Anthony Mann had been working in Hollywood for almost a decade before he made himself widely known as a distinctive filmmaker, an impact that was augmented perhaps by his collaboration with one of the most recognizable cinematographers of film noir, John Alton. His name is well-known today for his Westerns and semi-documentary crime films, but it is films like Raw Deal (1948) and the equally fatalistic Side Street (1950), which was photographed by the Academy Award-winning Joseph Ruttenberg, that showcase Mann’s exceptional talents as a noir filmmaker. Dedicated to the melodramatic intensities of story, it is in the mode of dramatic narrative that these talents really shine – though perhaps smoulder is the correct expression. Together with Alton’s compositions – spaces of extreme darkness, slow and sometimes agonizing camera movement, and the heavily stylized sets of Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion – he creates what Wheeler Winston Dixon has dubbed “one of his most enduring visions of urban hell."
Farley Granger’s protagonist in Side Street is named Joe, as is Dennis O’Keefe’s in Raw Deal. Both are criminals on the run from the law. Each comes from different circumstances: Granger is more innocent, trapped into crime by a critical society; while O’Keefe is a willing participant, but their shared name enforces their commonality, their relatability. This hints at the more sinister dimensions of noir that boiled on the surface of many postwar films and left no one unaffected by crime, violence and anxiety. The intensity and harshness of the violence – which Mann boils to black – reaches a horrific peak when Raymond Burr’s villain throws a flaming chafing dish into a woman’s face for little reason beyond the fact that he felt like it. Mann was not a director who shied away from scenes of intense confrontation and he repeats this gesture in the infamous scene in The Furies (1950) in which Barbara Stanwyck’s character slashes the face of Judith Anderson’s with scissors. Both of these moments are manifestations of physical and psychological disfigurement – the looks on both Burr’s and Stanwyck’s faces at the moment they attack are truly deranged. Mann’s brutality here has been compared to the boiling coffee scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). But where Lang shifts the attack offscreen, Mann directs his straight towards the camera. It is graphic details like these that have led Jeanine Basinger to claim Mann’s films as “among the most relentlessly violent” American films of their time.
Mann was a master of darkness, using extreme contrasts and often filling the frame with black, leaving only a sliver of light to reveal detail. In Raw Deal, Mann develops this contrast through the sustained visual and thematic motifs of the dragnet and the gridiron. When Joe plans to break out of prison in the opening scene, the initial shots reveal a large outer gate (“LIGHTS OUT”, prophecies a sign), a close-up of the building’s “STATE PRISON” plaque, then another set of prison gates, its weighted bars bearing pointed spikes of wrought iron. The entire film takes place in a world of restricted by lines and nets, as though the prison walls expand with each step Joe takes, never allowing him to really escape to his freedom. At the visitor centre inside the prison, Joe is framed behind the metal grates that separate prisoner from guest; Ann (Marsha Hunt), his social worker, is wearing a hat covered in netted lace. Pat (Claire Trevor) visits him next, and the netted lace on her hat is also spread across her face as a veil.
The nets don’t go away; they just keep getting bigger. After Joe breaks out of jail, a dragnet is formed around the city. We see it forming in police precincts, on roads, and hear about it over Joe’s hacked police radio. “A dragnet as tight as your fist”, Joe explains. In one particularly striking shot, Ann flees a fight scene, but by running away from the violence and the camera she runs towards large, draped fishing nets. Those nets return, closer this time, as another shadowy veil across Pat’s face as she confronts the fear that Joe might never escape and that she might never get out of Corkscrew Alley. Before his jailbreak, amidst some great, blistering shots of watches and clocks that are awaiting Joe’s escape, the camera rests on a rail bridge. While it’s night, and the objects against the skyline are black and therefore mostly dark, a sign that reads “DERAIL” marks the bridge’s entrance. Is it a suggestion or a warning? Mann’s film is so filled with crime, darkness, dangerous impulses, fatal obsession, and unstoppable momentum that it can only be an ominous sign of doom.
