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A few months back Warners came out with a boxed set of Martin Scorsese films and now MGM follows up with its own four-film, five-disc offering. Although overall the titles are not as varied or interesting, this collection can boast what is probably Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull, in a fine new transfer.
Raging Bull was one of MGM's first five DVDs released in 1997 and the first DVD title Savant saw on a screen after an MGM exec unpacked a little RCA player and plugged it in. I think my first words were "but this one isn't 16:9 enhanced," a typically un-politic remark that didn't go down well at the time. This new version does the title justice.
Martin Scorsese's followup to Taxi Driver was the most anticipated film of early 1977. I remember the crowds waiting in line at the Cinerama Dome, eager to find out what the director would do with Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli in a glitzy Hollywood musical. As it turned out Scorsese did too little with too many ideas. The film is a mix of imagined showbiz bio, unpleasant characters and elaborate hommages to MGM musicals and the career of Judy Garland. It also includes some stylistic touches inspired by Scorsese's filmic hero, Michael Powell.
Not much works in New York, New York, starting with the basic concept. Audiences wanted to like Earl Mac Rauch's story of twin musical careers but the film insists on wedding upbeat visuals to a story that basically goes nowhere.
Plotwise, New York, New York is identical to a standard musical bio from the 30s or 40s, the template for which might be Alexander's Ragtime Band. A pair of wide-eyed young talents start off in showbiz almost by accident, find success and fall in love. Fate and careers pull them apart yet they're somehow reunited in a kitschy musical climax. The sure-fire formula worked more often than it should have.
Loner sax player Jimmy Doyle and spirited USO singer Francine Evans "meet cute," if a little nervously. Despite being more than a little overbearing in his obnoxiousness, we like Jimmy Doyle. In normal musical bio, Doyle would eventually mellow, find some decent values and become an okay guy.
But this is the Scorsese universe and Doyle seems to have wandered in from Travis Bickle country. We Taxi Driver converts were dismayed when, at about the film's midpoint, we realized that the movie wasn't going to develop and the characters weren't going to grow. Jimmy Doyle starts as a selfish and egotistical talent who becomes abusive when Francine becomes more successful than he. His brand of progressive jazz sax isn't mainstream and Francine's singing is, so she becomes the enemy. I believe the characters, I know they're real, but applying them to such a stylized musical bio framework is a big drag. New York, New York is a stack of variable musical numbers held apart by reels of an unpleasant guy being abusive to a woman who stays at his side far beyond any reason.
In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind gives plenty of reasons for Scorsese's failure to fashion a movie out of such promising elements: Big stars, lots of attractive swing music and plenty of money for production. A reel was cut out for the first theatrical engagements, but the material later restored only slows down the dramatically dead middle and end sections of the film. We're way ahead of the characters and frankly bored by the lack of variety in the scenes. The story of why Jimmy Doyle stays a rotten heel has no particular meaning, and the good acting of the supporting cast and Liza Minnelli - who carries what works almost singlehandedly - goes for naught. Scorsese gives the film a naturalistic, feel-bad ending that has no impact.
The director's faith in improvisational magic wasn't helped by his interest in the stylistics of older movie genres. He'd opened Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore with an effective evocation of its heroine's dreams as expressed in a stylistic takeoff on Gone With The Wind. Here in New York, New York he fills the screen with crowds celebrating V-J day and sweeps his camera up above ballrooms crammed with extras, yet neglects to supply the simple emotions needed to make such scenes work. Nobody praises the scripts of musicals like Stormy Weather or The Gang's All Here, but the fact is that the corny backstage dramatics in those movies have a simple sincerity that Scorsese can't find. Marrying A Star is Born with Umberto D only sounds like a good idea to a pretentious film student.
When the big numbers come, they don't pay off on the promise felt in the early singing scenes where Francine repeatedly wins jobs for Doyle by steering him away from his progressive sax riffs. Scorsese doesn't realize that the audience isn't going to understand why the club owners don't like Doyle's sound, especially when Doyle is willing to compromise his principles and play square backups for Francine's vocals. Also, when it comes to time to make Francine look like a star, Scorsese's only ploy is to create lousy competition for her in the person of Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place, being extremely cooperative), who can't carry a tune. A 'klunky' old musical bio would be more gracious than that.
