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Raw Deal

This wasn't what I'd expected.

A simple enough plot: Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) is in the pen for a crime that isn't revealed to us. Two "dames" visit him, the first his legal help, good-girl Ann (Marsha Hunt) and then Pat (Claire Trevor), who later helps him escape. Gangster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr, Canadian-born actor best known from Perry Mason) has somehow orchestrated Joe's escape so he doesn't have to pay the guy the fifty grand he owes to him—the idea being that in all probability Joe will get shot and killed either breaking out or on the lam. Rick enjoys burning people, by lighting their ears on fire, for instance, or throwing buckets of flame at ladies' faces if they spill their drink on him. But Joe has bigger problems than Rick—he's running with two girls who both have a thing for him. One wants him to turn himself in, at first anyway; she later realizes she's in love with him despite his criminal misdeeds. The other, Pat, is hung up on him too, and goes so far as to throw Ann under the bus, or rather let Rick burn her till she's "unrecognizable," by means of not telling Joe she's in serious trouble. Things go wrong, as they do in noir. Guns are fired, a fight breaks out at a taxidermist's, tumblers shatter against walls, women are slapped, shadows ceaselessly encroach. Ah, noir. Dark and dirty.

I've read good and bad reviews of Raw Deal (1948), directed by Anthony Mann with cinematographer John Alton. The bad ones say it lacks common sense and that basically it's silly. The good ones applaud the cinematography, the quintessential yet unique noir shots, its artistry in terms of light and shadow. It isn't in my top ten, or even top fifty, for this genre in that era, but I liked it for its sense of gloom and doom. Also, I was impressed with the balance of light and darkness and myriad shadows in between. If a 50s noir has creepy swaying nighttime tree branches and the actors' faces are filmed close up in the shadows of those branches, it's usually in classic territory for me.

Raw Deal is surprisingly violent for the time. I mean, Rick the gangster is a sadist and misogynist who tosses a blazing flambé into the face of a women who accidentally bumps into him. In another scene, Joe's eye is about to be impaled by the spike of an antler on a deer head mounted to a wall. In yet another, some guy who's just murdered his girlfriend makes a brief appearance, and Joe (our anti-hero), although reluctantly at first, hides him from the police. Overwrought with guilt, this two-minute character runs out of the house and the cops shoot him dead. The most disturbing, and perhaps best, scene is when Pat and Joe are in the cabin of a ship about to leave for South America. We know that Pat knows that the guileless Ann will soon be disfigured if Joe doesn't show up by a certain time to meet Rick. Pat hasn't told Joe this. She wants him for herself. She stands beneath the ticking clock as Joe goes on and on about their ideal future together, oblivious to the horror that may soon transpire.


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