Release Date: May 26th, 1948
Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Leopold Atlas, John C. Higgins, Arnold B. Armstrong, Audrey Ashley
Music by: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, Raymond Burr
Edward Small Productions, Reliance Pictures, 79 Minutes
“What do you know about anything? You probably had your bread buttered on both sides since the day you were born. Safe. Safe on first, second, third, and home.” – Joseph Emmett Sullivan
I checked out Raw Deal on TCM’s Noir Alley. However, I’ve known about it for a little while. It was covered and discussed in several books I’ve read about film-noir and every writer that mentioned it gave it a lot of praise. I was glad to see it in the Noir Alley lineup, as I wanted to check it out myself.
The film stars Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt. The three find themselves in a love triangle, as the two women are on the lam with O’Keefe’s Joseph. Trevor plays Pat while Hunt plays Ann. Pat helps Sullivan escape prison. However, unbeknownst to her, at the time, he doesn’t have romantic feelings for her. Instead, his heart is with a social worker, Ann. Sullivan escapes in an effort to get revenge on the brutish mobster Rick Coyle (played by Raymond Burr). However, Coyle has his own plans for Sullivan.
Burr’s Coyle is exceptionally brutal, as the film’s heavy. In one scene, he throws a flaming bowl into the face of a woman. The scene was edited to show the flaming bowl flying into the face of the audience from a first-person point-of-view, which was quite savage for a 1940s picture. After seeing this movie, I have a newfound respect for Burr, as he can play an evil mob boss just as well as a nice, do-gooder lawyer.
O’Keefe and Trevor put in good performances but the sweet and innocent Hunt really pulls you in. When she has to commit an unspeakable act, your heart goes out to her, as she’s a good person pulled into a dark web and forced to participate in the proceedings that seem so much larger than her and more barbarous than anything she should have to experience.
The thing that really brings this motion picture to the next level is the cinematography by John Alton. The man did some superb work with this film and it is the best looking film-noir I have seen. I wouldn’t say that it surpasses Citizen Kane, which isn’t really a noir, but it gets close to that level. In fact, it surpasses The Third Man, which I never thought another film from this era could do, as that film is so visually satisfying.
The film has several spectacular looking scenes. The one, for me, that really stands out is when Joseph and Pat are on the ship, about to escape the country, when Pat finally confesses a dark secret. The scene shows a side profile of Pat’s face, close-up, as it is layered over the backdrop of a plain wall and a plain clock. It is how this moment is captured that truly shows the difference between a great cinematographer and an average one. The shadows, the stark contrast, the chiaroscuro effect pushed to the extreme – it creates a real sense of darkness, despair and a small glimmer of hope that Pat will overcome whatever wickedness is in her heart and do the right thing. It is one of the best looking scenes ever shot on celluloid. Not to take anything away from Claire Trevor but this is an example of great cinematography backing up an actor’s performance and making it grander than it would have otherwise been.
There are so many great scenes like the one I just described but that one stood out the most. The film makes great use of fog and environment to enhance the effect of the noir visual style. This is a near masterpiece, overall, but it is a true masterpiece in regards to the cinematography.
Raw Deal isn’t the best film-noir but it could very well be the best looking true noir. It is certainly the best looking out of all the films I have seen in the style. That doesn’t mean that I won’t delve deeper into the noir barrel and eventually pull out something better. But out of the few dozen of these pictures I’ve seen, this one takes the cinematography cake.