Hell up in the Bronx: Richard Combs reviews Gloria and Raging Bull

In our 1981 Spring issue, Richard Combs looked at the underworld connections of John Cassavetes’ Gloria and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980)
Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980)

Ships that pass in the night. John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), about a strip-club entrepreneur in debt to the Mob, was apparently dreamt up in the course of an evening with Martin Scorsese. ‘We were talking about stories, and we said, well, let’s do a gangster story.’ Cassavetes’ Gloria, about an ex-showgirl and gangster’s moll on the run from the Mob, begins with one of those aerial journeys across the neon escarpments of New York City, until the camera arrives at the South Bronx and begins a circling descent over the Yankee Stadium. The Stadium doesn’t feature in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the story of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta and his running battle with local mobsters, but towards the end of his career the ‘Bronx Bull’ did fight there.

Cassavetes’ and Scorsese’s origins as ethnic New Yorkers are part of the mythology of their film-making. Of Greek extraction, Cassavetes as a child lived in the Bronx-and, according to Sam Shaw, the producer of Gloria, in Yankee Stadium (‘John loves baseball more than pictures. He’ll tell you who stole second in 1940’). Of Italian immigrant parentage, Scorsese lived on the Lower East Side from age eight (which was roughly La Motta’s age when he and his family left there), and completed his Catholic schooling, having at one time been a candidate for the priesthood, at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. Street life and street theatre mingle in Shadows and Mean Streets, their freshness as cinema also having something to do with their zestful involvement with the fringes of society-whether beyond the law or not.

Apart from that, the differences between the two directors might seem radical. Cassavetes has been the great advocate of a cinema of the ‘real’, in which story, technique and construction are secondary considerations to what is going on inside the performer. ‘I want to put those inner desires on the screen so we can all look and think and feel and marvel at them.’ Scorsese’s movies probably score as high for raw emotion, particularly when those inner desires are rooted in religious taboos and family guilt. But he is also a high priest of movie lore, and the traps into which his characters hurtle are operated with as keen a sense for the metaphysics of narrative as of sin and redemption. His is a cinema of the super-real, in which Catholic anguish gravitates not towards Cassavetes’ therapeutic practice of ‘letting it all hang out’ but towards the expressionism-in-repression of Visconti, Michael Powell and even John Ford. Cassavetes values emotional excess because it might lead him somewhere he has not been before, outstripping any possible form; Scorsese because it might lead to spiritual success, a transcendence of form (cinematic/religious) over content.

Important as these differences appear in their films, what separates them (artistic temperament) might still be close to what connects them (artistic temper). Their joint authorship of Chinese Bookie is interesting, because there is a mystery at the heart of that film where the ethic of one meshes (or doesn’t quite) with that of the other. Out of foolish vanity, Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) becomes embroiled with the local syndicate, and is forced to clear his debt by carrying out a hit on the bookie of the title. In the course of a subsequent double-cross he is mortally wounded, but the more serious his plight becomes, the less seriously he seems able to take it. He returns to his night-club, the hole in his side no excuse for the show not going on, and finally articulates his philosophy of being ‘comfortable’: being at ease with the roles you play in order to hide from others. At the end, he stands alone outside the club, absent-mindedly rubbing the wound which is still leaking blood, the epitome of a comfortable, if dying, man. 

On the other hand, given Cosmo’s talent for self-deception throughout, and the emphasis on putting on an act in the context of the club, it is difficult to know how to take this moment of deliverance. Confronting insincerity in order to force it to become real, stripping away the layers of ‘performance’, has always been Cassavetes’ existential goal. But the fascination, and frustration, of Chinese Bookie is that it is burrowing into Cosmo’s ‘reality’ even while declaring that everything about him is a pretence especially the kind of film which has given him to us in the first place.

