Raw Deal

(USA - 1948)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Dennis O'Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, & Raymond Burr
Genre: Film-Noir/Crime/Drama
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: John C. Higgins & Leopold Atlas from the story by Arnold B. Armstrong & Audrey Ashley
Cinematography: John Alton
Composer: Paul Sawtell
Runtime: 79 minutes

Everyone gets a raw deal in Anthony Mann’s genre blending film noir. Though this follow up to T-Men reunites Mann with ace cinematographer John Alton and actor Dennis O’Keefe, as well as featuring his talented stock company with Raymond Burr and composer Paul Sawtell, the films bear little similarity beyond the amazingly lit and framed high contrast photography that verges on being a black screen illuminated by precisely placed floods of light.

This surreal atmospheric road movie spends about as much time in the forest as anywhere else, with Sawtell’s hypnotic dreamlike theremin score distancing the film from the typical noir moods and boundaries. In 1940’s movies the theremin was used almost exclusively for science fiction, so the audience’s expectations are toyed with considerably, and though Mann never goes in that direction he does include a few seemingly unrelated incidents such as a man on the run from the law showing up at the cabin the hoods are temporarily hiding out at.

O’Keefe was a treasury agent in T-Men (though he enjoyed the underworld), but this time he’s an antihero escaping from prison with the “help” of Burr, who he took the rap for. Sinister Burr actually hopes it’ll get him gunned down before he changes his mind and decides to try to switch places with him. What better (or more gutless) way is there to get rid of someone you need eliminated than having the enemy do it for you?

O’Keefe uses two women for protection, each representing a side of his personality. Claire Trevor is the aging world weary moll, a realist who knows this is the last chance for both of them and urges him to act in the interest of self preservation. Marsha Hunt is the younger more attractive moralist, a legal aid who tries to help get his sentenced reduced because he was once a good kid and she believes she can help unearth that buried decency. Normally Mann uses women as the voice of reason petitioning against bloodshed, but here that logic sometimes comes off as naivety. With the situation dictating, everything the women say can be negated in an instant because when they have to act they may discover that, for better or worse, they'll choose the opposite of what they preach.

O’Keefe is caught between his desire for freedom and a lover or two and his conscience, resulting in the situation dictating intense violence. Like all Mann stars he’s his own worst enemy, drawn to destroying himself like a moth to the flame. What separates Mann from the pack when it comes to this theme is it’s ultimately the good in his stars that does them in. The trio are trapped and doomed by their loyalty to one another.

Trevor, in a performance far superior to her bogus award winning the same year in Key Largo, delivers a sorrowful present tense narration in a whisper, making it more of an interior monologue. It’s one of the only noirs narrated by a woman, and the narration really adds to the feel. Certainly it’s a huge improvement over the blockhead explanatory work in T-Men.

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Burr, always filmed from below to accentuate his hulking presence, gives a diabolical performance alternating between coward in hiding and sadistic fireball kid. Look out for the scene where he tosses flaming cherry jubilee at a clumsy waitress, a likely inspiration for Gloria Grahame’s fate in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat.

O’Keefe once again plays both his good and bad sides very well, the requirement of any Mann star. He’s always bordering on one while doing the other. Given the quality of these two films and his performances in them it’s a wonder, and shame, he didn’t get a big break like many of the other people involved. Watching this film you’d think this guy might be known today, but actually he was an extra in over 200 films before this and went on to work in television after a some more low budget genre films that obviously didn’t surround him with this amount of talent.

The real star of the film is John Alton. If you are unfamiliar with his cinematography, imagine Gregg Toland working with no budget on films that actually relied on him to make them interesting and mask their limitations. Alton is the ultimate noir lighter because he understands that what you don’t illuminate is at least as important as what you do. In his series of films with Mann he utilizes and experiments with lighting effects and deep focus photography to the point you sometimes feel like it’s really Toland trying to build on his work on Citizen Kane. With Mann’s keen cinematic eye Raw Deal would likely have been a worthy film with any decent cinematographer, but Alton’s work makes it required viewing.


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