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Written by Timothy Sexton
Raging Bull is a biographical picture about Jake LaMotta who briefly reigned as the world middleweight boxing champion, was the boxer who delivered Sugar Ray Robinson his first professional loss, notoriously threw a match while refusing to literally take a dive to the canvas, went to jail on charges related to contributing to the delinquency of an underage girl and found minor success in his second career as a stage act. Raging Bull is more concerned, however, with LaMotta’s violent encounters outside the ring than inside as ferociously artistic boxing scenes take up only a fraction of the film’s more than two hour running time. LaMotta’s turbulent relationships with his wives, his brother/manager and the hoods running the boxing industry are the real focus of the film.
Joey LaMotta is Jake’s brother and manager. As brother, Joey often finds himself put in the position of having to manage Jake’s private life, especially when it comes to keeping his anger and violence under at least the semblance of control. In fact, Joey is actually a composite of the real life Joey and—to a much greater degree—Jake’s friend and biographer, Peter Savage. The real life Joey LaMotta would take such exception to his portrayal in the film that he would eventually file a lawsuit against the makers of the film.
Vickie is Jake’s second wife and his attraction to her foreshadows the legal trouble he will face later in the film which ultimately sends him to prison. Vickie, too, is underage when Jake first sees her and, like the young woman whose appearance in the Miami nightclub he will own after retiring from boxing, she looks much older. The relationship with the sexy teen blonde bombshell in the Bronx results in a long and stormy marriage, however, which produces both kids and a constant string of what would today be termed violent “domestic situations” but which were once known simply as wife beatings.
Salvy is a small-time hood with connections to powerful organized crime figures who lives in the same neighborhood as Jake, Joey and Vickie. In fact, Salvy is first seen flirting with Vickie before Jake makes his move and even before that he is seen trying to convince Joey to convince Jake that he will never get his shot at the championship unless he plays ball with the mob. Jake’s marrying Vickie and refusing to throw in with the mob reinforces the personal tension already existing between Salvy and the LaMotta brothers and ultimately results in Joey brutally attacking Salvy after he spots Vickie at a nightclub with Salvy without Jake’s knowledge. Joey’s decision to keep that attack secret in turn will ultimately stimulate an estrangement between the two brothers.
Tommy Como is the mob leader for whom Salvy works. Based on real life gangster, Frankie Carbo, who was known as the Czar of Boxing, Tommy Como has the power to determine to whether Jake LaMotta will be allowed to fight for the middleweight championship title. Ultimately, Jake finally is forced to cave in and accept the humiliation of taking a dive in exchange for finally get his shot at the title.
Sugar Ray Robinson
Jake LaMotta’s boxing nemesis is Sugar Ray Robinson with whom he engages in a series of boxing matches recreated for the film. LaMotta is the first professional boxer to ever knock Sugar Ray down to the canvas which foreshadows the final boxing match presented in the film: the so-called St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in which Robinson delivers a brutal series of pummeling blows to LaMotta without suffering any in return, yet—to LaMotta’s great pride—fails to knock him down.
After misinterpreting a thoroughly harmless characterization of boxing opponent Tony Janiro as having a “pretty face” by his wife Vickie, Jake proceeds deliver his most vicious beating an opponent inside the ring. Janiro becomes, in fact, the only boxing opponent who seems to be the recipient of a violent beating inside the ring that is spurred by the same kind of emotional involvement with which Jakes delivers beatings to those who cross him outside the boxing arena.
After finally realizing he will have to play ball with Tommy Como if he ever hopes to get a shot at the title, Jake reluctantly agrees to the humiliating condition of throwing a fight to an opponent named Billy Fox. Just seconds into the match, Jake realizes Fox has got nothing to deliver and since he refuses to actually go down to the canvas, he must rather obviously underperform, further contributing to his humiliation as he is ultimately suspended from boxing under suspicion of having thrown the fight.
Following his reinstatement after the suspension of throwing the Fox fight, Jake finally gets his shot at the middleweight championship title against current title holder Marcel Cerdan. Jakes wins the match and briefly becomes champ. Cerdan appears as a much more central character in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose.
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