If there’s one subset of movies that not only doesn’t require a big budget and big stars but actually benefits from lower budgets and lesser known stars, it’s film noir. It doesn’t mean you can’t have great noirs of the big budget variety, and we have, from The Maltese Falcon to Out of the Past and dozens in between, before, and after. It just means that sometimes noir can function exceedingly well when done on the cheap. One of the best noirs of the forties is Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal. In the best decade ever for noir, it stands out even among the greats. That it didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time now feels like Anthony Mann’s other raw deal.
All noirs take place in another world. They take place in a world filled with shadows, broken dreams, dangerous men, and even more dangerous women. The great thing about noir is that the best of them feel like horror movies as much as crime movies. Raw Deal is no different. Its opening shots, of Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), in the visiting room at the prison, talking with social worker, Ann (Marsha Hunt), the music strikes an eerie tone, a minor organ note, held as it wavers, like the kind one hears in a horror movie when the hero is lost in the woods and danger approaches. The lighting of the scene is ghost-like, muted light and soft focus, and the angle of the shot, a forced perspective as we look down the table behind Joe and Ann, is ominous. It’s a great opening and sets the feel for the movie, a feeling of being trapped that the isolated visiting room conveys perfectly.
Here’s the setup: Joe’s in prison because he took the fall for Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) and Ann, the social worker, visits him regularly in an attempt to rehabilitate him. Pat (Claire Trevor) is Joe’s girl and comes to him with a plan setup by Rick to break Joe out of jail. Only Rick doesn’t actually want Joe out. As he reveals to his right hand man, Fantail (John Ireland), he’s expecting Joe to get killed in the jailbreak, at which point he won’t have to worry about Joe finding out he double-crossed him. He’s even greased some of the guards at the prison to make sure Joe doesn’t make it. Problem is, Joe makes it. Pat drives the getaway car but only gets as far as the suburbs because the gas tank got hit with bullets from the break and all the gas has leaked out. That’s when Joe gets the idea to kidnap Ann and her car to head out of town, on their way to meet up with Rick. This puts the three of them together in one of the great noir triangles, where the femme fatale may be Pat or Ann, or both. The film builds to a climax as taut as any thriller you’re likely to see with a few twists of plot along the way and a moral choice by Pat that’s framed as beautifully as anything I’ve ever seen.
Anthony Mann gained a reputation for lean, muscular filmmaking, a reputation he built quickly in the forties. What does that mean exactly? Well, in Raw Deal, it means he took characters not fleshed out by monologues and dialogue, with only hints of backstory, and working with extraordinary cinematographer John Alton, crafted characters out of light and shadow, and story out of cuts and cues. While the Pat character narrates the movie, sometimes in the present (“we’re driving to the coast…”), sometimes in the past (“I felt a little confused…”), she reveals little about anything. Her narration is just another way to set the mood rather than tell the story. With Mann, action is the story.
This comes into play in a remarkable fight in a taxidermy shop about two thirds of the way through the movie. The nets that cast shadows over the room, the animal silhouettes in the corners, the sounds of anger and pain as the three men fight and one of the women looking on, deciding whether to use that gun or not, is a masterpiece of story advancement. Things happen in this scene without words that take the plot, the characters and what they represent in entirely different directions.
John Alton lights the movie as well as any noir out there. Raw Deal contains shots that feel like they could have come from an Orson Welles film and, in fact, film historian David Meyer favorably compared the movie’s look to Citizen Kane. Remarkably, Bosley Crowther gave the film a negative notice upon its release and other critics followed with mixed feelings. I’m not one to routinely dismiss Bosley Crowther, even as he is something of an easy target for modern cinephiles, a white elephant’s patron, if you will, because I actually think he, like almost every other critic in history, had great moments of insight as well as numerous occasions of movie blindness. This would be one of them. How Crowther could not see in the first ten minutes is, quite frankly, beyond my comprehension. Raw Deal looks great and moves along in an uneasy advancement towards a doomed finale, the kind of doomed finale you know must come with any great noir. It must be lamented that any noir this good, while lacking the kind of reputation afforded other noirs of far lesser quality, got a deal perfectly evoked by its very title. A raw deal, indeed.