There are big musical moments in New York, New York, and the title tune is certainly powerful.1 It's a climactic show-stopper that would have twice the impact if we weren't already exhausted and bored. Liza screams one number earlier on (But the World Goes 'Round) that does most of the damage. The one they excised for the main release was a Broadway Ballet-type piece about the career of a star from movie usher to top diva. It's done in the Gene Kelly - Vincente Minnelli style (more family hommage, there) with a particularly ineffective aping of Minnelli's sense of color design. Lots of red and more big camera moves can't hide the fact that the song is trite and the dancing uninspired. Like the rest of the movie, we feel very little while ticking off the movie sources for individual shots, like the 'floating closeup' of Liza in triumph as the background zooms away. It's taken from the end of the Broadway Ballet in Singin' in the Rain.
Ace designer Boris Leven's work elsewhere in the picture is much more interesting, especially the minimalist marriage sequence filmed in front of painted forest backdrops. The sense of visual economy helps the emotion of the sequence ... or maybe it's just Robert De Niro acting like a decent fellow for twenty seconds ("I love you!") that makes the design look good.
Scorsese's play with classic stylistics he admires has little impact. Montages and hand-painted titles (some looking identical to work in The Red Shoes) may have made him happy, but throwing together a bunch of effects from old movies one likes does not a movie make.
Larry Kert, Broadway's original Tony in West Side Story, is in the once-deleted musical number. Interesting underseen actor Don Calfa is glimpsed in only one shot as a musician sitting next to De Niro on the bandstand. New York, New York doesn't follow through on any of its character roles, and our emotional investment in actors like Lionel Stander, Dick Miller and Georgie Auld is not repaid.
MGM's disc of New York, New York is considered a special edition and has a new transfer approved by the filmmakers, but the image is not the best. The fact that the 1:66 transfer is presented flat already makes it look worse than films of that ratio that are given pillarbox enhancement. Beyond that, the encoding seems light, with small details breaking up on a large monitor.
The extras are very nice. Martin Scorsese introduces the film in a helpful piece produced by MGM's Greg Carson. There is an audio commentary by Scorsese with film critic Carrie Rickey. Scorsese analyzes his film that got away honestly and thoughtfully.
The long extra from the old laserdisc, a selection of alternate and deleted improvised scenes, has been added but trimmed a bit to allow for space constraints. There is also a photo gallery, trailer and teaser.
Whatever cinematic gods Martin Scorsese offended with New York, New York, he won his way back into their good graces with Raging Bull, a movie that definitely engages all of the director's creative instincts. Whereas the no-brainer Hollywood musical movie was an artistic flop, this brutal biography of a terminally antisocial boxer bounced around in Scorsese's head for years as an unfilmable concept. But the resulting film is successful in theme, presentation and performances and may be its director's masterpiece.
Martin Scorsese's best pictures - Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas - are all emotionally draining experiences showing people in the worst possible light. The original Variety review said that "Martin Scorsese makes films about people you wouldn't want to know," and this 1980 boxing movie is repulsively fascinating. It's plenty violent in the ring but the real brutality is in its completely convincing relationships. They have the sordid awfulness of arguments heard through apartment walls, the ones that you don't want to be hearing. Pathetic people treating each other inhumanly is bad enough (see Animal Love for the despairing routine of that trip) but Jake LaMotta wields a threat of violence behind his every wrong-headed demand and accusation. We all know people that try to dominate relationships through petty psychological coercion, but Jake is an infantile monster willing to lash out at any provocation real or imagined. Almost every scene in Raging Bull is an unbearably tense exhibition of kindergarten level conflicts that remind us of our most traumatic memories. Ignorant and uneducated people can be a lot like Jake LaMotta.