In between ‘let’s do a gangster story’ and another remark of Cassavetes’, apropos Chinese Bookie, ‘I really don’t like gangsters a hell of a lot … I don’t appreciate people trying to take advantage of other people’s weaknesses,’ is encapsulated his distrust of being taken over by a movie genre and the reason why, perhaps, there are too many games going on in the film for him quite to convince us that he has reached the bedrock of Cosmo Vittelli. There are probably even more games, including Pirandellian ones, in his next film, Opening Night, about theatre folk. But one of them is not the director protecting his rear against the traps and snares of genre cinema.

What that last shot of Cosmo rhymes with, of course, is the ending of Taxi Driver, in which Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) seems to have risen above the blood-boltered incidents of his recent past and to have found inner peace-or a more complete alienation, an ambiguous consummation which becomes a tougher ending in Raging Bull. If both Chinese Bookie and Taxi Driver are working towards the same point, however, they have different reasons for getting there. For Scorsese, ‘doing a gangster story’ would not be a way of holding plot disdainfully at a distance but a powerful device for orchestrating the fate of his hero, to the point where he must either win redemption/transcendence or go under. If that was the original drive of the story he wrote with Cassavetes, then it may be that the latter felt the need to go in another direction: to validate rather than transform his hero, and to do so by steadily winding down the gangster plot or showing it to be mere trumpery. Hence the dislocation in our final sense of Cosmo: he overcomes his own death neither as a wholly substantial Cassavetes hero nor as a fully transfigured Scorsese one.

Gena Rowlands and John Adames in Gloria (1980)
Gena Rowlands and John Adames in Gloria (1980)

What, then, of Gloria, which is much more of a gangster movie than Chinese Bookie-its plot, for a start, makes sense at that level, which Bookie’s never really does. Again, there is something of a game about this, a project initiated on a ‘let’s do … ’ basis. In an article in American Film (January/February, 1980), Cassavetes describes how, at the coincidentally double urging of his wife, Gena Rowlands, and an MGM executive (who was looking for a part for their moppet champ Ricky Schroder), he wrote a script featuring a child, as something he would sell, not direct himself. ‘It was no great shakes, but I liked it and Gena liked it.’ MGM then lost Schroder to Disney; the script went via Cassavetes’ agent to Columbia; and they agreed it as a project for Ms Rowlands provided that Cassavetes directed. For the first time since his unhappy experiences of the early 60s (Too Late Blues, A Child Is Waiting), Cassavetes found himself not merely employed but actually sought after by a major studio.

The resulting film, however, comes on as if it were going to do more than dabble in the commercial mainstream. It aggressively courts the audience in the terms of any contemporary hard-nosed urban thriller. After the initial trip up to the Bronx (prefaced with titles done as children’s paintings), and some atmospheric scene-setti.ng along the decaying Grand Concourse, it moves into an apocalyptic siege. Jack Dawn (Buck Henry), an accountant for the Mob, has been talking to the FBI, and he and his Puerto Rican wife and children hysterically await the hoods who even now are assembling in the peeling mausoleum of a tenement. Before the nuclear family, seemingly already set to shake apart, is unceremoniously exploded, their neighbour from down the hall, one Gloria ‘Swenson’ (after Swanson-Gena Rowlands), comes calling for some coffee, and is persuaded to hide the Dawns’ young son, Phil (John Adames), into whose hands his father presses his vital book of numbers (‘This book will save your life. It’s the Bible. It’s everything I know about. Everything in the world. It’s your future’).

Gloria, hard-bitten moll that she is, professes to despise children, pointing out to Phil that she has her own life to think about (‘You’re too young to know what making a living is, but I got my money, I got my apartment, I got my friends, my cat’). But she soon feels compelled to abandon her sanctuary for the boy’s sake, precipitately taking flight into the city and significantly dropping her cat in her first effort to retain control of wilful Phil. Their situation is complicated by the fact that the friends she has mentioned are the very people pursuing them, and by the macho pretensions of her six-year-old charge, another last gift from his father (‘You’re the man. You’re the head of the family’).

