Movies We Like
Anthony Mann had a storied career as a director of westerns, many of which starred Jimmy Stewart (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur). He directed one of the most ecstatically bizarre examples of the genre—The Furies starring the great Barbara Stanwyck. But before he made his name with westerns and sprawling epics such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, he is best remembered as one of the original progenitors of the noir style. Mann made some of the most classic films associated with noir in the late 1940s and, for my money, nothing beats his shadow-drenched masterpiece Raw Deal. With its rich expressionist visuals and eerie Theremin score, Raw Deal is a poetic depiction of a world in perpetual twilight.
Dennis O’Keefe —one of those beautifully rough hewn actors in the Burt Lancaster and Sterling Hayden mold—plays Joe Sullivan, a guy doing time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit (as a favor to a local crime syndicate boss with the promise of $50,000 coming his way if he plays along). Joe’s girl Pat is played by Claire Trevor, who provides a haunting voiceover throughout the film in a whispered voice that suggests she’s mourning Joe before he’s gone. She would do anything for him, and he is happy to let her. She shows up for a prison visit with information about how she’s going to spring him from jail. Rick, the crime boss of Corkscrew Alley, a.k.a the bad part of town, has engineered a scheme to bust Joe out of jail and have him snuffed out before he can claim his 50 Gs, but all Pat knows is if things go as planned he’ll be out of the big house and back in her arms that night. Joe has another woman in his life complicating his relationship with Pat, though. Marsha Hunt plays Ann, his case worker, a prim brunette to Pat’s life-hardened blonde, who believes that the real Joe Sullivan is a decent guy who deserves a second chance in life if he agrees to play by the rules. But Joe never had much luck from the start and he has no intention of going straight now. At dusk he makes his escape, barely outrunning prison guard gunfire to a waiting car and, once inside, Pat and Joe make their getaway. But before they can get out on the lam Joe insists they first take Ann hostage and force her to play along until they get to the hideout (which is really a set up) that Rick has arranged for Joe.
Joe seems to be falling for Ann and Pat can barely stand it. Pat has waited for Joe through thick and thin only to watch helplessly as Joe and Ann’s tense bickering gives way to something more ambiguously affectionate. As they drive through the gorgeously scenic Pacific Northwest, the large expanse of trees and road becomes creepier than the claustrophobic city that they fled. Between the horror movie-like score, the shots of their lonely car winding highways in desperate search of what amounts to a death trap, and Pat’s present tense eulogy for what she knows she’s never going to have, there is something consistently ominous about the mood. It’s mysterious and unsettling.
All great noirs have a memorable heavy (i.e. the villain of the story) and Raymond Burr’s dough boy pyro character, Rick, is surely one of the most indelible bad guys in all of noir. With his wide angled suits, awkwardly menacing body language, and illicit look in his eyes whenever a match is sparked he is an entirely original creation and a worthy adversary to resourceful fugitive Joe Sullivan. There’s kind of a tradition in noir of floozies who pal around with criminals getting some kind of horrific comeuppance for mouthing off at the wrong moment to their boyfriends—think Lee Marvin slamming a pot full of boiling coffee into Gloria Graham’s face in The Big Heat. Raw Deal has Burr’s character Rick fling a giant bowl of flaming punch at some poor girl who got on his nerves. He’s a sick puppy.
Rick has one of his guys waiting for Joe at the hideout ready to kill him. When Joe arrives with Pat and Ann in tow, he quickly realizes he has been set up. A fight ensues between Joe and his would-be killer and, with Ann’s help, he gets away. Ann feels that she has compromised her neutrality by helping Joe against his attacker and this helps her to come to terms with her true feelings for Joe, much to Pat’s despair. A purposefully unsentimental goodbye is exchanged between Joe and Ann (for her own sake - he doesn’t want her to fall for him) and soon Pat and Joe are together again, ready to escape to a new life, if they can outrun both the police and Rick’s goons.
Eventually Pat gets what she wanted—she talks Joe out of getting revenge against Rick and she and Joe are ready to set sail for a life away from all of their troubles somewhere under a palm tree. But she finds out that Ann—the woman she never wanted to hear from again— has been kidnapped by one of Rick’s guys and, if she has any chance of getting out alive, Joe has to head back to Corkscrew Alley and confront the ambush waiting for him. Just as they’re about to finally start over she confesses to Joe what she knows and Joe, doomed to do the right thing, heads out into the night to rescue Ann. A shoot out ensues and Joe comes face to face with Rick, both getting shot in the gut from each other’s pistols. The place goes up in flames as Rick takes a fall out the window and Joe manages to escape with Ann before dying on the sidewalk in her arms. Pat’s final voice-over tells us she knows who he really loved and it wasn’t her sounding resigned rather than angry.
The power of Raw Deal is in the mood of the film, which is somewhere between a crime drama and a fatalistic ghost story. There are some stunning sequences in the film that defy the low budget means by which the picture got made. A policeman on horseback riding through the mist into the forest where Joe, Pat, and Ann are resting; the fight between Joe and his attacker at the hideout in a room full of mounted animal heads; and Rick’s fiery demise are all rendered so hauntingly and beautifully you might wonder why this film isn’t better known or more readily available. With Raw Deal, Mann elevated the crime flick to a level of mystery and visual poetry it had not yet attained.