In the opening scene of Raging Bull, Scorsese establishes the themes that control the rest of the film. Although it looks like a long take that lacks editing, the scene is visibly employing a formalistic quality because of the abstractness. I think that throughout the film, the fight scenes have formalist tendencies while the scenes on the domestic front lean toward realism. In this first scene, Jake is a depicted shadow boxing in a smoky boxing ring, seemingly inspired by his mental and physical preparation.
Physically, he is preparing for the boxing match he will be competing in; mentally Jake is preparing for the battles he will face in his relationships with those around him. Through the use of mise-en-scene we are introduced to the dominant themes. The scene opens with a long shot of Jake, who is illuminated by top lighting. By using top lighting, Scorsese seemingly isolates Jake from the rest of the scene, commenting on Jakes isolation from those around him. Further commenting on this idea is the idea that the people in the background outside the ring are barely visible, developing Jakes sense of autonomy and individualism. As we watch Jake gracefully dance around the ring through the ropes, we get the sense that he is caged in.
Another aspect of the mise-en-scene, Jakes leopard print robe, gives Jake an animalistic quality, signifying that he needs to be caged in the boxing ring. The fact that Jake is on the left side of the screen notes his weak mental position. Lastly, the non-digetic soundtrack is classical music, further commenting on the melancholy preparation for battle. Observing this mise-en-scene, we are already familiar with the leading themes of the film without the need for a single word of dialogue.
Scenes that include dialogue, such as the scene following Jakes first fight when he bullies his first wife around, also express Jakes aggression and interpersonal conflicts. Jake is depicted with his animalistic nature as a societal outcast, incapable of well-mannered relationships with his neighbors and even those who love him. The scene opens with La Motta in an undershirt, with a black-and-blue face from his fight, with three point lighting being applied. Jake is eating like an animal, yelling at his wife: Dont overcook it. You overcook it, its no good. The desire for an undercooked, bloody steak represents Jakes carnivorous inclination.
The camera cuts to a tracking shot zooming in on an obviously irritated Irma; in the mise-en-scene there is a clock directly in front of her head, implying that her time with Jake is coming to an imminent end. Scorsese frames Irma in the kitchen, using the mise-en-scene to show her separateness from Jake. As the two argue about how the steak should be cooked, we see the shot/reverse shot method of editing being implemented, adhering to the 180 degree rule. Exhausted by Jakes badgering, Irma brings the steak over to him and slaps it on his plate. The camera cuts to a medium shot of the unpredictably explosive Jake flipping the table over, steak and all.
At this point we are introduced to Jakes relationship with his brother and the conflict with the mob that will be a prevalent problem throughout the film. The film cross-cuts to Joey talking to Sal, agreeing to talk to Jake about an association with the mobster Tommy. Then it cross-cuts back to the apartment where Jake is violently pushing his wife around as Joey enters the frame. Irma subsequently slams the door, literally putting a barrier between her and her ferocious husband and figuratively showing their isolation once again. The off-screen voice of the neighbor Larry calls out, Whats the matter with you up there, you animals?
The camera cuts to a medium two shot of Jake and Joey, then to a shot of Jake framed by the window, hollering back at Larry that he will eat his dog for lunch. The statement further illustrates Jakes instinctive nature while the mise-en-scene of Jake in the window depicts his isolation from the entire society outside the apartment. Then we see an eye-line match of Irmas silhouette through the bedroom curtains from Jakes perspective. The mise-en-scene used here gives us the feeling of an impersonal relationship between the two as Jake cannot see his wife. His threat to kill her if she breaks anything further embodies Jakes meanness.
Once the domestic argue calms down, the camera cuts to a medium two shot of Joey and Jake at the kitchen table. The mise-en-scene depicts Jake on the left side of the screen, commenting on his mental weakness. Consumed with anger, Jake complains to Joey about his small hands and how this physical handicap will prevent him from having a shot at beating the heavyweight champion, Joe Lewis. Showing the increasing separation in the relationship between the brothers, the camera begins to employ the shot/reverse shot method, with a few re-establishing shots. Jake then provokes Joey to punch him in the face, symbolically making his own kitchen a boxing ring.
By doing this, Jake is mentally returning to the place he feels most comfortable and addressing his problems through violence. After being ordered to take the towel off, Joey eventually reopens Jakes wounds, and says, What are you trying to prove? What does it prove? The camera returns to a medium two shot of the two brothers, and Jake (with blood splattered on his face) smiles at Joey, apparently thanking him for inflicting pain on him so that he could forget about his mental anguish.
Unlike the opening scene, this scene falls under the category of realism because of the everyday situation being dealt with, although they both contain long takes. The reliance on digetic sound and continuity editing used also lean toward realism and classical Hollywood style, respectively. The dialogue in this scene, coupled with the continued use of mise-en-scene, shows Joeys growing isolation from society and his loved ones. Joey also seems to be acquiring more and more animalistic traits.
