Sunday, May 14, 2023

Raw Deal (1948)

Raw Deal is the most admired of Anthony Mann’s 1940s films noirs, and with good reason.

Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) is doing time in the state penitentiary and he’s not enjoying it. He took the rap for Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) and Rick owes him a major favour. Now Joe’s girlfriend Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) brings him the good news. Rick is going to pay his debt. Joe is going to be busted out of prison that night.

Joe has had another female visitor. Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) has taken an interest in his case. She thinks there may be a way for to him get parole in a couple of years. She doesn’t understand that Joe isn’t prepared to wait. He wants out now.

What is Ann’s interest in Joe? Is she just a do-gooder or does she have a crush on him? We suspect the latter might be the case. Ann herself is probably not really being honest with herself about her motivations at this stage.

Throughout the movie we get a voiceover narration from Pat, a very film noir touch.

The prison break goes well at first but then little things start to go wrong. Joe and Pat need a place to hide out. They pick Ann’s apartment. Joe decides they should take Ann along - the cops will not be looking for a man accompanied by two women.

Pat is a jealous woman and she doesn’t like Ann one little bit. She also doesn’t trust her. Ann keeps trying to persuade Joe to give himself up.

The audience knows more than Joe. We know that the odds are stacked against him in ways he nows nothing about. There’s going to be a double-cross.

The fugitive trio manage to stay one step ahead of the law but they never seem able to get clear entirely. We don’t get to know a single cop by name. The police are just a sinister presence in the background, which is also very film noirish. Our sympathies are entirely with the fugitives.

There’s a powerful sense of impending doom. The odds really are heavily stacked against Joe and his two female companions (one willing and one unwilling).

There’s plenty of suspense which Mann handles with considerable skill.

Joe is a fairly classic noir hero. He’s a criminal and makes no apologies for that but he shows frequent flashes of decency. We feel that he is probably doomed but doesn’t really deserve to be doomed. Joe isn’t stupid but he has a streak of noir fatalism. Dennis O’Keefe really is excellent in this rôle. He doesn’t try to make Joe an idealised hero but he manages to make him sympathetic.

There’s no textbook femme fatale. Ann is emotionally and morally ambiguous and she makes things very complicated and she has the potential to get Joe into a lot of trouble but she’s not a consciously scheming femme fatale. She may however do a bit of unconscious scheming. It’s obvious that she is sexually and emotionally attracted to Joe even if she tries not to admit it to herself, and it’s obvious that even if she doesn’t set out to be Pat’s rival that is what she becomes in practice. Ann is a complex fascinating female character who can’t be slotted neatly into either the good girl or bad girl category. Marsha Hunt’s performance is subtle and effective.

Pat is the loyal girlfriend who knows she’s a fool for falling for a guy like Joe. For my money she is a bit overshadowed by Marsha Hunt (who has the advantage of the more interesting rôle) but I can’t fault Claire Trevor’s performance.

Raymond Burr is of course fun as the slippery Rick.

This is a film noir but it’s also a couple-on-the-run movie, an ever-popular genre, Hitchcock had already made a couple of these movies and in the same year that Raw Deal came out They Live By Night would also appear.

Raw Deal is one of those movies that challenges any assumption we might have about the auteur theory. Anthony Mann directed the movie and it’s very much an Anthony Mann movie. But it doesn’t have quite the flavour of most Anthony Mann movies. John Alton, the greatest of all noir cinematographers, was the director of photography. This movie has John Alton’s fingerprints all over it. It looks every inch like a John Alton movie.

Raw Deal
is also very much film noir. Some attempts have been made to describe the classic westerns Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart in the 50s as noir westerns. I don’t buy it. They’re serious grown-up westerns and they have some dark moments (especially Winchester ’73) but they’re not film noir. They belong wholeheartedly to the western genre.

Anthony Mann did make several noir films in the 40s. Thematically movies like the under-appreciated The Great Flamarion are very noir. But they don’t have that classic noir look that Raw Deal has. The only other Anthony Mann movie that really looks noir is the excellent T-Men, and John Alton did the cinematography for that one as well.

So is Raw Deal an Anthony Mann movie or a John Alton movie? The answer of course is that it’s both. Raw Deal is what you get when you have two very talented men collaborating.

You could also ask whether the noirness of Anthony Mann’s other 40s movies reflects Mann’s own vision or whether it reflects what was happening in Hollywood at the time. Darker themes and gloomier outcomes were fashionable and the Production Code had relaxed just enough to allow such movies to be made. Film noir was part of the zeitgeist of the 40s. As a young director trying to find his feet Mann would have been influenced by that zeitgeist. Mann’s 1950s westerns reflected the zeitgeist of the 50s. That’s not to say that directors like Mann did not have their own vision, it’s just to say that the individual visions of directors and the collective spirit of the film industry at a particular time interact on each other. Mann was always in touch with the zeitgeist of the time. His final movie in 1968 was a very very 1960s movie, a cynical morally ambiguous spy movie (the excellent A Dandy in Aspic).

Raw Deal ticks most of the noir boxes and there are very few movies that can match it when it comes to noir visual style. It’s also a gripping and entertaining movie. Very highly recommended.

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