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The film begins in 1964, as we see an overweight, aging LaMotta, now a comedian, practicing his routine. The scene changes. It is now 1941, as LaMotta boxes and throws his fights at the behest of The Mafia. His brother and manager, Joey LaMotta, does his best to support Jake and get him a chance at success. Jake seduces Vicky, a 15-year-old girl he met at a Bronx public pool. While he catches a break and wins a string of victories, he becomes increasingly paranoid that Vicky is cheating on him, and becomes more and more abusive. Eventually, he accuses his brother of sleeping with his wife and attacks them. The rest of the film details the aftermath in the following years after LaMotta has retired, as he spirals downward ever further.
The boxing fights themselves are notable for their cinematography. Run entirely on the Rule of Drama, they look nothing like actual bouts. One Fight Unscene consists of two still frames: Jake LaMotta with his fist drawn back, and another, him standing triumphant over his downed opponent. Additionally, sponges filled with fake blood were inserted into the boxing gloves, spraying the fighters and the ropes with amounts of fluid previously unseen in a sports movie.
While critical reception was mixed at the time of its release, and it was passed up for Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars in favor of Ordinary People, Raging Bull has since become a critical favorite, and is viewed as one of the best movies of all time.
This work contains the following tropes:
- Big Brother Bully: Jake to Joey.
- Book Ends: It starts and ends with Jake preparing for a routine after his retirement.
- Byronic Hero: Jake
- Cast the Expert: Inverted. The home movie footage was directed by a random crew member because attempts made to shoot it by Scorsese or cinematographer Michael Chapman ended up looking too professsional.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Again, Jake. His jealousy fits often (if not always) came out of nowhere and from the slightest persuasions. In the words of his brother, he's "crackin' up."
- Composite Character: Joey LaMotta is a combination of the real Joey LaMotta and Jake's friend, Pete Petrella.
- Dawson Casting: Cathy Moriarty playing a fifteen year old version of her character at the begining (she was 20).
- Somewhat justified, as she portrays the character from her teens until her late 20's.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The movie is in black and white, except for a sequence of home movies shot in color.
- The Determinator: "I didn't go down Ray!"
- Domestic Abuser: Jake. Once he knocked his wife out with one hit, in his brother's residence.
- Earn Your Happy Ending
- Fallen-On-Hard-Times Job: The movie's Framing Device.
- Good News, Bad News: What Tommy Como told Joey about the mafia's support for Jake. He'll get the title shot, but he needs to take a dive first.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Jake LaMotta
- Hit Me Dammit: In an earlier scene between Jake and Joey.
- Homage: The I Coulda Been a Contender monologue from On the Waterfront.
- How We Got Here: See Book Ends.
- Jerkass: Jake LaMotta.
- Lonely At the Top
- Made of Iron: Jake beats his fists and head against concrete and doesn't come out worse for wear.
- Possibly justified, as the real life Jake may have had the hardest head in boxing history. The fact that Lightning Bruiser Sugar Ray Robinson couldn't knock him down in real life despite administering a vicious No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, (in a fight that was later dubbed "The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre", no less) says a lot.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: The boxing matches, particularly his final match with Sugar Ray Robinson.
- Playing the Heart Strings: The soundtrack.
- Redemption Quest
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Jake is a hothead, Joey is restrained.
- Shirtless Scene: It's about a boxer.
- Splash of Color: LaMotta's home movies.
- And the title of the film itself in the credit sequence.
- Title Drop: "The middleweight champion. The big dog. The raging bull..."