Sunday, February 11, 2018

RAW DEAL (1948)

Eagle-Lion Films, 78m 35s

Faced with the annoying prospect of another three years behind bars before a parole hearing, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe in an impressive turn) narrowly escapes from the state penitentiary with the support of his girlfriend Pat Regan (Claire Trevor). After their getaway vehicle is slowed by prison guard gunfire, the two seek shelter at the residence of Joe's caseworker Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Familiar film noir visual treatments symbolically entrap Joe in Ann's home, where imprisoning shadows cast by venetian blinds cause one to question whether Joe has found freedom. That same sense of enclosure will travel with him in this compelling noir road movie.

RAW DEAL challenges film noir character types in its tightly-drawn story of an escaped convict and two females. Somewhat surprisingly to the first-time viewer, the film is as concerned about its female characters as it is its male lead, perhaps even more so. It transcends the reinforcement of female archetypes routinely associated with a genre well known for its vampish women and their good girl opposites. RAW DEAL evinces the complexity of fragmented human personalities, as well as the profound impact one person may have on another, especially when least expected.

Claire Trevor is a strikingly beautiful woman who looks like nobody else, but there is nothing ornamental about her role in this Eagle-Lion Films production. In fact it is implied Pat is the lead protagonist, not the male character Joe. She is the first person we meet, and we even briefly see from her perspective after the opening credits roll. The rivalry between the two major females is annunciated during the opening prison visitation segment, when Pat is shifted to the darkness after she is told her man Joe already has a visitor. The composition that suddenly converts Pat into a silhouette sets the stage for the remainder of a film noir that shows an unusual degree of partisanship toward its bad girl. Pat's narration both opens and closes the film, and the persistence of that narration consistently informs the tone. The argument that Pat is the lead protagonist is validated best by her increasing noir sense of paranoia that she has lost Joe to Ann. Even in the early going, the presence of Ann causes Pat to question Joe's feelings for her. Like the fugitive portrayed by Whit Bissell, who destroyed the person he loved, Pat essentially does the same thing when she sends Joe to Ann's rescue in the final act. More than anything else, RAW DEAL emphasizes how the events of the story impact Pat, and that it is her sensibilities that decide the film's conclusion. RAW DEAL adopts her viewpoint via not only her narration but sustained reaction shots that stress her feeling of unease and encourage the audience to feel for her.

Ann is an idealistic brunette whose perfume bewitches Joe. She is set up as a more positive influence on Joe than Pat, the blonde from the mean streets cloaked in black. Ann researched Joe's past enough to discover he was commended for his moral character as a youth. She still sees his potential to be a good man. Not long after Joe's escape from incarceration, Ann sits in the front seat of a vehicle conspicuously between Pat and Joe as the three try to evade a police dragnet. An emotional turning point occurs for Ann when she recognizes Joe was prepared to kill a park ranger rather than be discovered. Thoroughly disgusted, Ann predicts Joe's inevitable demise after witnessing his telling look of self preservation. But an even more crucial defining moment transpires when Ann shoots Joe's would-be attacker, and thus authenticates her capacity to kill. She may not have eliminated her target, but she is forced to wrestle with the idea she is not as different from Joe and his kind as she would like to have believed. As she endeavors to distance herself from the criminal lifestyle embodied by Joe and Pat, Ann delivers a speech that amounts to a declaration of old-fashioned working class principles. Despite such posturing, in the very next scene she confirms her affiliation with Joe is legit.

