There's a shot near the beginning of Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948) where Claire Trevor is sitting in the foreground and Marsha Hunt comes through a door in the background that has me completely mystified. I don't know how it was done, and it's a shot that most viewers won't even notice. It's a deep-focus shot, but it's a deep focus shot lit with a strong chiaroscuro. As I understand the way these kinds of shots were accomplished back in the days before diopters were available, this required a huge amount of light. But this shot is dark. Very dark. And I don't know how it was done. I especially don't know how it was done on the kind of budget for which this film was made. This was made by Edward Small Productions as "Reliance Pictures" and distributed by Eagle-Lion Films, which means that it was a Poverty Row movie. If it had a budget much higher than $10,000, I would be shocked, and I imagine that most of that probably went to Claire Trevor. So how did they do it? Hell if I know, but that's why John Alton is considered a giant. Giant? Hell, he was a sorcerer, conjuring dark dreams out nothing but shadows and fog! He worked on micro-budget quickies and, to paraphrase the host of the showing of Raw Deal I attended this week, he made them look like Citizen Kane. Even his day for night shots look good, and day for night shots NEVER look good. But these are the ordinary bread and butter shots. He saves the fireworks for the end, when he projects the image of Claire Trevor into a clockface as time runs out for her and her no-account beau. And then he stages a gunbattle in the San Francisco fog that's all abstract shadows. He would recreate this effect in The Big Combo a few years later, but here, it functions as a kind of existential dreamscape. The movie itself follows a kind of dream logic that seems unique to film noir.
Oddly enough, I came away from this viewing of Raw Deal with the Rolling Stones echoing through my head:
You thought you were a clever girl
Giving up your social whirl
But you can't come back and be the first in line, oh no
You're obsolete my baby
My poor old-fashioned baby
I said baby, baby, baby you're out of time
This seems like a kind of summary of the movie. Raw Deal is a distaff noir, in which the usual gender dynamics of the idiom are inverted. It's narrated by Claire Trevor, which is unusual enough, but it casts its leading man as an homme fatale rather than as a patsy, too. The story here follows Pat Cameron (Trevor) and Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe). Joe is a convict who took the fall for his boss, Rick Coyle (a particularly creepy pyromaniac Raymond Burr). Coyle, as it so happens, doesn't fancy ever seeing Joe again, so he's more than happy to facilitate Joe's jailbreak, on the assumption that the odds of actually making it out without being caught or, better still from his perspective, shot, are remote. But Joe DOES make it out, and with Pat and with his pretty legal aid, Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), he goes on the lam. Coyle, for his part dispatches his minions to take Joe out, but time they keep missing the mark. Meanwhile, Pat has booked passage on a steamer to Panama and time is ticking away before the boat sails. And Ann, for her part, finds herself falling for Joe, who reciprocates, much to Pat's chagrin. The triangle of Pat, Joe, and Ann weaves an interesting pattern of corruption, as each character in turn offers one of the others both a fall from grace and a shot at redemption. It pretty much ends badly for everyone.
The movie is well-cast. It's amazingly well-cast for it's budget, actually. Trevor is the big name in the cast, and she's terrific. She's desperate and pathetic in equal measures, clinging to a man she knows doesn't love her. There's a touch of her Oscar-winning performance in Key Largo in the same year, as well as the amorality of her character in Born to Kill. Raw Deal cracks that amorality in the end by providing her with a "Tell-tale Heart"-style crisis of conscience. Guilt is one of the primary motives in film noir, and this one serves up a helping to go with the everything else. Trevor's opposite number is Marsha Hunt, who on the evidence of this film should have been a big star. She strikes me as a more charismatic version of Theresa Wright, with greater subtlety and more gravitas, but with all the fresh-faced beauty. Hunt fell afoul of the blacklist, unfortunately. Dennis O'Keefe has the face of a working joe: square and craggy. This is a good face for noir, because it casts interesting shadows. O'Keefe also had a voice that was like an engine with a couple of bearings starting to go bad, gin soaked gravel. He was a rough and tumble everyman, something this film exploits to the hilt. Burr I mentioned already. He was making a good living out of playing bad guys at the time, and his twitchy gangster here is a long way from Perry Mason (I've always thought that it was interesting that Burr and William Talman, who played Mason's opposing council, the hapless Hamilton Burger, both made a career as cinematic criminals before passing the bar. But I digress). Also of note is John Ireland as Coyle's flunkey, Fantail.
What sets this apart from other movies from the era that were equally cheap is the duo of Mann and Alton. I've already described Alton's contribution, but Mann brought to the project a sense of Greek tragedy (he would make a movie titled The Furies a couple of years later, so it was in his nature), and a willingness to kill his darlings. Everyone in this movie has a fatal flaw, in the classic sense of the phrase, and everyone in the movie is undone by them, as surely as the sun rises in the east. Mann also brings a real feeling for the subtle leitmotif. Claire Trevor's character, for instance, is usually shown wearing a black veil, a symbol of both her nuptial devotion to Joe and as a memento mori foreshadowing the end of the movie. Fire is another of the film's textural elements: Coyle is a pyromaniac, which provides him with the motivation for one of the film's ghastlier elements, as well as foreshadowing his own end. Ann's interest in Joe is kindled (if you'll pardon the pun) by an incident in Joe's childhood in which he rescued some kids from a burning building. There's a subtle twinning effect implicit in this; it suggests that Joe and Coyle aren't very different from each other, and it marks Joe as NOT the hero. Mann also contrasts the moral quagmire in the movie against the great outdoors, something he would ultimately take to its logical conclusion in Westerns like The Naked Spur. Finally, there's the emphasis on clocks. Clocks are a great way to put the screws to the audience because the notion that time is running out is enormously powerful. Clocks make this literal. Raw Deal's obsession with clocks famously culminates in this shot:
...and this one:
Our host at the showing I attended noted that this scene, in which Joe is waxing rhapsodic about the new life he and Pat will have together south of the border is a kind of replay of the scene where the Ringo Kid promises Dallas (also played by Claire Trevor, as it so happens) the same things in Stagecoach. And damned if it isn't, though the version of the scene in Raw Deal is a kind of shadow self of the one in Stagecoach. It's a nice fantasy, but the world is too cruel for it to ever come true. Certainly not in the cruel world of film noir, where doom is everyone's traveling companion and where if you get too attached to people, you'll end up lost and broken-hearted.