10/40/70 #15: Raw Deal


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Raw Deal by Anthony Mann.

Raw Deal (1948, dir. Anthony Mann)

10 minutes:
Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) has been set up by his sociopathic ex-partner, Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), and he is doing time. His girl Pat (Claire Trevor) waits in the car in the night to drive him away after his jail break. In this scene, the alarms have just gone off as Joe makes his way across the roof just before the guards open fire, hitting the getaway car, but missing him and Pat. In Raw Deal, characters make their way through what seems like oceans of black ink, thanks largely to cinematographer John Alton, who must have been born wearing sunglasses. Here Joe escapes the vanishing point in the lower-right corner of the screen, making his way diagonally towards the upper-left corner, before guards open fire. The frame comes near the end of a nearly two-and-a-half-minute sequence with no dialog as we cut back and forth between shots of Pat, waiting nervously in the car, and shots that assume her general point of view. The sound gradually ratchets up: a passing truck horn, a booming train that passes within yards of the car, and then finally the prison-break alarm and horn.

Once in the car, with Joe in the back seat, they banter:

Joe: You’re okay, baby. (Puts on the non-prison clothes Pat brought him.) This stuff fits perfectly.
Pat: Why not? I guess I oughta know your size by now Joe. It’s so good to be close to you again.
Joe: Hey, hey! Stay on that wheel. We have to keep ahead of that dragnet.

Already, from watching so many noirs, we know at least one thing: there will be another woman. And from just these three lines, we know another thing: Joe will love the other woman because his current woman has grown too familiar (“I oughta know your size by now”). Joe and Pat share a history together, and if there’s one common thing that characters run from in noir, it’s history.

40 minutes:
Another fatally black scene, as Joe — with Pat and the “other” woman, Ann (Marsha Hunt), hiding in the cabin — gets news from Oscar (Harry Tyler) that a posse chasing another man, a murderer, is headed their way. There’s a western vibe here, as Mann detours his noir into the countryside, with its fences and open-collared men and nighttime insect sounds. In the film, Harry Tyler is uncredited, and yet his presence in the frame is crucial, as it links Joe to an older generation, and casts an odd sort of legitimacy over his criminal actions. In small, quiet moments like this, Raw Deal subverts the Production Code’s prime directive that “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The Law is faceless in Raw Deal, dehumanized. It exists as a civilizing force, that which would stop men like Joe from traipsing around the United States of America on the lam with a girl on each arm.

70 minutes:
Basically, at this point, the film says NO to the United States of America, as Joe gazes out at the Golden Gate Bridge. He and Pat are on a ship bound for South America. They won’t get far, because Pat — who had been hiding the fact that Joe’s true love, Ann, has been kidnapped by his arch enemy Rick — will in a few moments share this news with him (“Ann’s in trouble. Bad trouble. She’s with Rick!”) and he will ditch the ship and Pat to try to save her. But this frame, right here, is from one of the most quietly radical scenes in Raw Deal, as Joe tells Pat:

You know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. No laugh. In five or ten minutes we’ll be pulling out for a new country. Leaving everything behind. Maybe — maybe we can make a different life for ourselves in South America, a good life. It’s a good place, a new place. Might be able to get a little ranch, a business or something. Start fresh. Decent. Have a house. Kids maybe. Bring them up right. Scrub them all up, send them off to school.

The dream of domestic life, spoken by the man, not the woman, as he gazes out at the country he hopes to leave behind. The bridge is so obviously not really there, with its unblinking and unflickering lights, that it’s as if Joe were gazing at a framed screen, in the same way we are. Our gaze is upon him on the screen; his gaze is upon yet another screen. And so on and on, a sort of mad gnawing at the edges of the closed frontier, as Joe and Pat, at the very edge of the west, on the verge of sailing ever further into unexplored territory, are pulled back by conscience and duty and love, a reminder that buried deep in its existentialist heart, Raw Deal rejects Joe’s dream of having “a house” and “kids maybe” because the film itself lives in bad faith, compromised by a moral code — made literal in the Production Code — that exerts itself against free will, even as the friction of that exertion resulted in the great, mad art that is Raw Deal.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →