Raw Deal (1948)
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Five years before Lee Marvin threw coffee into Gloria Grahame's face in The Big Heat (1953), Raymond Burr threw flaming brandy into the face of his mistress in Raw Deal (1948), simply because she spilled a drink on him. Burr actually throws it into our face - the camera lens - and though we never see the burn on the face of his victim, we certainly hear, and feel, her reaction. Burr's own flippant reaction to what he's done makes it even more appalling: "She should have been more careful," he shrugs. This scene of shocking violence is but one of many in the movie, a brilliant low-budget film noir from director Anthony Mann.
Made for Eagle-Lion Studios, Raw Deal is the fourth in a string of 'B' noirs that Mann directed in the 1940s. His previous film, T-Men (1947), had been a breakthrough for the director (not to mention Eagle-Lion), and with the equally fine Raw Deal it was obvious that Mann had serious, consistent talent. So did his cameraman, John Alton, who is now recognized as one of the industry's finest cinematographers. Time and again, the pair created something interesting out of very little by imaginatively finding visual ways to heighten audience involvement and deepen characters.
Raw Deal, in fact, has much deeper characterizations than is the norm for such a cheap programmer. The rather implausible screenplay by John C. Higgins (another T-Men alum) finds Dennis O'Keefe in jail for a crime he didn't commit. He has taken the rap for his gangster boss, Raymond Burr, and now they have hatched an escape plan. But Burr, who was actually hoping that O'Keefe would die trying to escape, grows nervous when he hears that O'Keefe has busted out successfully and is now heading his way.
Woven tightly into this story thread are two female characters, one good and one bad, and it's hard not to see them as representing two forces pulling O'Keefe in two directions. Claire Trevor is the moll who helps O'Keefe escape and dreams of a life with him. Marsha Hunt, meanwhile, is a social worker who had visited O'Keefe in prison trying to help him. He now kidnaps her, and the three spend the bulk of the movie on the road with the cops in pursuit. When O'Keefe starts falling for Hunt, Trevor grows jealous. Thanks to a plot turn, Hunt's fate ultimately rests in Trevor's hands, and the question of whether she will do the right thing to save her becomes an intriguing and even poignant one - as well as an excuse for one of the most ingenious compositions in the picture, with Trevor's face reflected on the face of a clock.
Trevor, one of the supreme bad girls of film noir (Murder, My Sweet 1944, Born to Kill, 1947) is actually a grounding force for the audience from the film's opening moments. When her ghost-like, present-tense narration washes over the soundtrack, it's clear that this will be a movie in which tone and atmosphere are everything. Her narration, for instance, lends strong fatalism. The movie's overall design, with almost every scene set at night, gives a feel of a world that is dark and despairing. And with O'Keefe framed over and over in confined spaces, the movie suggests that he never "escaped" from prison.
Raw Deal's world is also one of brutal violence. A fistfight in a taxidermy shop between O'Keefe and John Ireland (extremely good as one of Burr's henchmen), is visceral and shocking thanks largely to sound. It goes on and on, with sound effects making the blows land with very loud thuds - so solid you can almost feel them. An off-screen torture of one character is all the more powerful for being implied rather than shown. And Raymond Burr's pyromania makes even the flicking of a cigarette lighter ominous.
Burr may have been an effective fixture in film noir in the late 1940s, but his "Rick" in Raw Deal is actually an underwritten bad guy made menacing and scary entirely by directing choices, such as low camera angles and gaudy costumes. As film historian Jeanine Basinger has written, "Without Mann and Alton's mastery of form, Rick would be a dull villain, dependent on Burr's girth for his originality. By enhancing his evil through camera angles, decor, and the fire motif, a character was deepened - created, really - where none existed before." These kinds of touches elevate the picture. Mixed with Mann's fine pacing skills, they add up to a movie that is a lot more exciting, touching and dramatic than it ever really deserved to be.
Producer: Edward Small
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Arnold B. Armstrong, Audrey Ashley, Leopold Atlas, John C. Higgins
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editing: Alfred DeGaetano
Art Direction: Edward L. Ilou
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O'Keefe (Joseph Emmett Sullivan), Claire Trevor (Pat Cameron), Marsha Hunt (Ann Martin), John Ireland (Fantail), Raymond Burr (Rick Coyle), Curt Conway (Spider).
by Jeremy Arnold