Gunplay is for Westerns (of which Raw Deal’s director, Anthony Mann, went on to direct several). Film noir prefers more baroque outbursts of malice, ideally illuminating, however briefly, the dark crevasses of human psychopathology. Crime kingpin Raymond Burr, shot from below to make his bulk loom even more frighteningly, nurses a fascination with fire. His chambers glow with candlelight, and he playfully singes the earlobes of his henchmen with a cigarette lighter. When, displeased with some news he’s just heard, a party girl splashes him with some of her drink, he reacts with lightning-quick instinct, hurling a chafing dish of flaming Cherries Jubilee into her face – and, not so incidentally, ours. (This, by the way, five full years before Fritz Lang arranged for Gloria Grahame to get a kisserful of scalding coffee in The Big Heat.) Of course, in accord with Chekhov’s dictum that a rifle produced in Act One must be discharged by Act Three, waiting in the wings there’s a conflagration with Burr’s name on it.
Raw Deal was the second of the collaborations between Mann and cinematographer John Alton, following T-Men. There’s scarcely a frame in the film that Alton has not composed, lighted and shot with offhand brilliance, yet the film flows along without the fussy, embalmed look that comes from self-conscious artistry or uncertainty about what to do with it.
A subdued voice-over opens the movie – not the stentorian narration with which so many noirs are saddled (including T-Men) but an almost interior monologue spoken by a woman, Claire Trevor. (Never has she been better – not in Murder, My Sweet, nor Born To Kill, nor Key Largo, which snagged her an Oscar.) A savvy moll of a certain age, she knows time is running out on her, hence her obsession with clocks: wristwatches, clock faces in towers, wall clocks (at one crucial point Alton encloses her anxious face within a dial). She’s been carrying a torch for Dennis O’Keefe, in stir after a double-cross by Burr. But a breakout has been arranged, with the codependent Trevor driving the getaway car, her purse holding two tickets to Panama on a freighter leaving in three days time.
But there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. First, a jam forces them to include in their getaway plans a young social worker (Marsha Hunt) who has taken a professional interest in O’Keefe (much to Trevor’s chagrin). Next, Burr has sent one of his deranged torpedoes (John Ireland) in pursuit. Third, O’Keefe is determined to have one last reckoning with Burr. Fourth, Ireland manages to abduct Hunt….
Half the movie takes place in San Francisco, mainly in fog-shrouded Corkscrew Alley. The great outdoors of the Northwest accounts for the rest – with a haunting nocturne in a pine forest, which city-gal Trevor remarks makes her feel `I dunno, both big and small at the same time.’ But indoors or out, darkness reigns (and, thanks to Alton, the film’s many and intricate shadows all but achieve co-starring stature). It’s hard-core noir, to be sure, sinister and brutal, but shot through with a redemptive touch of poetry.