If RAW DEAL sees Joe and his female admirers in shades of gray, San Francisco-based villain Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) is outlined in pure black and white. The uncompromising boss character may as well be known as "Big Rick" given the many low camera angles that accentuate his stout frame. Joe wound up in prison after taking the rap for Rick, who owes Joe fifty grand. Rick unsurprisingly has no intention of coughing up that kind of cash; instead he helps facilitate Joe's prison exit under the mathematically solid assumption that Joe would be shot dead. When that does not play out, Rick puts pressure on his in-house thugs Fantail (John Ireland) and Spider (Curt Conway) to assist in bringing down Joe. Rick is introduced properly when he uses his cigarette lighter to playfully inflame Spider's ear. For the remainder of the narrative the neurotic personality Rick will be associated with fire. In the most disturbing example of that connection, he pitches a flaming cherries jubilee at fun-loving blonde Marcy (Chili Williams). The viewer is treated to her perspective. This scene predates the similar but far more famous hot coffee sequence from THE BIG HEAT (1953). In another instance of Rick's use of fire to keep women under control, a stone-faced Rick threatens Ann with his cigarette lighter (the ensuing torture sequence occurs off camera). In a brief moment of assumed triumph, Rick lights candles when he believes Joe has been executed. That celebration is short-lived, as a room engulfed in flames mocks Rick's decisively downward trajectory. As for Joe, in contrast to the "poor slob" of a murderer who by all counts deserved his fate, Joe earns our sympathy after his confrontation with the irredeemable man who betrayed him. As both men lie physically defeated, the women survive a little wiser, both having acknowledged sides of themselves they had not accessed prior to Joe's prison break.

As was typical of the genre in the late 1940s, this noir film combines the influence of German Expressionism with the documentary realism movement of the time. Director of photography John Alton’s location footage in California includes San Quentin State Prison, Chatsworth, Pacific Coast Highway and Westward Beach, but as usual, his most evocative coverage involves dimly lit interior settings. Alton's work darkly shines within the rural home of Oscar (Harry Tyler), where the great potential of black & white cinematography cannot be disputed. The sequence in the taxidermy shop is equally well conceived. RAW DEAL belongs on any list of film noirs that do not depend on a primarily urban setting.

The culmination of 400 hours of restorative work, this ClassicFlix release marks the Blu-ray debut of RAW DEAL, and the third ClassicFlix restoration to celebrate the team of producer Edward Small, director Anthony Mann and ace cinematographer John Alton. This film was not quite the box office triumph of their prior effort T-MEN (1947), but profitable nonetheless. A 2K resolution transfer of a 35mm nitrate fine grain element, RAW DEAL now looks better than a B film of its vintage probably has a right. Framing is at 1.33:1 (the original theatrical aspect ratio was 1.37:1 according to There are no issues with the uncompressed mono soundtrack.

Supplemental material includes an audio commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold, who posits Anthony Mann made choices as a filmmaker that subtly work on the viewer, without that person necessarily being aware of it. Arnold reveals the original story "Corkscrew Alley" by Audrey Ashley and Arnold B. Armstrong differed considerably from the screen treatment ultimately devised by screenwriters Leopold Atlas and John C. Higgins. Changes to their screenplay were recommended by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who observed little redeeming moral value in the concept. The scenes that featured policemen were requested by Breen, and those scenes seem to be of less importance to Mann. Arnold also identifies the use of the theremin by composer Paul Sawtell to highlight tense moments. Sawtell scored an immense list of gritty film noirs, including THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947), BORN TO KILL (1947), DESPERATE (1947), T-MEN (1947), WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), BODYGUARD (1948), THE THREAT (1949), ROADBLOCK (1951) and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952).

A couple of worthy little featurettes cover a lot of ground in short order. "Deadly is the Male:  The Making of Raw Deal" (9m 6s) gathers estimable film historians Julie Kirgo, Courtney Joyner and Alan K. Rode for an instructive discussion of the film's production history and the contributors who made it possible. "Dennis O’Keefe:  An Extraordinary Ordinary Guy" (5m 39s) features Jim O’Keefe, who reviews his father's career in the entertainment business. There is an image gallery loaded with an assortment of publicity stills and posters, and a split-screen comparison (5m 30s) that highlights the tremendous restorative work that went into this now definitive version of RAW DEAL. The expected assortment of trailers is available, and the Blu-ray case holds a 24-page booklet essay by author Max Alvarez (THE CRIME FILMS OF ANTHONY MANN [2013]) complete with stills, posters and assorted production material.

According to their website, ClassicFlix produced only 5,000 copies of this collectible Blu-ray. Film noir enthusiasts should consider this a mandatory purchase.