None Shall Escape
“I want to breathe. That’s why I want out of this place. So I can take a deep breath again.” Joe Sullivan
Anthony Mann’s reputation today is primarily based on his Westerns of the 1950s. Yet before Mann reinvented the Western as a psychological landscape as much as a physical one, he honed his skill and dark vision on Poverty Row, stamping his mark on the Noir universe and directing little cheapo gems that rose way above their B-movie limitations thanks to the brilliance of their director and a wizard of a DP.
When Mann left Dark City to light out for the territories he took his Noir sensibilities with him and brought a hard-edged realism to the genre, steering it into bitter and neurotic territory. All his Westerns are essentially Noir on the Range and he created in Jimmy Stewart a Western protagonist who was not only morally ambiguous but near-psychotic, just one step away from being an out and out villain. The psychologically troubled Mann “hero” is always in danger of becoming what he already closely resembles, the Mann villain. This very interesting polarity has its roots in Mann's Noir of the 40s.
John Alton, master of bargain basement brilliance on a buck fifty budget, was the Director of Photography and he could have made any hack director look good. Fortunately he didn’t have to as he worked with Mann. Mann and Alton pooled their resources six times between 1947 and 1950 and to this day are one of the best director-cinematographer dream teams in cinema with style to burn. They naturally went together, like guns and ammo. Raw Deal oozes moody Noir atmosphere conjured up with a 40-Watt lightbulb. Thanks to the cinematography, the strange theremin music and Claire Trevor’s voice-over the entire movie has a hallucinatory and hypnotic quality about it. The characters move through a hazy dreamscape as if they’re in a cold-sweat nightmare. To say Alton illuminated the dark crevices of the human psyche would be misleading, but he revealed them. He once remarked that he wasn’t afraid of the dark, but he could certainly make his audience afraid of it.
Both Mann and Alton had learned how to work a tight budget toiling at perpetually underfunded PR outfits. Economy was second nature for them. We do get the occasional matte backdrop and miniature sets but so what? Alton had the special gift to dress up a little cheapo to resemble a major production with cinematic sleight of hand.
His beautiful Chiaroscuro photography is used as a smokescreen to hide the paltry budget. The result is poetry caught on celluloid. Alton creates a dreamlike twilight world of pure imagination, drawn from stacks of dog-eared pulp fiction magazines, “a nocturnal fantasia of pure pulp…which drew on two decades of fermented hard-boiled tropes”. (Eddie Muller, Noir Alley)
Raw Deal is a love letter to Noir and every time I watch it I’m in awe. It’s an absolute masterpiece, on every level. Eagle-Lion’s finest hour.
All Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), in the big house for robbery, wants is to smell fresh air again and collect the 50G owed to him by gangster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), the guy Joe took the rap for. After that it’s destination Panama. Rick has greased some palms to bust him out but of course there’s a double cross. Never give a sucker an even break. Rick wants Joe dead so Joe won’t squeal into the DA’s ear and Rick doesn’t have to cough up all that lovely money. Rick is a bit touchy when it comes to having his plans ruined and figured Joe would have a thousand to one shot at success escaping, given the odds. So many things can go wrong during a prison break. Stray bullets have a nasty habit of hitting people. It’s mathematically solid thinking but the fall guy, lamentably alive, gets further than he’s supposed to, dragnet or not, with the help of his girl Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) and his case worker and semi-hostage Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Rick knows loose ends must be snipped and sends his twitchy in-house torpedo Fantail (John Ireland) to take care of matters. Now Joe has a score to settle…
Raw Deal has an unusual voice-over narration by Claire Trevor, to my knowledge the only Noir (besides Mildred Pierce) with a female voice-over. It sets itself apart from the regular male voice-over by forgoing any kind of stentorian declarations. Trevor has a wonderfully husky, low-pitched and well-modulated voice. Her melancholy interior monologue resembles a resigned-to-her-fate confessional. Hauntingly disillusioned, almost catatonic, with a world of hurt and desperation in it, her narration puts a spell on the audience.
From the very first second doom, hopelessness and despair resonate strongly in that heart-broken voice. “Today’s the day. Today’s the day. The last day I have to drive up to these gates”. Pat’s voice should be joyous, after all it’s the day she tells Joe that his escape is set. But instinct tells her they’re in existential free-fall already. We see Pat visiting Joe in prison wearing all black with a veil over her face. It looks like she’s going to a funeral. She is, she just doesn’t know it yet.
Pat is, if not the moral center, certainly the heart and anchor of the story even though she’s a gangster moll. She’s gone through the hard-knocks school of life. Tough-talking and street-wise, with a bruised heart and dearly paid-for wisdom, she had the bad luck to fall in love with the wrong guy. But underneath that brassy exterior is a lonely, beaten down and scared woman who’s only ever wanted one thing in her life, Joe’s love. “Waiting, waiting, all my life it seems as if I’ve have been waiting for Joe.” She’d wait till hell freezes over.
