Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RAW DEAL (1948)

Anthony Mann, 1948
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, John Ireland, Raymond Burr

Joe Sullivan has been imprisoned in place of an old crime buddy, Raymond Coyle, but breaks out with the help of his girlfriend Pat. Coyle has secretly assisted in the break out, in order to have Joe killed to avoid risking a confrontation – or having to pay out $50,000 of Joe’s rightful share. Joe and Pat hide from the police in the apartment of Ann, a beautiful, naïve social worker who has been trying to help Joe by visiting him in prison. They take her hostage as they travel through the woods towards San Francisco and Joe’s final confrontation with Raymond. But a reluctant, improbable love begins to develop between Ann and Joe, to Pat’s dismay, and it promises to spell doom for them all.

Anthony Mann’s second film noir after T-Men marks a reunion between Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and star Dennis O’Keefe. As with T-Men, this is an incredibly dark film, both in terms of thematic and visual content and plays with certain noir conventions, but forges fresh territory of its own. For example, there is no femme fatale to speak of despite the presence of Pat (Claire Trevor) and Ann (Marsha Hunt). While Claire Trevor was one of film noir’s reining queens thanks to femme fatale roles in noir classics like Born to Kill, Key Largo, and Murder, My Sweet. Here she brilliantly plays against type as Joe’s faithful but neglected girlfriend. It would have been easy to play Pat as much more hardboiled and sexually aggressive, but instead Trevor depicts a woman weighed down and unsatisfied by love. She devotedly follows Joe into a life of crime, always waiting for kisses and caresses or promises of love that never come.

Unusually, Pat is the main character of Raw Deal and – relatively unique to film noir – it is her voice over narration that guides the film to its tragic conclusion. There is a deep sense of romantic tragedy that progresses throughout the film as she discusses her relationship with Joe and his developing feelings for Ann, which she painfully watches develop. Her voice over is oddly accompanied by a Theremin, which gives the film an eerie, nightmarish feeling of doom and foreboding. This is intensified by John Alton’s incredible cinematography, which captures a sense of dream or hallucination thanks to ever-present fog and shadow. Though Joe, Ann, and Pat travel from the prison, through the woods, to a beach, and finally the city, the same dismal air haunts their steps.

Dennis O’Keefe is perhaps more memorable here than he was in T-Men. His presence is thoroughly masculine, but somehow nondescript. He’s also at the center of the film’s strong undercurrent of sexual desire that begins as a faint echo, but makes its way to the forefront by Raw Deal’s conclusion. Though Pat and Joe seem to be partners, and it’s clear she loves him, she states in her voice over that he has never told her that he loves her. Pat’s desire is cruelly repressed again and again when she hopes for Joe to kiss or hold her. Instead, the source of his affection becomes the equally repressed do-gooder, Ann. Prettier and more innocent than Pat, Ann is a source of tension throughout the film and represents Joe’s struggles between his lawless and socialized sides.

Their attraction to one another suggests a degree of sadomasochism. Ann’s fascination with Joe begins when he is behind bars, and she admits to later romanticizing him. Their first physical encounter occurs when he breaks into her room and surprises her in bed. After Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, this is the second film where a violent man running from his crimes breaks into a woman’s room to escape capture and she falls for him. She becomes yet more enamored with him when he forces a kiss on her and love is solidified when she later witnesses him beating two men and shoots one to protect him.

The tense, sadomasochistic sexuality is also present in Raymond Burr’s silkily menacing, yet somehow effeminate Rick Coyle. Rick is a direct contrast with Joe: he refuses to leave his lushly decorated home other than to travel to a fancy restaurant, and is often seen in a satin robe. He fears hard work and confrontation, though has a wide sadistic streak and likely a sexual fixation for fire. Joe explains that he was a pyromaniac earlier in life and he is often pictured with fire, such as lit candles or an expensive lighter. He later burns a woman’s face with a bowl of flaming brandy and threatens to torture Ann with fire so extensively that she won’t be recognizable.

Burr is perfect as Coyle and looks absolutely massive in every frame. In addition to the torture and fire, there is something perverse about his gang of criminals, all of whom are animalistically named. Rick Coyle (coil) is the head of Corkscrew Alley, and his main henchmen are Fantail (a darkly handsome John Ireland) and Spider. Coyle has homosexual or at least bisexual connotations, and there’s a scene where Fantail jokes that Joe mistook a large, stuff bear for Coyle. The first major fight scene – which is between Joe and Fantail, because Coyle is hiding at home -- takes place in a taxidermy shop.

Raw Deal comes highly recommended. It is available from Amazon, but deserves to be restored and released on Blu-ray. It’s considered to be more of a minor effort, but has a hypnotic, hallucinatory quality thanks to John Alton’s cinematography that must be seen to be believed.

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