The American Society of Cinematographers

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DVD Playback
Raging Bull
Vicky Cristina Barce
ASC Close-Up
Raging Bull (1980)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
5.1 DTS HD Master Audio
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, $34.98

“When I was preparing for the picture, Walter Bernstein took me, with Jay Cocks and Brian De Palma, to the fights at Madison Square Garden for the first time,” Martin Scorsese recalls on the recently released Blu-ray DVD of Raging Bull.  “We sat all the way up in the seats, way up. Walter was sort of talking me through the fights — what was happening and such, and it was very hard to tell what was happening. Then I realized…I don’t know how to shoot two guys in a boxing ring! I just don’t know how to shoot it. De Palma looked over at me at one point and said, ‘Good luck.’”

Long interested in the turbulent and somewhat tragic life story of champion boxer Jake La Motta, “The Bronx Bull,” Scorsese was finally able to focus on it after coming off his complicated ode to Hollywood film musicals, New York, New York, and the concert documentary The Last Waltz. In order to help him find the right visual take on the material, Scorsese re-teamed with multi-talented cinematographer Michael Chapman, ASC, who had shot Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz and American Boy for him. From the beginning of this ambitious new project, theirs was a close and intense collaboration.

Their first important choice was shooting the film in black-and-white. Various reasons for that choice have been speculated upon, including Scorsese’s concern about how the period’s color film stocks would render the heavy blasts of blood that would be splashing in the ring. In his remarks on this disc, the director says some Super 8mm color test footage of lead actor Robert De Niro boxing cemented the decision; the reds of the gloves were so distracting they took away from the actors’ faces. Scorsese said he also felt most Americans associated boxing with the black-and-white telecasts of Friday nights in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Chapman agreed a monochrome canvas would suit the drama and was happy to craft tabloid-style visuals that echoed the work of photographer WeeGee.

The filmmakers’ next critical choice was how to approach the picture’s numerous fight scenes. Scorsese worked with Chapman to give each bout a sense of rhythmic dance. Using an approach similar to what he had done on The Last Waltz and New York, New York, Scorsese created extremely disciplined, carefully choreographed storyboards incorporating camera setups and moves for the “beats” of each fight. (Chapman would even refer to each scene as a Fox Trot, tango, waltz, etc.) After nearly 10 weeks of shooting the fight sequences in Los Angeles, the crew relocated to New York to shoot the dramatic sequences on location in the Bronx and Manhattan.

One of the most critically acclaimed films of the 1980s, Raging Bull has had a satisfying history on home screens during the last 20 years, and for its Blu-ray debut, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has upheld those standards. The high-definition image transfer of this vivid monochrome contender meets every expectation. Though the image has been digitally scrubbed of any existing imperfections, it does not look overly processed, and the visible film grain never feels inorganic. The 1080p image is bright and exceptionally film-like, with excellent, crisp contrasts that showcase Chapman’s careful grayscale. The film’s few color sequences have a well balanced, nostalgic and candied tone that is consistent with the look of the 35mm presentations. Chapman’s Oscar-nominated cinematography has never looked better on home screens.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is acceptable but would have benefited from some center-channel adjustments. The surround channels are occasionally busy, and there are a number of occasions when some of the softer dialogue is lost because the center level is too low; viewers will need to turn playback systems up a bit more than they normally would to catch all of the lowest frequencies.

This DVD features all of the outstanding supplements that were included on the 2005 Special Edition DVD. These include three excellent audio commentaries and nearly two hours of interviews that include the production’s key players and La Motta himself. Last, the film’s theatrical trailer is presented in HD. This excellent package is bound to have fans lining up to see The Bronx Bull in the ring once again.

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