brings emphasis onto LaMotta’s old and beaten face. His nose is especially prominent and has apparently been broken many times. The low-key lighting enhances this effect. The realism of the film is also strengthened by actor, Robert DeNiro’s method acting style. Instead of wearing a fat suit, DeNiro added sixty pounds of weight.
This is very apparent in this opening sequence and makes the appearance that many years have passed in this man’s life very effective. The effect is so strong; it appears as if LaMotta is two entirely separate characters. The first aspect of cinematography that most people will identify the quickest is the use of black and white. The black and white footage contributes to the overall authenticity of the film towards its time period and setting. Black and white is associated with the old Friday Night Fights and newsreel footage of the 1940’s and 1950’s. The black and white can also be seen as a comment on LaMotta.
Shades of grey dominate the sequence. This can be seen to comment that LaMotta isn’t considered good or bad, instead it is up to the audience to determine how they perceive the character for themselves. The next aspect to really jump out at the viewer is the use of slow motion. The opening sequence was filmed at a rate of 120 fps to achieve this effect. The slow motion helps to convey to the audience that what they are witnessing is a memory. It seems very dreamlike and contributes to the film’s theme of nostalgia. Also, combined with the use of the static camera, the audience is given plenty of time to absorb the scene.
The use of a static camera throughout the opening sequence juxtaposes the use of a handheld camera later in the film’s fight scenes. Camera distance is also used to develop the film’s themes. In the boxing ring sequence, a long shot is used to strengthen the themes of loneliness and isolation. The long shot also showcases the ring, as if the boxer belongs to his environment and distances the viewer making the boxer more isolated. Once inside the dressing room, LaMotta is shown in a medium long shot. At this point his environment has closed in on him more than in the ring.
This helps to continue the feeling of isolation and loneliness. Finally, a medium close up of LaMotta is presented. The viewer can easily see the trauma his face has received over the years. The effect of these three varying camera distances implies that the viewer is going to see LaMotta from all angles. The audience sees LaMotta from a distance, from a middle ground between polar extremes, and from a very close, more intimate distance. These three distances also reflect the film’s three act narrative structure. The lighting between the boxing ring sequence and the dressing room sequence presents a contrast as well.
In the boxing ring sequence, the lighting is softer and details are harder to discern, lending itself to a nostalgic feel of memory. On the other hand, in the dressing room, hard lighting is used. The lighting lets the audience know this is the harsh reality of LaMotta’s life. The editing of the opening sequence also seems quite simple at first, but offers more depth to attentive viewers. In the boxing ring, Scorsese uses a tableau shot. This long shot makes the ring appear as a stage might. This helps to show a similarity between LaMotta’s boxing career and his later career working stages in nightclubs.
It helps to show LaMotta’s craving for attention, while at the same time calling attention to the theme of loneliness. Tempo is also important in the opening sequence. The boxing ring sequence is a long take, followed by an extremely short take of the theatre sign, and finally the dressing room is another long take, but still shorter than that of the ring sequence. This again reflects the three act structure of the narrative. The film will focus more on the early career and life of LaMotta. Then, his post boxing days will receive a smaller but still large amount of attention.
The middle section, the post championship boxing years, will be the shortest amount of time the film will focus on. Sound plays a crucial role in the opening sequence. The first instance of sound used is in the boxing sequence. There is no dialogue, but there is music. The music is Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo. Setting the mood of the film, the music is very sad and emphasizes the theme of suffering throughout the film. The word intermezzo refers to the middle portion of an opera or play. This reflects that the viewer is going to witness the middle portion of LaMotta’s life.
His childhood and years that take place after the film are left out, all that is to be considered is this one portion of the man’s life. When the scene changes to the theatre sign, the audience hears Jake LaMotta for the first time, even before he appears on screen. This helps to transition to the dressing room sequence. Throughout the dressing room sequence, there is no music at all. It is if the music has abandoned LaMotta. This adds to the sense that LaMotta is alone at this point in his life, contributing to the film’s themes of isolation and loneliness.
In conclusion, the opening sequence of “Raging Bull” expertly weaves together the elements of narrative form, mise en scene, cinematography, editing, and sound to not only provide a framework for the film as a whole, but to also enhance the film’s themes. The elements also work together to create a sense that LaMotta has more than one persona, his in the ring boxing persona and his persona out of the ring. These elements, while not always obvious to the viewer, helps to create a depth of story that has led to “Raging Bull” becoming an enduring classic of modern cinema.