Noir Night: Raw Deal (1948)

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Raw Deal is an early Anthony Mann film, one of several he made with famed cinematographer John Alton at the camera. The film stars Dennis O’Keefe as Joe Sullivan, a jailed gangster who believes that his upcoming, engineered jailbreak is on the level, a return for his past work under sadistic gangster chief Rick (classic heavy Raymond Burr), who also owes him fifty thousand dollars. Joe’s plan is to break out of prison, join his girl Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor, a  year after her unforgettable turn in Born to Kill), collect the money, and leave the country. But unbeknownst to him, Rick is in fact hoping to get rid of Joe for good, either through the efforts of the police as they try to track down the fugitive–or, if the law doesn’t get him, by sending out his top hitman (John Ireland) to do the job.

But Joe’s escape from prison is successful, and soon he and Pat are on the run, with the last-minute addition of a third party. Ann (Marsha Hunt), who works for the lawyer who represented Joe in court, continued her study of the case after Joe’s imprisonment, even visiting him in prison and encouraging him to work on earning his parole so that he can build a decent life for himself when he gets out. Due to some bad luck on the initial part of the lam, Joe and Pat end up in Ann’s apartment, and Joe decides to take Ann along as a hostage. And so all three hit the road together as tensions slowly begin to build among them. Pat resents Ann’s continual appeals to Joe’s better, more reasonable side, and correctly suspects that they are falling in love with each other. Meanwhile, Rick and his henchmen are spinning their spiderish plans…

The film is nominally concerned with certain simple actions and their consequences, but it becomes increasingly clear as the reels unroll that the movie is equally preoccupied with moral questions. The unremitting dangers and the inescapable fate of the criminal are repeatedly presented to Joe while he attempts to gain freedom, and Ann at first seems to exist merely as an incarnation of the better, nobler, safer side of life, the prize Joe could have if he renounced the ways of darkness. But the film becomes much more interesting when Ann becomes more and more deeply attached to Joe and is faced with a sudden dilemma which teaches her the difficulties of abiding strictly by the law in all things, the traps laid by circumstance, and the fatally unforeseeable nature of one’s own actions. Thus she becomes a far more rounded, believable, and intriguing character, instead of a mere moral cipher. Late in the film Pat is confronted by a similarly weighty and perhaps more insidiously tempting choice, and while she does the right thing with her actions, it is shown how intimately and painfully her reasons for doing so are tied to her own personal feelings for Joe, rather than for Goodness Itself–a rather depressing but quite realistic touch.

Dennis O’Keefe portrays Joe with real panache, while Marsha Hunt is quite touching and visually right for the part of Ann–Alton and Mann capture her beauty in such a way that she appears both visually and thematically as light in a dark life. And Claire Trevor is tense, full of repressed passions, suspicious, obsessive, slightly deranged in a most satisfyingly bad-Claire-Trevor-role way. Her first-person narration throughout the film (always accompanied by a suitably mad-sounding score) is one of its most memorable and unusual aspects, and something which should have been tried more often.

Raymond Burr is a terrifying presence as Rick. Alton and Mann decided to shoot Burr from below in several sequences, an unusual choice which adds to the audience’s sense of his absolute power as well as of his madness. Rick has a strong penchant toward fire as an instrument of torture, and his girl (played by Chili Williams) learns this the hard way in a sequence predating Gloria Grahame’s similar fate in Fritz Lang’s 1953 The Big Heat. Getting severely burned seems to be an occupational hazard for gangsters’ molls.

The print viewed for the purposes of this review was, quite frankly, infuriating; the shadows melted into the darkness of the screen instead of coming into dazzling relief, something which isn’t ideal for any film, but is especially terrible for noir viewing, most particularly noir of such high cinematographic caliber. Just enough was visible to make one aware of the beauty that was washed out either by the quality of the print or the quality of the transfer onto the screen on which it was playing. In any case, this is a film which, more than many others, deserves good treatment. So much of the story depends on the visuals, from the charged nighttime scene in a national park to the details of a brutal fight in an isolated seaside taxidermist’s shop to the foggy closing scenes. Fire, water, light, darkness, and then more darkness figure prominently in the story, and it’s hard to get a proper sense of the film merely by following the plot and dialogue.  This is a story which is deeply cinematic, depending on images and framing to depict the complexities of emotion and choice beneath the seemingly simple plot.

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