Two very different yet complementary things are going on in this brilliant opening. One is as crisp and energetic an exposition as one could wish of the chase movie to come. Within that is what one might think of as the Cassavetes movie: emotions either ricocheting off the walls of the tight genre construction (the Dawn family hotly bickering while death gathers outside) or letting the air out in unexpected places (Gloria itemising her possessions for Phil’s benefit, so that he can appreciate a little of her struggle before she gets any further involved in his). The helicopter trip across the New York skyline, luminescently photographed by Fred Schuler, accompanied by a score that is a remarkable rhapsody in black and blue, wailing saxophone combined with plangent guitar, has already hinted at the film’s lissom way with a familiar image, its febrile switching through a scale of moods.

Once Gloria and Phil are out on the streets, the locations come directly into play-not, as the cliché goes, as characters in their own right, more as yet another unpredictable factor in the unstable gell of relationships. They function at times like the genre plot-familiar bases that the characters touch in their flight by bus, cab and subway, through restaurant kitchens and tenement halls, in hotels and flophouses. At others, they are the film’s touchstone of reality, by which it measures a faintly parodic distance from the plot.

Gloria throughout has an interesting relationship with taxicabs and their drivers, one that appears as difficult and fraught with the unexpected as her efforts to preserve Phil from the Mob. It is a relationship, furthermore, that Cassavetes deliberately plays off against the basic genre calculation of making his outsider-hero, against whom every hand in the underworld is turned, a woman and the plot’s demand for escalating displays of her prowess as a gunperson. Gloria, for instance, blasting away a earful of hoods who have attempted to pick up her and Phil, then rushing into the street to hail one of those fleeting yellow apparitions; or Gloria backing down a street, gun held on the seething hoods she has just humiliated, and her cabbie obligingly waiting with the door held open. It is hard, anyway, to imagine a Cassavetes thriller that would not be involved with the real problems of the city. Even hit men turn up late for their assignments: ‘I couldn’t find the place … I went over the 138th Street Bridge, then back over the 155th Street Bridge; made a wrong turn past the Yankee Stadium .. .’

It is also no small part of the game here that Cassavetes’ characters often treat it as such. Or at least that Gloria, the holding point between the genre that has been adopted and the ‘reality’ that Cassavetes is trying to open it up to, is often seen struggling to reconcile the two. There is her reluctance at the beginning to abandon her apartment and her own life, her occasional exasperation with the business she is caught up in (‘My feet are falling off. I can’t run any more. What am I doing here?’), and her effort to explain everything to Phil as a dream, a nightmare in which he might think he has been killed but from which he will always wake up knowing he is someone else. Shades here of Cosmo Vittelli, and his effort to wake out of the gangster plot into which he has allowed his life to get sidetracked. It is a notion which Cassavetes, a little dubiously, stands on its head when he ends his ‘real’ film with a dream or wish-fulfilment reunion.

Again, part of the trick of Gloria is the illusion-fostered by tight, nervy direction, regular (even repetitive) bursts of action-that there is a plot {in more than one sense). Gloria’s dashing about always seems singularly directionless-until the idea pops into her head of taking Phil to Pittsburgh, which later prompts the paranoid coda, ‘Maybe Pittsburgh;s connected. They gotta have gangsters in Pittsburgh too.’ But the idea of a vast organisation being mobilised to crush them is explicitly parodied in an exchange between Gloria and Phil: (P) ‘You think they’re gonna catch us, huh?’ (G) ‘Probably. You can’t beat the system.’ (P) ‘What’s the system?’ (G) ‘System? I don’t know.’ (P) ‘Then how do you know you can’t beat it?’ The joke is as applicable to the movie system as it is to the Mafia, and the moral is that not only the characters but the film-maker should have the courage to explore his own freedom.

