When we think of film noir as a concept, we often describe it as a B movie phenomenon, a look and feel associated with low budget crime dramas. But a lot of the big names we immediately think of as noir films are actually higher-budget A pictures with top stars and name directors – Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Sunset Blvd, etc. This year TCM (and Noir City Foundation programmer Eddie Muller) has done a great job of programming actual B-level films in the noir sidebar, intentionally choosing independently produced films that are clearly low budget programmers, which Raw Deal definitely is, despite being directed by Anthony Mann (before he got big) and starring recognizable but often B or second-lead actors like Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt.
Unusually, this film has a voiceover from a female perspective, with Claire Trevor narrating some, but not all, of the film. She play Pat, who is planning to break her man Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) out of prison, where he’s been taking the rap for his boss Rick (the inimitable Raymond Burr, consistently shot from the most imposing angle possible). Meanwhile, Joe’s lawyer’s assistant Ann (Marsha Hunt) is trying to convince Joe to hold out for a couple of years until he gets parole. Thinking he has Rick’s support, he opts to stick with the prison break plan. Unfortunately, Joe’s just a loose end to Rick, who expects and intends for the police to do his dirty work for him and eliminate Joe during his escape.
But Joe makes it, and winds up on the run from cops and Rick’s flunkies, with both Pat and Ann in tow, acting like a devil and angel on his shoulders as Pat represents his criminal life and Ann represents the goodness she believes he has in him. And it’s really in this contrast that the film shines. Noir generally tells the stories of men doomed to a bad end, destiny (and usually a woman) pulling them inexorably downward. And Raw Deal definitely has that aspect to it, but really, Joe’s almost a non-entity as these two women battle for his love and his life. It’s interesting, too, in the cynical world of noir, that Marsha Hunt’s Ann is the more intriguing and attractive character, as opposed to Claire Trevor’s gangster’s moll – especially since it’s Trevor’s mind we’re actually in for a good portion of the film, as she narrates the parts of the story she’s privy to.
Whether it’s a fault of the script or Trevor phoning it in (she’s usually excellent in noir films), or a conscious choice on her part, Trevor’s voiceover is astoundingly flat and unconvincing. Perhaps because I liked the film and am looking for ways to justify what initially seems to be the weakest part, I want to think she’s doing it on purpose. The effect, though, is kind of fascinating – it makes us more willing to accept Ann as an interesting character (a goodie two-shoes is a tough sell in noir against a bad girl), and the flatness of the narration combined with the boilerplate poetics of the script and an almost gothic score give certain parts of the film an almost otherworldly quality that’s quite unusual.
In any case, this is still a relatively lower budget film, and it shows. The script is fairly perfunctory, and the film is extremely lean at a mere 79 minutes. The acting is decent to solid, but as in most noirs, a lot is gotten across with camera angles and lighting. Dennis O’Keefe has a knack for hard-boiled dialogue that sounds ridiculous on paper but largely works here. I’m still a little cold on Trevor, which is the opposite of what I was expecting after watching her steal movies like Stagecoach and Key Largo right out from under much bigger stars, but Hunt really impressed me in what could easily have been a thankless role. Oh, and there’s this one part with a flaming pot of alcohol that goes right up there with a certain hot coffee scene in The Big Heat. For hitting all the essentials of noir and providing some rather unusual elements in the treatment of narration and female characters, I ended up ranking Raw Deal pretty high.
Screening Notes: Marsha Hunt was in attendance, and discussed the film and her career with Eddie Muller after the film. It was probably my favorite special guest conversation I saw during the festival (I didn’t go to most of the big ones), simply because Hunt is completely adorable and extremely eloquent. She talked about filming this movie (shot in a few weeks – “we shot as fast as we were able, and we were pretty able, so we shot pretty fast”), and how Trevor mostly avoided her on set, so they wouldn’t become too friendly and risk losing the innate animosity between their characters. When asked about working with Anthony Mann, she said he had everything worked out how he wanted it to look, camera angles and lighting, but largely left the actors alone to interpret their characters [I’ve noticed most of the actors at TCM Fest say stuff like this about directors they liked working with – I guess nobody likes being told what to do!]. When asked, she also identified other films from her career (of 115 movie and TV credits) she feels most proud of, including one called None Shall Escape from 1944 directed by André De Toth, which predicted the end of the Nazi regime and the war criminal trials to come. I’ve never heard of this, but want to track it down now. Hunt was also an outspoken opponent of the Hollywood Blacklist, which naturally didn’t help her career a lot in the ’50s, and she gave an incredibly succinct and eloquent two-sentence statement on her point of view on the McCarthy era. Unfortunately, I didn’t write it down, and TCM didn’t include it in the clip of the discussion they posted (which is here, mostly just talking about Trevor), but it was about the blacklist not being about Communism, but about fear and control, the opposite of the American freedoms that the House Un-American Activities Committee claimed to be protecting. Except she phrased it very well. Lovely woman, and definitely someone I hope to know better through her films soon.
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Leopold Atlas & John C. Higgins
Producer: Edward Small
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, John Ireland, Raymond Burr
Year of Release: 1949
Running Time: 79 min.
TCMFest Film Guide
Flickchart (formerly unranked by me; now #1358 out of 2892)