Pat loves Joe unconditionally to the point of desperation. “I want whatever he wants, up or down, make or break.” That’s the trolley car she’d ride till the end of the line, even if it goes off the yellow brick road into the abyss. Tammy Wynette would be proud of her.
Her blind love for Joe literally entraps her though she’s clear-sighted enough to realize it’s built on quicksand. “He’s never really told me he loves me”. Ann is getting under Joe's skin. No desperate devotion on Pat’s side can dampen the sparks that fly between Ann and Joe. It is quite telling that Joe calls Pat his "partner” to Ann’s face, not his girl or his ladylove, and frankly treats her more like a buddy than a lover.
Into the bargain Pat is saddled with another handicap. She’s a tad shopworn and knows her time is running out. Mann and Alton come precariously close to belaboring the point of a race against time. One of Noir’s favorite fetish items, ticking clocks, are everywhere in the movie. Time is precious, it doesn't stop for anyone and most of all time will run out in the end. There is a wonderful scene where Trevor's face is reflected on that of a clock.
While we can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a femme fatale in Noir, sexy and brooding Dennis O’Keefe is one of Noir’s rarer breeds, the homme fatal.
Joe is a bit light in the ethics department. Hard-nosed and brutal, he has no compunction about taking advantage of both women’s desire for him. He’s like Typhoid Mary. What he has is catching. But all’s fair in love and Noir. This time he miscalculated his own emotions though. He falls for Ann as she falls for him. But lust and larceny are a volatile highly combustible combination.
It’s not too often that Noir renders us with a backstory on one of the protagonists, but we get one here. Growing up poor and in orphanages, Joe is the kind of kid who was born with an eight-ball in his cradle. When he was young he saved other children from a burning house for which he earned a medal. Ann wants to know where that heroic kid went off the rails.
“If you want to know what happened to that kid with the medal, he had to hock it at sixteen. He got hungry.”
Joe turned in his boy-scout badge. He saw that no-one can live on good deeds alone. They don’t pay the bills.
“I am from under a rock, a whole pile of ‘em; Corkscrew Alley, Dean’s Orphanage, the famous rock that hits you in the back of the head after you’ve tried to help someone, not to mention that heap I busted out of called the State Pen.”
It is worth noting that the movie starts and ends on Corkscrew Alley, a metaphor so obvious it risks accusations of banality. It’s the hardscrabble place where life puts you through the meat grinder and you buy your one-way ticket to hell. But as we’ll see there’s just enough humanity in Joe to keep us rooting for him. If Noir doesn’t make us root for the morally corrupt outright, it at least makes us care about the person who’s morally compromised.
Ostensibly the films seems to set up the classic dichotomy between the good girl and the bad girl, the Madonna and the whore, who battle it out for the soul of the homme fatal. Before she meets Joe, Ann is “Miss Law and Order”, leading a life of clear-cut simplicity. Good is good and bad is bad. It’s a viewpoint that simplifies life.
But this is as far as the standard good girl-bad girl dynamic goes. Lines get blurred pretty quickly. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes has to figure out quite fast that her steadfast principles are on shaky moral ground because her attraction to her rehabilitation project makes her willing to walk on the wild side and explore the darker aspects of her character. She may like to delude herself, and Joe, that her interest in him is purely professional, but the innocent act isn’t too convincing. It’s just another way of saying she has the hots for the bad boy who poses a serious threat which excites her. The strong undercurrent of sexual desire between the two is there from the first second.
To help Joe she eventually shoots a man in the back. The shot was not fatal but she’s horrified by what she’s done. Now she has to live with the knowledge that she too has a capacity for violence.
Pat may have a checkered past but her only reason for living a life of crime is utter devotion and she’s always there when the spam hits the fan. All she ever wanted was normality. In a way she’s a lot like perpetually pickled ex-moll Gaye Dawn. Pat is no lush but she has the exact same tendency to masochistic self-destruction. She too grew up on Corkscrew Alley and it’s beaten all the fight out of her. Yet despite their animosity Pat is capable of feeling sympathy for Ann: “She, too, is just a dame in love with Joe. And she’s lost.”
For once the doomed love triangle between Joe, Pat and Ann does not hamper the movie. Their three-way dynamic is the dramatic and emotional core of the movie. Nominally Raw Deal may be a gangsters on the lam/revenge tale but what the movie is really about is the fundamentals: the very nature of love, loyalty and betrayal, and making profound moral (or immoral) decisions. It lends the film an unusual emotional depth.
Pat personifies Joe’s past. Ann is the promise of a fresh start. It is Ann who brings out Joe’s softer side, not Pat. Ann sparks a yearning for his own lost innocence. Ann figures all he needs is the love of a good woman to bring out that heart of gold. Oh dear, that hoary old chestnut again. Women should know better by now. Well, to be honest, we probably do but when did that ever deter us? Girls are silly things.
Ann is able to break through Joe’s defenses when she tells him that life dealt her a lousy hand too, though she may not look it.
“Just because I own a car and a tailored suit and my nails are clean, you think I’ve never had to fight?”
