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The Essential Movie Library #35: Raging Bull (1980)

This one's a contender

By the late 1970s, Martin Scorsese was at that familiar fork in the road where a highly promising directing career can either become lasting or vanish into oblivion, with all the signs pointing to the latter. Once an aspiring priest, he had gone the way of rock and roll with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, culminating with the fascinating but failed New York, New York by way of which he coked himself into the hospital. Robert De Niro knew a captive audience when he had one and badgered the bed-bound young auteur into making a biopic about real-life World Middleweight Champion Jake LaMotta that the actor had been trying to get filmed for years. If Raging Bull was De Niro’s labor of love—his performance would be rewarded with one of the most obligatory Academy Awards given on the far side of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln—Scorsese had less at stake emotionally, unless saving his own life counts, which may explain why this is the filmmaker’s most formal accomplishment: as dramatically operatic as the Mascagni on the soundtrack intends and as tabloid in its sensibility as the Weegee-inspired cinematography conveys.

De Niro aside, Scorsese’s real secret weapon (and another Oscar winner for the film) was Thelma Schoonmaker, whom the aspiring filmmaker had met in the cutting room for Woodstock a decade before. Raging Bull was both her first major feature as principal editor and her first collaboration with Scorsese, and it would become the working partnership of a lifetime. For a while after the success of Raging Bull, Scorsese went slumming along the oblivion path anyhow, except he did it on his own terms, seeing some interesting things along the way (The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ) that he—and we— might otherwise have missed.

 

Read them all:
The Essential Movie Library #34: The Rules of the Game
The Essential Movie Library #33: Chinatown 
The Essential Movie Library #32: Stalker
The Essential Movie Library #31: Weekend
The Essential Movie Library #30: Some Like It Hot 
The Essential Movie Library #29: Red River
The Essential Movie Library #28: The Passenger
The Essential Movie Library #27: Singin' in the Rain
The Essential Movie Library #26: Heat
The Essential Movie Library #25: L'Atalante
The Essential Movie Library #24: Sunrise
The Essential Movie Library #23: His Girl Friday
The Essential Movie Library #22: Black Narcissus
The Essential Movie Library #21: Blade Runner
The Essential Movie Library #20: Persona
The Essential Movie Library #19: The Shop Around the Corner
The Essential Movie Library #18: Lost Highway
The Essential Movie Library #17: Tokyo Story
The Essential Movie Library #16: 8 1/2

The Essential Movie Library #15: City Lights
The Essential Movie Library #14: Seven Samurai
The Essential Movie Library #13: Lawrence of Arabia
The Essential Movie Library #12: Citizen Kane
The Essential Movie Library #11: Jules and Jim
The Essential Movie Library #10: My Darling Clementine 
The Essential Movie Library #9: Double Indemnity 
The Essential Movie Library #8: That Obscure Object of Desire 
The Essential Movie Library #7: 2001: A Space Odyssey 
The Essential Movie Library #6: Casablanca
The Essential Movie Library #5: The Lady Eve
The Essential Movie Library #4: The Third Man 
The Essential Movie Library #3: The Passion of Joan of Arc 
The Essential Movie Library #2: Vertigo 
The Essential Movie Library #1: The Godfather Trilogy