Before director Anthony Mann joined James Stewart on a string of very Noir like westerns, he helmed a number of gangster oriented films in the genre itself including this first rate effort starring Dennis O’Keefe in a role not unlike Bogie’s Roy Earle.
Surprisingly the genre’s ever present voice over narration doesn’t come from O’Keefe but rather his leading lady, Claire Trevor, one step removed from her Oscar winning role as the drunken lush who has seen better days in Key Largo also released in ’48. Here she’s less the drunk but clearly trying to hold on to her man knowing that his eyes have strayed to a younger woman played by Marsha Hunt.
With the help of Trevor and his mob connections to a Capone like Raymond Burr, O’Keefe, makes a break from a San Francisco prison where he’s incarcerated for taking the fall on Burr’s behalf. His intentions are to collect the 50K owed to him from Burr and make his way to Panama with Miss Trevor for a life of quiet ease.
Burr is of course the heavy in our story and has no intention of paying off O’Keefe. In a perfect world the escape will prove fatal eliminating a loose end in Burr’s crime empire. If O’Keefe beats the odds and dodges the machine gun fire from the prison guards, he’ll send in his sadistic number 2 man, John Ireland, to permanently silence O’Keefe.
The escape goes slightly off side when car trouble forces O’Keefe and Trevor to seek aide from Marsha Hunt who works for the lawyer firm that defended O’Keefe at his court trial. There’s clearly something between the two as we’ve seen earlier when she visited him in prison urging him to wait out his appeal.
With no bars between the two of them, Miss Hunt, is witness to the violence O’Keefe is capable of and finds herself an unwilling accomplice/kidnap victim when O’Keefe and Trevor bring her along on his journey to the meeting place with Burr.
It’s a trip that will see them narrowly dodge a road block and a forest ranger enroute to a layover where they can switch cars with an old friend of O’Keefe’s. It’s a road trip that will see Trevor’s worries heighten over losing her man to Marsha who is starting to give in to her fantasy of loving a man living on the edge.
At the layover switching cars, a minor subplot jumps in with a Ray Teal’s posse on foot with dogs hunting down a murderer played by a mournful Whit Bissell. While there’s nothing wrong with these few minutes of screen time, I’m not sure if they added anything to the film aside from padding the 78 minute running time.
What we do get is one hell of a clash between O’Keefe and John Ireland when the pair meet. O’Keefe is expecting Burr at the meeting place but is greeted by the cocky Ireland and his handgun. Realizing he’s been had, O’Keefe, launches into a major punch up with Ireland and his sidekick played by Tom Fadden. This is no casual punch-up and with Mann’s guidance it’s a gritty blow by blow struggle that we can feel coming off the screen. Mann was a real pro at directing these explosive dustups. Look no farther than the Stewart-Duryea pairing in Winchester ’73 or the epic Cooper-Lord battle in Man of the West to fully understand what I’m trying to convey.
Playing witness is exactly what Marsha is doing when she sees Ireland and Fadden attempt to kill O’Keefe and she’s going to have to pick sides which all but condemns her own future. Knowing that his own future is predestined, O’Keefe, will do the right thing and push her away and make off with Trevor who it appears has finally won her man.
Appearances can be deceiving and a simple phone call while the two are holed up in a hotel offers a huge twist to the plot that looked to be all but finalized in the final reel. A twist that will send things spiraling out of control for Trevor who may have won an Oscar for Key Largo but could just as easily have claimed it for this role had it been a bigger studio backed release instead of an Eagle-Lion release for Reliance.
So we shouldn’t be surprised to see O’Keefe face off with Burr in another memorable Mann directed clash.
Between Mann and the director of photography, John Alton, this is a superior looking Noir and could easily be used as a poster child to a film studies course on the look and feel of Noir. For those interested, the film is available and looking great on blu ray in a three pack celebrating Alton released by Classic Flix that I can easily recommend. The other two titles in the set are equally memorable in look and impact, T-Men and He Walked By Night.
T-Men also starred O’Keefe with Mann directing while He Walked by Night starred a young Richard Basehart and according to the blu ray release was partially directed by an uncredited Mann with Alfred L. Werker taking the official screen credit.
O’Keefe is an actor worth looking up and discovering for yourself. No overnight star he began appearing as an extra on camera as far back as 1930 and would primarily remain that way in over 160 films in the next seven years alone! He finally caught on to some leading roles in lesser films in the 1940’s. Lesser films at the time but some first rate ones as we look back and he may be best known today for starring in the original version of Brewster’s Millions (1945).
While I can’t place it to it’s original origin, 50’s sci-fi fans will be sure to recognize a musical cue that continually plays at key points in the film. I know I heard it in a recent rewatch of 1959’s Universal-International release, Curse of the Undead. For the record, Paul Sawtell is the credited composer on Raw Deal.
I also wanted to draw a comparison to Fritz Lang’s Big Heat and the famous hot coffee scene between Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame. While not as devastating in it’s impact and predating it by five years, there’s a very similar scene here in Raw Deal when in a fit of anger, Burr, throws a flaming fire at a goodtime girl to the shock of those around him. He brushes it off like it’s just another day at the office.
If one’s not familiar with director Mann or maybe just know him from the Jimmy Stewart efforts or the bigger budget epics he worked on in the 1960’s like El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire, do yourself a favor and turn the clock back to his superior work and contributions to 1940’s Noir.