Gloria’s relationship with Phil skirts another convention: the precocious brat versus his/her worldly wise senior. But Cassavetes’ tactic, as with the gangster elements, is not to pretend that the cliché doesn’t exist, but to exaggerate it to the point where it becomes its own truth. The equivalent here of Gloria bursting upon a gaggle of gangsters, gun levelled in a no-nonsense crouch, frisking them and then locking them in the toilet, is Phil sitting in the window of a dingy flophouse, lit by the ubiquitous winking red light, then turning to Gloria to complain, ‘These neon lights are driving me crazy,’ and to provoke her with questions like, ‘Have you ever been in love?’ So forward at times is little Phil, clenching his fists and insisting ‘I am the man,’ then contritely apologising later for the trouble he has caused, that it’s impossible not to see him as every macho hero on the lam, shrunk to pint size. Gloria then becomes the archetypal woman in tow, swollen to reluctant motherhood, wiping his bloody nose and telling him, ‘You are not the man. You don’t listen. You don’t know anything. You’re driving me crazy.’

With his shrill self-assertion, his cavalier assumptions of command followed by ingratiating confessions of ignorance, there are times when the ‘hero’ of Gloria resembles that of Raging Bull. The context of the two films is much the same not just the Bronx, but the family as crucible of the known world, including the forms of social patronage and exploitation and the extremes of violence. Jake La Motta also has his much-abused attendants to wipe his bloody nose and tell him what an unthinking ape he is. But in terms of film-making, it would probably be more accurate to see Gloria as moving into Mean Streets territory. Cassavetes also engaged with a Hollywood genre in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; the difference here is that he is willing to be seen doing so. By this short step aside, he has moved closer to Scorsese; concomitantly, Raging Bull represents a change of tack which takes Scorsese closer to Cassavetes. Gloria and Raging Bull are indisputably their respective directors’ films. But over them both hangs the ghostly collaboration mooted but not clinched on Chinese Bookie-of the other.

Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman on the set of Raging Bull (1980)
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Michael Chapman behind the scenes in Raging Bull (1980)

To begin with, Raging Bull seems to have been made out of an impatience with all the usual trappings of cinema, with plot, psychology and an explanatory approach to character. A number of early scenes, conversations between Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) about Jake’s career, his intransigence, his violent behaviour outside the ring, even about a neighbourhood girl, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), sitting beside a pool, have an intensity but a woolliness, an emotional fervour but a roundabout, elliptical, barely heard inconsequentiality that seem to frustrate any narrative function. They are also the first indication, in the linking of intimacy with casual obscenity, that the language of violence and the violence of language is itself going to be the binding element of the film.

In place of the narrative traps being sprung within the first few minutes of Taxi Driver, characters here appear to be finding themselves in their own time, or in real time, a la Cassavetes. It’s an impression which Scorsese has strengthened by obscuring as far as possible the traces of the period film. La Motta’s life from 1941, through his decade or so of success as a fighter, to the humiliations of the 50s and his end as an entertainer, the showman of his own notoriety, is recreated with a minimum of props, very few scenes outside the venues of home and ring, and none of the self-conscious artifice of New York, New York. Though spanning some of the same period, Raging Bull couldn’t be further in style from Scorsese’s last dramatic feature. For much of the time, Raging Bull is an unadorned window on the world, and even a shot which stirs memories of New York, New York-an overhead, from the point of view of an organist trying to restore order with a spirited rendition of the national anthem, as the ring disappears in a melee of flying chairs and bodies after an early decision goes against La Motta-has been reproduced directly from La Motta’s autobiography:

Further neutralising the narrative, Scorsese has peopled it, De Niro apart, with unknowns-faces that are richly suggestive of time and place but don’t seem to belong to actors, they stand for nothing other than themselves. (Cassavetes, it niight be noted, even having gone genre in Gloria, is still casting the same way, with the exception of his joke guest star, bespectacled, worried Buck Henry-a Mafia accountant, certainly, but the paterfamilias of a Puerto Rican family?) Which is not to say that the elements of the drama to come, the hooks, aren’t being planted from the very beginning. A long track follows Joey as he argues with Salvy (Frank Vincent), errand boy of the local godfather, about Jake’s refusal to sell out to the gangsters who control the fight game, which will eventually endanger his chances of reaching the middleweight championship; Joey’s subsequent conversation with Jake leads from the latter’s confessions of inadequacy (he has ‘girl’s hands’, he’ll never be big enough to fight Joe Louis) to his goading Joey into punching him until the blood starts from recent boxing cuts.

