Everyone gets a raw deal in Raw Deal, a taut and dark film noir from 1948, directed by Anthony Mann, lit by the great John Alton and so often overlooked when Greatest Noir lists are being compiled.
Its characters all come with a tragic flaw which writers John Higgins and Leopold Atlas are eventually going to prise wide open but it’s the additional wallop of sheer bad luck that makes this unusual – that and the voiceover by one of its female characters, Pat Regan, played by Claire Trevor.
Pat is in love with Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) but Joe is in prison doing a stretch as the fall guy for bigshot criminal Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). Rick’s promised to pay Joe $50K for doing his time and on top of that has a plan to spring him from jail. But what Joe doesn’t know is that Rick has no intention of paying Joe, and intends for Joe to accidentally on purpose get killed or caught after breaking free.
Complicating all this is Joe’s legal caseworker, a sweet innocent and good-looking young woman called Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). As the curtain goes up, and with Pat in voiceover detailing how she’s visiting Joe to tell him of the escape plan, Joe is in deep conversation about his case with Ann, who’s giving him the glad eye, as he is her.
When the time comes, Joe makes his bid for freedom but he doesn’t get caught as Rick expected (a rare bit of good luck) and is soon on the run with Pat. But fate, in the shape of bad luck (a car out of fuel), throws Pat and Joe and Ann together and soon all three of them are on the road together, evading the cops while Ann and Pat try to work out which one of them is playing gooseberry – hard-faced but worldly wise Pat or decent but naive Ann. Joe meanwhile wrestles with feelings he has for each of them.
And that’s the essential dynamic of the film – a threeway relationship tangle with the cops constantly in hot pursuit and blind bad luck intervening at the oddest moments.
Working hand in glove, Mann and Alton proceed as if the film comprised storyboards (barely) come to life. Alton lights it as if it were stills and Mann shoots it with a largely static camera and gets his cast to move about as little as possible, within the bounds of plausibility. It looks fantastically noirish, with geometric shapes all over the place, a deep focus and a sharp contrasty image (OK, there’s some soft on the women here and there). It’s particularly worth seeking out the restored version, like the Classicflix one linked to below, which used a nitrate from the BFI as the basis for a 2K scan and restoration.
O’Keefe was never one of the big names of Hollywood but he’s particularly good here as a man who has doom written all over him. Intensely so as the film accelerates towards the end, when Mann really starts to build a sense of dread.
Crime does not pay in 1940s Hollywood, and so Joe’s fate is sealed, but Mann holds out the prospect that he might get away right up to the last minute. As for which woman he’s going to eventually go for, he leaves that pretty open too.
All that remains is for Raymond Burr’s nasty Rick to get his comeuppance, which also hangs in the balance until the end, when a brilliantly choreographed and staged fight sequence, the second one of the movie, seals his fate.
Mann clearly had a thing for cars of the period and there are some beauties being gunned down those hopeless roads – a 1946 Buick Super, a Dodge De Luxe, a Plymouth Special De Luxe among them. A little distraction in case the film fails to fully engage, which is unlikely in the extreme. At 79 minutes, it moves like a getaway car too.
Raw Deal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023