Animals are by nature protective and territorial, so it follows that Jake should also possess these characteristics. Like a fierce animal protecting its mate from other animals, Jake is very attentive to what his second wife, Vickie, does. Jake is especially attentive
to her relationships with other men. This behavior causes Jake to become even more distant from his wife. The scene at the Copacabana displays the negative repercussions associated with Jakes possessiveness. It begins with an establishing shot of the clubs sign, then cuts to a high angle long shot that pans from right to left, showing the people at the club in an open frame. We hear only the digetic sound of the band and the comedian who introduces Jake (and foreshadows his own career as a dull bar comedian). When Vickie says she is going to the bathroom, Jakes uneasiness is present as he questions her. On her way to the bathroom, the camera cuts to a medium shot of Salvy greeting and kissing Vickie, inviting her for a drink with Tommy and some of the old gang as the camera zooms in on them.
Then the camera intercuts to Jake, who disturbingly watches Salvy conversing with his possession. The mise-en-scene in this shot shows Jakes protectiveness as his hand lies over the seat Vickie was in. In a medium shot, we see Salvy approach Jakes table in slow motion, as if Jake is sizing him up as a possible opponent, adhering to the 180 degree rule as it cuts back to Jake. Showing a lack of respect and fear that Salvy is having an affair with his wife, Jake limply shakes Salvys hand while keeping his eyes fixated on him like an animal stalking its prey, then spits like an angry camel when he leaves, solidifying his animal instinct. As Vickie returns from the bathroom, the mise-en-scene shows her isolation from Jake with a barrier of people between them in the long shot. The camera cuts to a shot of Vickie kindly saying hello to her old friends, then to a medium shot of Jake on the left side of the screen, displaying his mental weakness and isolation from Vickie through mise-en-scene.
Scorsese employs the slow motion technique again when the camera returns to Vickie giving Tommy a respectful kiss. This comments on Jakes disapproval of her talking to other men, especially Tommy because Jake thinks like an animal in that it is every man for himself. Jake adheres to the concept of survival of the fittest, the law that defines an animals place within the kingdom of nature. Proving that society views Jake as an animal, Salvy says when Vickie leaves, Shes with that fucking gorilla. When Vickie returns to the table, she is interrogated by Jake, who is extremely close to her. This use of mise-en-scene solidifies her discomfort being next to Jake as he threatens to smack her around. Also, there is an animal fur in the background, commenting on Jakes tough skin. Jakes self-destructive jealousy seen in this scene will be a factor leading to his eventual demise.
Jake is eventually persuaded to visit Tommys table; the camera cuts to a high angle, three shot of Tommy, Jake and Joey. Scorsese uses the closeness between Jake and Tommy again as a sign of discomfort through the use of mise-en-scene. This discomfort is directly resultant of Jakes belief in the survival of the fittest law. Jake sees Tommy as a more fit animal that impedes his progress as a fighter and ability to get a title shot. The entire Copacabana club scene is consistent with the sense of realism seen in the two previous scenes analyzed.
As the film progresses, Jake seems to transform into an animal, cutting himself off from any reality experienced by a human. His victories in the ring led to further failures outside of the ring; Jake uses violence and animalistic tendencies that help him in the ring to deal with his relationships outside of the ring. This evolution is clear in the scene following Jakes middleweight title match, where Jake and Joey are in Jakes
family room. One aspect of the mise-en-scene used in this scene is the television that Jake attempts to fix. Blurry and out of focus, the television serves as a parallel to Jakes out of order life. Jake seems to have transformed into an animal: he eats with his mouth open, has his shirt unbuttoned and romps around on all fours. The food acts as a means to fill his sexual void.
Consumed by the possibility of his wife cheating on him, Jake refuses to sleep with his wife and actually begins to accuse his own brother. As the two talk, the camera switches from low angle to high angle according to who is dominating the conversation at the time. This use of mise-en-scene helps the audience identify the struggle for power between the two brothers. Jakes use of vulgar language adds to the violence of the scene as he accuses Joey of sleeping with his wife. The lamp that resembles Lady Liberty and the portraits of flowers behind Joeys head are aspects of the mise-en-scene that are representative of his innocence in regard to sleeping with his brothers wife. Because of Jakes reliance on a survival of the fittest concept, he only looks out for his own interests. Joey decides to leave and the camera cuts to a medium shot with Jake pushed to the left side, showing his isolation from Joey and mental weaknesses. This scene successfully shows how Jake has isolated himself from those who love him and turned him into an animal.
Regardless of the pain Jake inflicted on others throughout the film, in the end, he really only hurts himself. Because society encouraged such behavior out of him, Jake
became disillusioned as to where it was acceptable to use his anger. Instead of taking it out in the ring, he released his hostility on those around him who loved him. Jake had literally caged himself in like an angry animal by isolating himself from Joey and Vicki.
In an incredible display of techniques such as mise-en-scene, Martin Scorsese shows us that Jake La Motta is in fact, a Raging Bull.