But the point of this drama will remain strictly interior, just as the violence explosive as it is in the continual round of domestic quarrels paired with the more brutal but disciplined, aggressive but stylised exchanges in the ring always seems to be imploding into significance. It is keyed to the dominant feature of La Motta’s personality and his boxing style: his tendency, his need, to overcome simply by absorbing as much punishment as his opponent can dish out. La Motta flings himself against the wall of his fate: refusing to give in to the Mob, until he is forced to throw a fight in order to get his shot at the middleweight title, almost sacrificing his career and his reputation in the process; losing his last fight with ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, but refusing to ‘lose’ by refusing to go down, instead just soaking up the other man’s punches.

There is in this something not dissimilar to Harvey Keitel testing himself, his hand in the devotional flame, in Mean Streets. Except that, although the icons are present, the religious dimension of La Motta’s struggle is not articulated. In a way, it has been assumed, absorbed into the film. It is there according to Scorsese: ‘He works on an almost primitive level, almost an animal level. And therefore he must think in a different way, he must be aware of certain things spiritually that we aren’t, because our minds are too cluttered with intellectual ideas, and too much emotionalism. And because he’s on that animalistic level, he may be closer to pure spirit’ (Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: The First Decade). The animal is evident, in the caged images of La Motta in cramped tenements, in a netting-enclosed swimming pool, and in the prison ‘hole’ in Florida where he winds up at the nadir of his fortunes. The spirit is only evident in its absence, in Scorsese’s rigorously realistic black and white images, which refuse to pollute the concrete with the spiritual (or vice versa). Despite Taxi Driver’s pretensions to the title, Raging Bull may be his most Bressonian film.

What also disappears into that scheme is any psychological, dramatic, or even narrative framework to La Motta’s story. This, actually, is supplied in abundance by the boxer’s autobiography, on which the film is loosely based. There La Motta explains his feelings of guilt and inadequacy, his sense that he didn’t deserve good fortune and that Fate would one day be waiting with the bill, in terms of his religious upbringing and the notions of sin and redemption that permeated his early life of crime (not mentioned by the film). He hangs great psychological and spiritual consequences by one incident in particular: how he thought for many years that he had murdered a man, a bookie, in the course of a mugging for which he was never brought to account. One can imagine how Scorsese might have adapted such a story (title: ‘The Killing of a Jewish Bookie’?) into another Mean Streets. Instead, it is as if he had purified all the elements of that tyro film, stripping them of their melodramatic or operatic function so that Raging Bull could be a transparent vessel for La Motta’s passion, which is also his violence, self and other-directed.

Simulated .home movie footage, for instance, serves at the beginning of Mean Streets to complicate the film’s impact and to suggest, perhaps, a multi-layered investigation to come. Here it has the opposite effect, interspersed with brief glimpses of La Motta’s fights in the mid40s, and rendering the characters’ lives down into their most banal, generalised terms: fooling by the pool; Jake and Vickie getting married; Joey and his wife getting married; playing with the kids. Given that this footage is in ‘amateurish’ colour, the rough, unstable textures of a world already slipping into memory-as opposed to the surrounding, crystalline black and white-it inevitably has a poignance. But it not only serves to summarise, it frustrates the biopic interest: these are areas that are unknowable.