Scorsese gets to do what he does best in Raging Bull, balance brutally unflinching relationships with heavily stylized visuals. With a cameraman inspired by the ability to shoot in B&W, the look of the film gets and holds our attention. We feel the stale rooms, the sweaty nightclubs and the heat next to the public pools. The slow motion tricks from Taxi Driver work even better here, as does the unflattering attitude toward domestic violence: The camera stands back and watches it happen like it does in real life.
In 1980 we went to Raging Bull expecting to see long boxing scenes. We instead got a handful of sequences in the ring that were easily the most intense and visually stylized scenes of their kind ever. The extras in this special edition DVD spell out the techniques used in exacting detail, but at the time we were jolted by the ferocity of the fighting, the powerful camera moves and the outrageously effective sound effects. Jungle animal screams, machine noises and rockets going off seemed to accompany LaMotta's mighty punches, with rioters tossed into the bleachers and blood splattering into the first rows. Scorsese never lets us in on the details of the fights or tries to create an ordinary backstage boxing drama. The five or six boxing scenes hit us out of nowhere, keeping us on edge even though they account for a small percentage of the film's running time.
Instead of finding nobility or righteousness in the appalling character of Jake LaMotta, Scorsese lets the Bronx Bull's story speak for itself. LaMotta's tale has a natural circularity that has to be imposed on stories like Fellini's La Strada, where Anthony Quinn's Zampano comes to an an eventual state of self-pity and possible redemption. Jake's personal path is universally understood - a brutish and powerful man drives away all who love him, only discovering what he needs and loves when they're gone. Scorsese doesn't blame drink or drugs or crime or even the everpresent religious icons for any of this; it's just human nature. Luis Buñuel would use this framework for a nasty critique of society at large, but this time around Scorsese (and surely key collaborator Robert De Niro) understand their story and how to tell it. Raging Bull is the mirror image of the standard inspirational biography. It gives us chills if we recognize even a hint of ourselves in Jake, and makes us grateful for ordinary human decency in any form.
What redeems LaMotta is his total lack of self-knowledge. The most appalling scene of all is when he destroys his championship belt to extract its jewels, too stupid to realize that the belt has value as an intact item and not for the cheap gems. He's truly innocent, a blind bull understanding nothing about his own sporting accomplishments.
Raging Bull got Robert De Niro his acting Oscar after he astonished audiences and critics with his commitment to the role - gaining all that weight "just for a movie." Newcomers Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are just as good and as an acting unit in those intense dramatic scenes they're among the best American film actors ever. Theresa Saldana and Frank Vincent head a short but effective supporting cast.
This two-disc special edition of Raging Bull does justice to one of the best films in MGM's library, even if it isn't the easiest to watch. The dialogue is so brutally real that it is in no way appropriate for children. This remaster is enhanced at 1:85 and has all the sharpness and tonal nuance of the original theatrical prints; the only thing missing is the focus-shift every time one of the color home movie sequences pops in.
The extras are a mix of goodies new and old (see below for exact specs). There are three audio commentaries, newsreel footage and a new Automat-produced shot-by-shot comparison of one of LaMotta's real fights to the Scorsese version. The docu The Bronx Bull covers much of the same territory as Laurent Bouzereau's 4 'featurettes,' which actually comprise a much more comprehensive look at the film. Everybody is interviewed - Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Moriarty, screenwriter Paul Schrader, editor Thelma Schoonmaker - and all are honest and forthcoming about the picture. It's one of Bouzereau's most satisfying DVD jobs.
The Martin Scorsese Film collection includes two other films. Boxcar Bertha is his early directing effort under the auspices of American International and is an okay film not particularly suited to the director's strengths. The Last Waltz will be more familiar to music fans than cinema addicts. I direct readers to Savant's previous reviews for them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
New York, New York rates:
Raging Bull rates:
1. The title tune would
have made even a mediocre 'straight' musical version of the movie a success. I remember an editor
friend playing me a bootleg cassette of Minnelli singing the song at least six months before the
film came out. Musical fans behaved as if they were hoping the movie would reincarnate Judy
Garland in the body of her own daughter.