It is a turning point in their relationship just as an incident that’s seemingly unconnected to the movie's plot yet central to its vision. While hiding out in a farmhouse Joe helps a fellow man, another escaped criminal, to evade the police. It is an act of mercy. But it is an axiom of Noir that the second the Noir hero gets sentimental, or maybe just human, he gets slapped down hard with cold reality. Humanity is a luxury he can’t afford. Going soft is for suckers. Another act of mercy will be Joe’s undoing in the end.
Joe’s main reason for breaking out of jail is his desire to breathe fresh air again, something that was a rare commodity in prison. His longing for a better life has become a relentlessly tormenting nightmare. (There’s also the matter of 50G owed to him by Rick, but it is a secondary reason.) After the escape Joe believes he’s finally free, but Ann sees what he can’t see himself. The cops would never stop breathing down his neck. Joe is still shackled because the most confining prison cell will always be his shady past, his mine-field of a future and the legacy of Corkscrew Alley. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. To quote another Noir: “If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town”. You can’t escape Dark City.
It is what all sinners on the lam have to understand in the end. Being an outlaw means being an outcast. It means everlasting exile from your fellow men. Always running, always hiding, never being able to go home again. There is no refuge in Wilderness. It may be beautiful and unspoiled but it is as unforgiving and corrosive as the confined prison cell they have fled.
In his Westerns Mann wasn’t interested in showing how the West was won so much as in how the landscapes of the West with their vastness and their harshness psychologically affected his protagonists.
We already get that here. Noir doesn’t need the psychological and aesthetic framework of the city to function. In non-urban noirs, emptiness replaces the claustrophobic and encroaching spaces associated with urban noir. People are stranded in vacant hostile places where life is distilled to the primitive and one law counts: Live and let die.
For a while in the late 40s/early 50s Burr had the field to himself when it came to playing psychos. His intimidating, hulking figure was a staple in Noirs. Rick is almost always photographed from below which makes his burly figure even more frightening. Burr made a career out of playing psychos before he became Perry Mason and kept his nose clean. After changing sides Burr never drifted back to the dark side again, but pre-Mason Burr will always be fondly remembered by any Noir lover as a creep, a sadist, a deviant, a nutjob. You know, all the finer qualities a man can possess.
He wasn’t merely bad, he was despicability personified. Whenever one of his psychos walks into a scene, the other characters and the audience shrink back in instinctive loathing.
There’s something distinctly gardenia-scented about Rick, he likes to live soft and surround himself with luxury (the floral dressing gown, the long cigarette holder, the posh jewelry he wears). A physical coward, he’s the guy who never fights his own fights if he can send out some underling to do his dirty work for him. “You always get somebody else to pull the trigger for you,” remarks Fantail to him.
Rick has strong pyromanic tendencies. Not only does he know his way around a Camel or a Lucky, he puts lighters to more creative uses, like singeing the earlobe of his henchman just because the guy annoyed him.
But most of all Raw Deal is notable for a flame-throwing incident before Lee Marvin became famous for it in The Big Heat. One dipso dame has to learn the hard way that hurling burning cherry jubilees in her face is Rick’s idea of a fun evening. Of course, in accord with Chekhov's dictum that a rifle produced in Act One must be fired by Act Three, Rick comes to a very satisfying end himself.
Raw Deal has many devastating moments in it, but the second to last scene in the cabin of the ship waiting to leave for South America must be one of the saddest. Joe and Pat have secured a passage and Joe is saying all the right things to Pat in a cheerless voice about making a better life for themselves in South America, but Pat knows that “every time he kisses me, he’d be kissing Ann”. She knows what Joe doesn’t, that Rick has kidnapped Ann. In the end Pat must face realities. She can’t go off to South America with Joe. Her life with him would be a sham as she’s lost his love, if she ever had it in the first place. And she’s not bad enough to let her rival suffer in the clammy clutches of Rick. So she lets Joe go off to save Ann. The classic lose-lose situation of Noir. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The finale is beautifully staged and shot. In a haze of fog and gun fire, doomed figures dance to their ultimate fate.There is no happy ending for anybody in this film. Joe kills Rick and saves Ann but luck and Joe never had much of a track record. He gets shot for his troubles and dies on the sidewalk, in Ann’s arms. It’s OK with him though. “I got my breath of fresh air. You….” The Noir hero is always just one lucky break away from hitting it big time, and only one unlucky break away from losing it all.
For Pat it’s utter defeat in the end:
“There’s my Joe in her arms. A kind of happiness on his face. In my heart I know that this is right for Joe. This is what he wanted.”
Joe got his redemption, if only in death. Ann has the satisfaction of knowing that Joe dusted up his rusty boy-scout badge to do the right thing. Only Pat is left with absolutely nothing. The world keeps on spinning at the fadeout, she doesn’t end up under a sheet in the morgue but it’s a constant in Noir that even if you survive, you never really win. That's the way life crumbles, cookie-wise. Sometimes surviving means you have to go on living, without hope and in misery. It's the eternal torment of the survivor.