Similarly, Scorsese never dramatises-at least, not in the usual way-the rise and fall of La Motta’s career. The story is told in simple chronological units, starting with a fight La Motta loses in 1941, with most of the succeeding ring scenes anchored in his recurring bouts with Robinson (also lost in the main), and the montage of fights that interrupts the home movies mostly just a few ‘frozen’ moments, with titles giving names and dates. Again, what is lost is the exterior drama. La Motta’s struggle to become champion (achieved in 1949 against Marcel Cetdan) is displaced into a struggle with interior demons-interior’ in this context, however, having to do with more than one individual.

Jake’s relationship with Joey suggests an identification, a symbiosis, that goes beyond the fraternal. It is an intensification of Charlie’s love-hate affair with Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, and in its closeness subsumes a sado-masochistic violence that also has a cultural and social dimension. There is an inevitable progression here: Jake, out of paranoid jealousy, asking Joey to keep an eye on Vickie to make sure she is not fooling around; Joey becoming enraged on Jake’s behalf when he sees Vickie out with some of the local hoods, and viciously beating up Salvy; Jake then later assuming that if anybody has betrayed him with Vickie, it is Joey. He bursts into the latter’s home, furiously assaulting him without a word, just as Joey is correcting one of his children’s table manners by threatening him with a knife.

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980)

The roots of that jealousy and that violence are presumably locked in the sense of guilt and unworthiness that La Motta is at pains to explain in his book. Scorsese never attempts to explain them, but has set himself the more difficult task of making them manifest. What is most remarkable about the new rigour of Raging Bull is that it tells La Motta’s story with both complete realism (the places, the circumstances, the events) and total subjectivity. In a way that leaves them difficult to disentangle and analyse, each is even made to seem a function of the other. The sequence of La Motta’s fights has a kind of documentary flatness, but each bout is treated with visual and aural distortions to become a mini-Armageddon. Instead of shooting the fights with many cameras, Scorsese has said, he used only one, working in close enough to become a third antagonist. Even the fact that La Motta fought many engagements with Robinson has a different, internal truth: in his book, La Motta refers to Robinson as his ‘nemesis’; here he comments, after losing their third match, ‘Who knows, I’m a jinx maybe.’ Scorsese’s most persistent distortion, slow motion, used at times so briefly and infinitesimally as to make one doubt it really happened, renders La Motta’s internal violence concrete. by focusing on the confused objects · of his adoration and aggression-Vickie, often dressed in white, as in their first, dreamlike excursion, and the invariably dark-clad gangster-businessmen who would take over his life-the constituent elements of his heaven and hell.

At the beginning of his autobiography, Jake La Motta recollects his tenement childhood and wild youth. ‘I feel like I’m looking at an old black-and-white movie of myself … jerky, with gaps in it, a string of poorly lit sequences, some of them with no beginning and some with no end. No musical score, just sometimes the sound of a police siren or a pistol shot. And almost all of it happens at night, as if I lived my whole life at night.’ It might be tempting to apply this to the way Scorsese has filmed Raging Bull. Except that what La Motta is recalling seems more like the kind of B movie that Scorsese built on to make Mean Streets. On the other hand, there is in that description a generalised sense of the movie-in-all-our-minds-an equation of the excitements of the archetypal Hollywood movie with a romantic life beyond the law, an equation forcefully operating in the environment in which the La Mottas and the Scorseses grew up. Romantically, the options facing the young Scorsese have been summed up as: priest or mafioso. Instead, he made movies, sublimating the other two. Raging Bull then becomes the sublimation of a sublimation. It evokes that generalised movie mainly because, in purifying his technique, Scorsese has stripped away his references, reducing them to some essential experience.

Mainly this is to record how La Motta himself sublimated his history, his background, to become a boxer, then sublimated that self to become an entertainer (another stage, that of film actor, is not recorded here). The boxing ring, it turns out, was not that far from the streets, from the mafioso option. La Motta must fall in with the Mob to get his chance at the title; as fight succeeds fight, the flashbulbs going off in the arena sound more and more like gunshots; and as he sits in Miami with Vickie and his children in 1956, having just given up boxing and before embarking on his ill-fated night-club venture, a photographer’s equipment is shown in action as if it were an assassin’s rifle. The film both begins and ends with La Motta in New York in 1964, his boxing glory and his family gone, rehearsing his stand-up routine in a night-club dressing room. ‘Give me a stage where this bull here can rage. And although I can fight, I’d much rather recite … that’s entertainment.’

