Two Black-and-White Films from 1980

Raging Bull (1980) was nominated for many awards and is highly rated in many "best films ever" lists. It won Oscars for Robert De Niro's performance as the fallen boxing champion Jake La Motta and for best film editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. These are deserved awards. De Niro brings his A-game, ranging from a fit young scrapper to a fat has-been. And the boxing scenes are magical, combining classical music, quick editing, slow motion, and fog to an already legend-implying black-and-white film.

However, I did not care for this film. Never has Martin Scorsese's knack for capturing the male gaze been so apparent. Yes, the character La Motta is sexist, so having the film treat the women as mere objects of desire makes sense. But watching a man order a woman around as to how she can pleasure him is just sickening--if not tedious--to watch, not to mention the more blatant physical abuse. And even when the women in Raging Bull do fight back or divorce, it comes off as mere annoyance rather than a deeply emotional event. Again, this reemphasizes La Motta's perspective, but it sucks and I don't want to see it reemphasized in the film's overall perspective.

And besides my feminist rantings, Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story episodes have told the tale of the fallen star enough times that this film doesn't seem as fresh as it may have in 1980. I doesn't help either that I saw Casino before this, which has a similar De Niro/Pesci fighting about a blonde woman moments, just with less mafia and actual adultery.

In the end, I wish there was less sexist asshole and more boxing, for I could watch slow motion boxing set to Pietro Mascagni all day.

Opening scene from Raging Bull.

The Elephant Man, another heavily nominated film of 1980, appeals to my taste for the bizarre. The black-and-white filming in this case made the story of 19th century John Merrick, or the Elephant Man, seem more like an urban legend. Though an odd story about a highly deformed man, it's based on a true events (though the script sensationalizes some of the accounts found in The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences and The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity). It somehow walks a fine line between respecting the life of the Elephant Man and exploiting the fantastic elements in his life. It also managed to keep something that features sideshow freaks from getting campy and something so life-affirming from getting saccharine.

One of the most effective devices in showing John Merrick's journey from freak to full human is how the character is filmed. Certainly, Mr. Merrick's face has monstrous elements. The beginning of the film finds him being gawked at, first as part of a side show and later as part of Dr. Treves' anatomical lecture. David Lynch's decision to hide Merrick's face and body at the beginning borrows suspense-building techniques from horror films, keeping the audience in the same trepidation that the characters around him are. But as Dr. Treves' starts to bring out Merrick's humanness, mostly in the form of oral communication, he is finally shown on the screen as much as the other characters, no longer hidden behind is deformities.

The two main protagonists are played as good men without it coming off as sanctimonious. John Hurt, as John Merrick, manages to bring out genuine goodness and intelligence from behind the heavy makeup required for the role; Anthony Hopkins brings a clinical but kind air to his role as the anatomist Frederick Treves, with a healthy dose of conflicted feelings toward his treatment of Mr. Merrick. These two fit well into a film that in some ways almost feels like a Charles Dickens tale, with no good villains, dirty streets, and upper-class slumming.

But this is a David Lynch production, so it's not completely cheesy so much as vaguely surreal and somehow beautiful.

Opening scene from The Elephant Man.

Post script: Despite my obvious preference between the two films, I can't choose between these two gorgeous scores. Raging Bull makes violence beautiful with its use of Italian opera, while The Elephant Man finds beauty after a journey through strange and haunting circus themes. But they are both absolutely lovely soundtracks.

"Intermezzo" from Raging Bull composed by Pietro Mascagni (again, because I can't resist):

The romance of Italian opera.

"The Elephant Man Theme" from The Elephant Man composed by John Morris:

The horrors of circus music.

"John Merrick and Psalm" from The Elephant Man composed by John Morris:

The beauty of resolved dissonance.


  1. What I enjoy about your retro reviews Kelsy is that I get the feeling you're seeing these movies for the first time. Hard for me to believe there are writers out there who weren't born in 1980.

    Before I book my ticket to the retirement community, let me add that your reactions to these two films didn't surprise me.

    United Artists was so repelled by Jake LaMotta's behavior in Raging Bull that they only made the film to keep producers Irwin Winkler & Bob Chartoff happy enough to do Rocky II. I think the key is understanding that LaMotta was his own worst enemy and hurt himself far worse than anyone else.

    I haven't seen The Elephant Man in years and now you've made me want to. I love David Lynch when he's madly under control.

  2. Joe--Most of the time my reviews are about movies I'm seeing for the very first time. I particularly enjoy writing about films that haven't just come out since tons and tons of other sites cover that.

    About Raging Bull, I find myself writing as if I'm defending myself from Scorsese worshipers, mostly because his reputation is so huge. I can't say that Raging Bull is a bad movie because it's very well made. In fact, it's effective enough to repel me. Roger Ebert does a good analysis of it, which helped me understand it more, but doesn't compel me to ever watch it again: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19980510/REVIEWS08/401010354/1023