Almost every time an open space appears it is blocked by something: a car, window grilles or frames, a shadow, a bridge. Whereas the aerial-shot urban grid appearing in films like Side Street can certify the delimited metropolis in a single shot, the gridiron, at street level, represents forced proximity and enclosure. “Named after a medieval instrument of torture, the gridiron similarly assails space”, writes Edward Dimendberg. There is also the net of the police radio, effectively monitoring all roads, highways and routes out of town. And it is a testament to Mann’s ability to work with the established style, and his understanding of how to expand it, that he circulates this motif so completely. A net bears striking resemblance to a gridiron – or the urban grid, another icon of film noir.
It is this heavy, claustrophobic air, as thick as the fog that crowds the city streets and captured so iconically by Alton, that makes Raw Deal such a masterful example of noir. That fog has become famous, as iconic of the dark, dirty, unwelcoming noir metropolis as the final shot of Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955), and as stifling and suffocating as the swamp’s fog in Lewis’ earlier Gun Crazy (1949). Joe talks about getting out of prison, getting fresh air, finally having the chance and freedom to breathe. No luck, of course. As Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) puts it bluntly in The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) two years later: “If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town”. There’s no escaping the noir city; you can’t find your way out of the fog.
Mann is a master of the close-up – of crevices realised in remarkable detail – and spatial depth, qualities heightened by entrapping shadows and extreme, disorienting camera angles. Raw Deal employs light and dark to create visual motifs that serve both the aesthetic and thematic purposes of the film, more so perhaps than any other American movie of its time. Venetian blinds, telephone wires, country fences, stair bannisters – they aren’t “nets”, but their shadowy presence is close enough to bars. There is a breathtaking scene in a taxidermy parlour that facilitates the establishment of a visual metaphor equating man with beast. It is not the subtlest of metaphors, of course, as visual subtlety was not really noir’s strong suit.
With all of its visual achievements, Raw Deal is notable, too, for its use of female voiceover. There are piles of books and endless files of articles written about the male narrated voiceover in film noir, but almost none written about the female counterpart. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is narrated by Joan Crawford, and Decoy (Jack Bernhard, 1946) features a few brief spurts of voiceover by Jean Gillie in its opening moments, but it is Pat’s introspective, melancholy words in Raw Deal – not narration so much as audible thought – that really stands out as a voice of historical significance. Whether or not this voiceover has anything to say about the role of women in 1940s American society is hard to tell. But in this film, at least, she is the most open character, and occupies the vantage point (however disinclined she feels about it) that is most insightful about Joe’s chances, and the denigration of the larger society they occupy. The strains of a theremin, which composer Paul Sawtell (he also scored T-Men) experimented with a few years after Miklós Rózsa introduced it to Hollywood film score, create a truly eerie effect. Always accompanying Pat’s voiceover, it is unsettling, a gentle evocation of things like wind and breath – and the finality of their ultimate absence.
It is Pat’s melancholic voiceover that introduces the film: “Today’s the day. Today’s the day. The last day I have to drive up to these gates”. From that moment, with the fatalistic calling of the last, of the end, there begins and unceasing certainty that this day will indeed be the last for some. Mann doesn’t let go of this fatalistic tone. It’s one of those noirs where you hold your breath, where its tension gets your heart rate up almost so you can hear it beating. “Precious thing, breath”, says a major villain, Fantail (John Ireland), as though he knows how hard it is to keep breathing. In the expanded edition of her study of Mann’s work, Basinger comments that whereas directors like Walsh, Ford, and Hawks are easily identifiable, Mann had no trait that made him an iconic filmmaker. Whether or not Mann just did not have time to develop an auteurist ego, or he never had the desire to be one, it’s hard to say, but Raw Deal indicates that sometimes, all a filmmaker needs is his films. --Senses of Cinema