Director: Anthony Mann
From the mesmerizing opening sequence, it's clear that Raw Deal is something special. A car pulls up to a fortified fence labeled "State Prison" and as the gates open, we hear, over eerie theremin music, Claire Trevor in an ominous voice-over: "This is the day . . . the last time I shall drive up to these gates." As she walks down a long hallway, dressed entirely in black and wearing a black widow's veil, cocooned in silence except for the click of her high-heeled shoes on the floor, she continues, "I don't know which sounds louder—my heels or my heart. It's always like this when I come to see him." The man she has come to visit is her lover, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe), and very soon he will be escaping from prison to claim his share of the loot from the robbery for which he has been jailed.
The escape from the prison in Oregon has been engineered by a vicious hoodlum named Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), the man Joe worked for and for whom he has taken the rap. From his headquarters in Corkscrew Alley in San Francisco, Rick has dispatched his henchmen, Fantail (John Ireland) and Spider, to make sure the jailbreak will fail. But Rick's plans to get rid of Joe go awry when Joe takes hostage Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), the secretary of the lawyer who was arranging a parole for him, and pursued by both the state police and Fantail and Spider, sets off with the two women on an odyssey to San Francisco to find his double-crossing ex-partner, get his money, and leave the country.
Raw Deal is one of several films noirs that director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton made in the late 1940s, and to my mind the best of them, an underappreciated gem that approaches the caliber of the best examples of the genre from this period. Martin Scorsese, in his film A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), cites the Mann-Alton collaborations as notable films of the time, ones that with their distinctive style and visual atmosphere had a huge impact on him as a young moviegoer and later as a film director. On the basis of this movie, I would say that his admiration is clearly justified. For one thing, Raw Deal is a brilliantly edited movie. With its fluid alternation of close-ups, medium shots, and long shots, and its creative combining of sound and image, it is virtually a textbook of film editing. Even more impressive is Alton's photography. Masterfully executed lighting effects, stunning use of deep focus, creative alternation of the static and moving camera, inventive camera placement (with the camera often mounted very low looking sharply up, or very high looking sharply down)—again the film is virtually a textbook of cinematography.
Another virtue of Raw Deal is the way Mann tells the story in such a dynamically visual way. The film contains several standout set pieces. During a stop along the way, at an isolated taxidermy business on the beach in northern California called Grimshaw's, O'Keefe has a long, very physical fight with Ireland in a back room full of stuffed animals, the lengthy scene filmed in near-darkness (above). In a sequence that predates Fritz Lang's The Big Heat by several years, Burr hurls a dish of flaming cognac in the face of a woman in a restaurant after she bumps into him and spills her drink on his jacket. (This is filmed by having Burr appear to toss the flaming liquid directly at the camera—actually probably at a pane of glass in front of the camera.) "She should've been more careful," he says nonchalantly afterward! The movie's finale, a nighttime confrontation and shootout in Corkscrew Alley as Burr watches from a window above, is another stunner. For any fan of American film noir, Raw Deal is simply a must-see.