(director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: from a story by Arnold B. Armstrong & Audrey Ashley/Leopold Atlas/John Higgins; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Alfred De Gaetano; cast: Dennis O’Keefe (Joe Sullivan), Claire Trevor (Pat), Marsha Hunt (Ann Martin), Raymond Burr (Rick), John Ireland (Fantail), Curt Conway (Spider), Whit Bissell (Escaped Murderer), Chili Williams (Marcy), Cliff Clark (Gates), Richard Fraser (Fields); Runtime: 79; Eagle-Lion; 1948)
“The photography is electric.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Anthony Mann (T-Men/He Walked by Night/Desperate) knows how to direct a low-budget noir film, something he did quite often in the late ’40s and early ’50s until he switched to Jimmy Stewart/Gary Cooper big-budget Westerns and later on in the ’60s to unsuccessful commercial Hollywood films; such as, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
John Alton is an excellent cinematographer, with noir films being his specialty. His camera knows how to capture that shadowy world of half-lit images and dark background scenery and he knows how to get that element of suspense by using many odd camera angles, making things seem unbalanced. That is something that works rather well for this nightmarish tale.
The director and the cinematographer are fortunate to have a tight, tough, no-nonsense script to work with and they make the best of it, touching a raw nerve or two. The film is fast-paced and packed with scenes that are shockingly brutal. “Raw Deal” is one of the best kept noir secrets, rarely mentioned when the great noir films are discussed by aficionados of the genre.
Pat (Claire) is talking to herself in a world-weary manner, trying to convince herself that everything will be fine, while car riding to visit her boyfriend, Joe Sullivan (O’Keefe). He’s a small time crook, doing prison time for a rap he took for a racketeer named Rick (Burr). She is the film’s narrator which is a role-reversal, as the man usually gets to do this narration in noir films.
The good news she brings Joe is that Rick has arranged for a breakout that evening. He tells her that he is anxious to get out, that he needs the fresh air to breath again. But Joe has another visitor, someone who worked for the lawyers who handled his case when it went to trial. She took a special interest in his case, thinking she saw something good in him that he had when he was a child when he heroically went into a burning building and rescued those trapped inside. It is that innocence he had as a child that he lost, that Miss Ann Martin (Hunt) feels could be replenished. The attractive young lady has come to tell him that he might be eligible for parole in three years, that he should not lose hope.
Back in Rick’s San Francisco headquarters he is gloating to his gang members, Spider (Conway) and Fantail (Ireland), telling them he is going to double-cross Joe; that he arranged for him to get past the first few prison doors, but there is little chance that he can go over the wall and escape. He believes the cops will do his dirty work for him so he won’t have to pay his crime partner the $50,000 he owes him for their deal.
But Joe gets over the wall with Pat’s help, as she brings him the getaway car and they go on the run, avoiding the police chasing them. Though their gas tank is riddled with bullets and they have to abandon the car, Joe is still determined to see Rick in Crescent City and get his money. He then plans to take a boat from San Francisco to South America. Since they are near where Ann Martin lives, he visits her thinking he has no one else to turn to for help. He climbs through her bedroom window, awakening the sleeping Ann with a kiss. When she wants him to turn himself in and refuses to help, he tells her they are taking her and her car along with them. When he goes to the window to look down her street the moonlight shines in through the Venetian blinds, causing the light to enter the room in horizontal slats of light. We have witnessed a special poetic moment in noir film, a shot that has since become a classic, telling more in its contrasting light and dark images than words could ever express.
Claire, in a voiceover, sensing how Joe feels about Ann and recalling that he never said that he loves her, bemoans to herself how she feels more rotten than before; and, now that she got him out of prison, she isn’t even sitting next to him in the car. She doesn’t want to take Ann along but goes along with Joe, believing there is nothing she can do to stop what is happening.
Pat remains hopelessly in love but knows she won’t have her man in the end, and he is the only thing she wants in the world. Ann represents what Joe will never have, she is a reminder to him of what it is to be normal. While Joe is really a decent guy who became a criminal because of external circumstances, who can’t win because he thinks the cards are stacked against him. The three manage to allude the massive police dragnet and head for a mountain retreat, where Joe knows the owner and they will be able to switch cars.
In an unneeded melodramatic scene a wife killer flees up the mountainside and is tracked there by the police, who shoot him outside Joe’s hide-out. It seemed too contrived as the killer’s comment to them was, “I killed her but I don’t know why; I deserve to die.”
Meanwhile, the confident Rick is not as confident as he was before learning that Joe is free, and he is needled by Fantail that it looks like he’ll have to pay Joe what he owes him in Crescent City. The psychopathic Rick, who is filmed from his waist up making him look even more imposing than he is, goes into a snarling rage and when his girlfriend who is dancing with one of his gang accidentally bumps into him he picks up a bowl of flaming brandy and throws it at her.
Rick’s plan now becomes to send Fantail to Crescent City and eliminate their unsuspecting partner.
In the Crescent City taxidermist store where Joe expects to meet Rick, Ann remains outside in the car; but, instead of meeting Rick, Fantail is there and pulls a gun on him. Somehow Joe manages to knock the gun out of his hand, as Ann enters the store and picks up the dropped gun and grazes Fantail as she shoots. They both escape after Joe knocks out the store owner. Ann realizes that she really loves Joe as they spend the night together.
When they return to the motel in the morning, Joe knows it can’t work out with Ann and gets her to take one of the cars back to San Francisco while he and Pat go their separate way to San Francisco. Bent on revenge, Joe wants to get Rick saying no one can make a sucker out of him and get away with it; but, he is talked out of it by Pat, who is telling him how unimportant Rick is. Joe finally gets to say what she always wanted to hear, of them settling down and living a regular crime-free life. But it, somehow, sounds to her, that he is saying it to Ann not her.
Warning: spoiler to follow.
The photography is electric, consisting of low angle shots and reflections of light coming in from the open window, giving the scene a naturally eerie look and a depth perception creating the illusion of how far apart the men have now become in their lives. The light from the candelabra highlights the shadows in the room, with Joe backed up at the far end of the room pointing a pistol at Rick and asking for Ann. The elegantly robed Rick surprises him by firing a small gun he had hidden in his pocket and Joe reacts by firing back, and then Rick trips over the candles which sets the place on fire as he tries to pull Joe into the fire with him. Rick then jumps out the window in a ball of flames. Ann is found locked in another room and escapes with Joe, as Joe dies in her arms. The arrested Pat watches this on the street, as the police stand-by in silence.
REVIEWED ON 1/27/2000 GRADE: A- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/