Raw Deal was Anthony Mann’s second film with John Alton as cinematographer. It was a cinematic marriage that produced some of the finest low budget film noirs in cinema. Both Mann and Alton did excellent work with others, but together their sensibilities were simpatico. It was like they each knew what the other wanted. A short film, only 79 minutes, it’s packed with action, characterization, stylish dramatic dark lighting and expressive camera angles that tell as much about the story as the dialogue and plot reveal.
Released in 1948, the film begins with Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison and itching to get out. He took the rap as a “favor” to the big boss, Rick (Raymond Burr), with a promise that the big guy will help him break out of the big house. He also promised to give him cash totaling $50,000. Rick sets up the prison break, but also makes arrangements for Joe to never make it to San Francisco to collect the money. With the help of his girl, Pat Cameron, nicely portrayed by Claire Trevor, Joe makes it out of prison, safely avoiding the cops. He plans to hide out in Ann Martin’s (Marsha Hunt) apartment forcing her to cooperate. Ann, who we previously met, works for Joe’s lawyer and had visited Joe just prior to Pat informing him the breakout was all set for that evening.
Making their way to San Francisco, the threesome managed to avoid various roadblocks and attempts by Rick’s thugs on Joe’s life. Along the way, Joe and Ann fall in love, leaving Pat the odd one out. However, Rick knows, he will be on the run his entire life and sends Ann back home, only to be kidnapped by one of Rick’s goons (John Ireland) and brought up to Rick’s apartment. Meanwhile, Joe and Pat are set to leave the country by ship when Pat reveals she lied about an earlier phone call from Rick’s thugs that Rick was now holding Ann hostage. If Joe didn’t show up in a half hour, she would suffer some serious disfiguration. Rick you see, has a thing for fire. Earlier in the film he tossed a small fire at one of his hoods bimbo’s after she accidently bumped into him.
Joe heads to Rick’s place. After a shootout, he kill’s Rick, tossing the big guy into a raging fire. Mortally wounded himself during the shootout, Joe dies in Ann’s arms as Pat, handcuffed to a cop, is led away.
Anthony Mann and John Alton created a visually stunning work of noir art. Mann’s expressive camera is used not to just show off, but to further the story. His many low angle shots of Raymond Burr reflect not just his bulk, but his power as the big guy towering over everyone in the gang. There is not one shot in the film that is not superbly composed.
Raw Deal is a film about escape. Escape from prison, from a life gone wrong, from one’s self. It’s also a film about making bad choices in life. Joe’s life has been one on the run, mostly from himself. His choices in life have led him down one bad path after another.
One of the surprising elements in the film are the roles played by the two female leads. There is Pat, a desperate sounding Claire Trevor, who does the narration. She is Joe’s long-time girl who loves him and helps with his escape. Then there is Marsha Hunt’s Ann, an employee of Joe’s lawyer, who get entwined in his web when Joe takes her along as a semi-hostage on his trek to San Francisco to recover his $50,000 from Rick. I say semi-hostage because Ann likes Joe, and wants to believe there is good in him somewhere. Both women are hooked on the bad boy and he clearly shows he is no one woman man. Between the three, there is a sexual tension that remains lit throughout the film, and this despite the fact, both women know each of them likes Joe. Pat is the bad one, Ann, the good one. Yet it’s Ann who saves Joe’s life by shooting one of Rick’s thugs wounding him enough for them to get away.