La Motta, alone at the end with his make-up and his mirror, conjures Cosmo Vittelli once more. But where the latter is mysteriously released, by an act of the director’s will, La Motta apparently defies Scorsese’s conception of him as a man who lost everything and was then redeemed, remaining locked in his failures, identifying with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: ‘I could have been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am.’ Unless, in Scorsese’s religiously denuded new scheme, redemption, like the presence of the spirit, cannot be made visible-although it might be guessed at in the harshly contrasting tones of black and white in which the hero frequently seems immolated. What has also been immolated, purged, is Scorsese’s own past: the genre cinema out of which he made Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and New York, New York. In readjusting their strategies, he and Cassavetes would appear to have crossed in the night.

Except that what they still hold in common is a terrain, an area which reveals as much of a shared background-in national, ethnic, or simply New York street terms-as parallel attitudes to cinema. La Motta’s autobiography is credited with two additional authors. One, Peter Savage, is revealed to be his close friend, manager and one-time partner in crime (a character amalgamated with his brother Joey in Raging Bull); the other, Joseph Carter, is conceivably the priest, Father Joseph, who helps to start La Motta’s boxing career in prison, and then seems to have played the Pat O’Brien role through the rest of his life. Those two angels still hover at Scorsese’s shoulder, not so much exorcised in the scrupulously uncluttered patterns of Raging Bull as themselves transmuted into more essential forms. Religion is an influence in suspension, and the gangsters are no longer the stuff of melodrama but of an all-pervading, unquestionable mechanism of social control and alienation. So much is evident in tiny, unstressed details (Salvy dropping a note and a quiet word with the old man who sits at the door of a gym), and in the central scene where Joey is summoned to the ‘Debonair Social Club,’ chided for his beating of Salvy and made to shake hands, and given the word that unless his brother returns to the fold and pays his dues, there will be no championship fight.

In Gloria, the equivalent of that scene comes towards the end. Deciding that the only way to get the hoods off her back is to beard them in their den, Gloria confronts the local capo and offers him Jack Dawn’s account book in return for her own and Phil’s life. But Gloria at this point seems to be the only one behaving by the genre rules. Cassavetes directs against the grain of any tension: a group of elderly men sit in an elegantly but randomly furnished apartment, casually in conference; Gloria is put on one side; other individuals come and go, including the minions who have been pursuing her and Phil, evidently no more certain of their place here than she is. Eventually the dapper godfather, whose mistress Gloria once was, questions her about the book and the boy, soothes her fears of death and worse (‘Life is very dear’), and only notes disapprovingly, ‘You can’t go around shooting our people. Every time we try to talk to you, you pull a gun.’ Finally, chancing her luck, Gloria leaves the book and walks out.

The reverberations of the scene are complex. In part, its disarrayed air reflects the gangsters’ cultivated pretence of not being gangsters; in part, Cassavetes’ assumption that real gangsters aren’t like movie gangsters. An underlying element is his response to the milieu-the stresses and strains of an interchange where meaning resides in covert moves and things unsaid. Gangsters, after all, are a kind of family, and they are also performers. Cassavetes has explored varieties of drop-out, working-class, middle-class and suburbanite milieux; here he trades them, with more certainty than in Chinese Bookie, for another community that also takes him into one of the cinema’s own communal myths. And much as he dislikes the advantage these people take of others, he has to see it as a working option. The American Film article cited earlier (entitled, ‘John Cassavetes: Film’s Bad Boy’) includes the quote, ‘I’m a gangster. If I want something I’ll grab it.’ Well, let’s do a gangster story.