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Eagle-Lion May: Raw Deal (1948)

To preview our screening of Canon City and a short documentary about Eagle-Lion studios with an introduction by Alan K. Rode at the convention, we are spotlighting films made by this short-lived studio.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) went to prison for a crime his boss (Raymond Burr) committed, and he's tired of being there. With the help of his girlfriend (Claire Trevor), he breaks out and the two are on the lam, but complications arise and he involves the paralegal who worked on his case (Marsha Hunt), and his boss tries to have him killed so he doesn't have to pay him off.

ADAM WILLIAMS: An anonymous copywriter at the Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin put it this way, “Raw Deal is like raw meat. It has all the healthy potentialities and vitamins necessary to satisfy the hungry maw of the boxoffice and the exhibitor who serves it up tastily prepared, spiced with exploitation, can expect fat grosses as the result.” Fun prose but maybe not the most useful analogy. Here’s my attempt: Raw Deal is like a cup of diner coffee. It’s dark, gives you jitters, and it’s a relatively low-budget experience. Describing the plot only goes a short way in getting to this movie’s essence. Like that diner swill, the main attraction is the ambiance, and, in that regard, Raw Deal delivers in spades.

Much has been written about John Alton’s photography. If you have any interest in black and white imagery, this is an essential watch. On this viewing I noted the audacious use of lens flare during the escape sequence—shining lights directly into the lens is very rare in this age of studio perfectionism.

If you thought Mae Clarke being assaulted with a grapefruit in The Public Enemy was harsh, wait until you see Chili Williams get a flambé to the face. A world away from the poise and professionalism of Perry Mason, Raymond Burr delivers said flaming delicacy with utter disregard for human life. It’s a wicked performance writ large by his suit jackets with mile-wide shoulders and low angle shots. Burr’s massive frame seems to be on the verge of eclipsing all light. Paradoxically, the man of darkness has pyromaniacal tendencies—the first time we see him he’s singeing the earlobe of a subordinate with his lighter as a joke. Playful guy!

SG: His brutality is shockingly conveyed in that scene. Before that his is simply a hulking presence, but suddenly he is violent, unpredictable and dangerous. Even in noir, this kind of villainy is seldom seen. I can only think of one other scene that seems to shake viewers in a similar way, and that's Tommy Udo throwing the wheelchair-bound woman down the stairs in Kiss of Death.

AW: Although the plot boils down to a clash between Dennis O’Keefe and Raymond Burr, the soul of the movie belongs to Claire Trevor as Pat Regan. Her subdued narration, accompanied by Paul Sawtell’s sorrowful score, ensures that our sympathies are with her right from the beginning. O’Keefe is embittered, Burr and company are the types that kill for fun, and Marsha Hunt is too dewy-eyed for all this brutality. Trevor, on the other hand, is ride or die. Only problem is she hitched her wagon to the wrong man.

SG: Pat is cut from the same cloth as Joe. He has ambition, which is why he is attracted to Ann Martin (Hunt), and she is an idealist who believes criminals are made to be that way and can still be good people at heart. She is perfectly cast in this film. Her regal beauty illustrates how removed from Joe's world she is, and truly from the world of gritty noir, having been an MGM starlet, but she is far more than a pretty face. She plays her scenes with intensity and realism.

AW: Movies like this make me especially grateful for home video. Nearly every scene lends itself to a Moviola-autopsy to find out how the scenes were lit and why compositions were chosen. Nowhere is this more important than in the penultimate scene set aboard the ship. Joe Sullivan flips off the lights in the room, leaving the porthole as a Moon-like light source, highlighting Pat’s profile. As he prattles on incessantly about some vague plans for the future, reality descends on Pat: this relationship is doomed. The music becomes more pensive, the main theme creeping into the soundtrack. Pat stares into the clock on the wall. Joe’s monologue suddenly recedes, and we are in Pat’s theremin-scored narration. “Why didn’t he stop talking, or the clock stop moving?” she asks. The four shots of Claire Trevor in this sequence are exquisite: the single orb of light in a darkened room outlining her face, the clock on the wall emerging from the inky blackness, her reflection trapped in the clock face, and then the full-frontal closeup with her eyes glimmering behind a veil. It’s a precisely filmed and overtly psychological scene capturing the moment where love dies. With its out-of-body sensation, it anticipates the style that Ingmar Bergman would cultivate over the subsequent decade.

SG: I was similarly impressed with the fight sequence at the taxidermist's. Typically, fight scenes of this period are pretty routine, with a few fists thrown and a quick knockout. This one was intense and varied with several high stakes moments that had me tense and unsure of the result.

In order to promote the movie, the Emerson Theater in Birmingham, Alabama put confiscated weapons from a local police vault on display in the lobby. The outrageousness of this, and the fact that the police went along with it, sounds astounding to my modern ears. Imagine how easy it would have been for criminals at large to break in and take back the damning evidence. I can just picture this as a Warner Brothers cartoon, Bugs Bunny in Groucho glasses suggesting this promotion to the theater proprietor, and then zooming over to the police to arrange the matter there.

AW: Cool promotion, where has the showmanship gone? Contemporary reviews treated Raw Deal like it was just run-of-the-mill or worse. E.B. Radcliffe of The Cincinnati Enquirer accompanied his review with a snoozing cartoon character and the grade of ‘D.’ About the script, he wrote, “Language of the piece is right out of a third rate radio crime show…” The Washington Post’s glib review noted the “crass dullness” of the mobsters. The Christian Science Monitor conceded that the film was well made but noted that “…the characters and their motivation don’t make much sense.” For some reason these starched-shirt reviews irritate me. Do the critics even have an inner monologue? I’ve seen the movie several times over the years and the mournful, fatalistic tone combined with the characters’ antithetical motivations has remained stuck in my head—this cheap little crime movie feels so true to a life where people tend to remain isolated in their separate lanes. If only for Claire Trevor, Raw Deal is worth repeated viewings. Four stars.

SG: The use of a voice-over has become a Hollywood cliche, but I love the way it works in this movie, and how it gives us the female perspective, a rarity in a noir. It didn't stick with me very long after I watched it though. Three stars.

There will be no blog next week. Instead we will be enjoying the Columbus Moving Picture Show. Join us, won't you? We will resume in June with jungle movies.

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