The TCM Classic Festival screening of Raw Deal (1948) left a large number of hopeful audience members shut out (the fact that there were still empty seats for Love Story across the way was no consolation). Part of the teething process for a festival that seems to double in attendance each year, but one that could be easily remedied by ditching those horrible pokey upstairs theaters at the Mann’s Chinese.
The popularity of Raw Deal is down to its status as the pinnacle of Anthony Mann and John Alton’s über-noir collaboration. T-Men the year before was a stone triumph of drenching B-budget sets and actors in shadows both evocative and eerily abstracting, and banging out a cops-and-robbers procedural that doesn’t let up for a moment across its taut 92-minute running time. For Raw Deal, Mann and Alton push the abstraction yet further.
Dennis O’Keefe returns from T-Men as Joe, who’s itching to break out of jail. Aided by best girl Claire Trevor and the shadowy mob boss for whom he took the fall (but whom he’s never met) that’s just what he does. As legal secretary Marsh Hunt, who has taken a personal interest in his case, points out however, can he really call himself free?
Hunt and her car are hijacked by O’Keefe and Trevor and taken along for the ride. Mann eschews the traditional noir city for the (in this context) unfamiliar nowherelands of mountain forest and Pacific coastline. Beyond the play of light and dark, elements of genre familiarity and comfort are systematically removed – the visiting room of the opening is lit and shot to seem like some metaphysical limbo rather than a concrete place. O’Keefe is continually imprisoned in these tight, abstracted spaces, spending a good deal of time in cars or small, shadow-filled rooms, trapped in a hideout cabin, or snatching a moment of respite amongst crowded pine trees. The forest entirely excludes the natural light, the world outside, until a ranger trots across the horizon, and Alton blasts light through the tress to make prison bars of them.
In the deliberate absence of contextualizing plot elements – we don’t need to know what the mob’s racket is, the history of the characters, why O’Keefe had to take a fall, why Burr is terrified of their meeting and now needs to off him, for example – the dilemmas faced by the three fugitives and their shifting relationships become the meat of the film. O’Keefe and Trevor are older, no longer a kid like Hunt. The sense of a last chance is nicely underplayed, but ever present in the undercurrent of desperation, on the wrong side of the law, and almost on the wrong side of the hill.
On the course of their hounded journey – heading for a ship out of San Francisco – Trevor and Hunt are like angel and devil on O’Keefe’s shoulders, prompting him to act on the more and less selfless urges of his conscience. But not quite: girl scout Hunt is always banging on about the heroic kid Joe once was, although there’s never any real likelihood that he’ll turn himself in as she recommends. Trevor on the other hand is completely in thrall, willing to do whatever O’Keefe wants, but even she breaks down and does the right thing, allowing O’Keefe to do likewise and gain some measure of grace – or at least accomplishment – by the end.
A beautiful blank onscreen, Trevor’s character lives mostly in the voiceover, unusual both for bearing a female perspective, and for being usually a present tense interlude that segues right back into the dialogue (it works better than it should). It is she who gets the raw deal of the title, such a slave to love that she must watch her man slip away from her until best wishes for him end by running counter to her own. She provides the film’s melancholically fatalism, dazzlingly visualized (literally) by Alton’s use of filters, making glittering stars of Trevor’s diamonds and dark eyeballs. She also gets a nice, sad theremin theme to accompany each voiceover.
There theremin is not quite too much, but of a piece with the general push to abstract the story from genre conventions and to attempt something more like poetry, or at least metaphysics. Mann strangely elides certain scenes of action (the 10,000-1 shot of O’Keefe’s jail break goes off with a few bangs and remarkable ease; the impregnable dragnet is evaded off-screen and with little more comment than “phew”), but he still flashes his to-the-point brutality, from O’Keefe trying to impale John Ireland’s face on a deer antler, to the blazing Courvoisier punch that Burr tosses in a clumsy moll’s face. Despite a terrific gun-fight in pea souper-laden alley, and the climactic fight, a fantastic, almost literal battle for a soul’s salvation in the fiery inferno of Hell, the film’s exciting and innovative techniques don’t quite gel overall. It’s not helped by the fact that we can never quite see O’Keefe’s mug in the same light of adulation as Trevor emits, nor that pasty Burr never seems terribly threatening. But it’s still full of extraordinary stuff, and plenty exciting.