Although there are many published (and Internet-posted) summaries of the plot of Raw Deal, which often contain one or more factual errors, there are only a few interpretations of this pantheonic film noir, and they conform to the hardboiled paradigm.
Below I demonstrate two things. First, the hardboiled interpretation of Raw Deal makes it impossible to accurately understand what happens in the film, such as who dominates whom. Second, the hardboiled interpretation results in unjustifiably diminishing the recognition that Raw Deal deserves for its profound “noirness.”
Carl Macek says:
“Joe Sullivan exists as a homme fatale seducing Ann Martin into a world filled with violent action and murder, enticing her with a promise of sexual fulfillment that goes beyond the realm of normal relationships. She surrenders completely to Joe, committing murder as the ultimate expression of her love.” (Film Noir: An Encyclodpedic Reference to the American Style, The Overlook Press, 1979, p. 239)
And Jeanine Basinger says:
“In forming her relationship with Joe, Ann undergoes a moral change. After idealizing him as a former child hero gone wrong…, she learns the situation is more hopeless—in film noir terms, more predetermined—than that. She has to reform her understanding of him along newer, more realistic lines.” (Anthony Mann, Wesleyan University Press, 2007, pp. 45-46)
To prove her point, Basinger also cites Ann’s decision to fire a gun to save Joe’s life.
Macek and Basinger are wrong because it is Ann who gets Joe to change.
Joe, Ann and Pat break the rules in a state park by building a campfire. As Ann sweet-talks a park ranger into letting the two women off with just a warning, Joe hides behind a tree, with his pistol drawn. After the ranger leaves, Joe thanks Ann. But Ann berates him:
“Thanks? I didn’t do it for you. I did it for that kid. You’d have shot him down. I saw you with that gun. I saw the look on your face. You’re a murderer. I may have romanticized you before, but now I know you. You’re something from under a rock. You don’t have to worry about me turning you in anymore. I don’t have to. You’ll get yours. Somehow, sometime, somewhere!”
As they drive through the night to a mountain lodge, Joe doesn’t say a word. Pat thinks it means Ann “was getting under his skin.”
Outside the lodge, Joe tries to flirt with Ann, but she rebuffs him. He says:
“You’re right. I am something from underneath a rock…that famous rock that hits you in the back of the head after you’ve tried to help someone…But I’m climbing right up…until I reach the top.”
She asks, “To what end? More crime?”
He grabs her and forces a kiss on her. Holding her arms tightly, he says he wanted to see how she’d react when she got “kissed by something from under a stone.”
Suggesting that he’s ashamed of his class background, she says, “That bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, what do you know about anything? You’ve probably had your bread buttered on both sides since the day you were born. Safe! Safe on first, second, third, and home.”
Ann breaks free of Joe’s grip and retorts:
“That’s what you think. Just because I own a collar and a tailored suit and my nails are clean, you think I haven’t had to fight? I got a good education, sure. I suppose that means I was born with a silver spoon, doesn’t it? My father was a schoolteacher. He died in the war of the Depression. Only he didn’t get any medals or any bands or any bonus. He left three children. You think you had to fight. The only way you know how to fight is that stupid way with a gun. Well, there’s another way you probably never even heard of. It’s the daily fight that everyone has to get food and an education, to land a job and keep it, and some self-respect. Safe? I never asked for anything safe. All I want is just a little decency, that’s all.”
Ann rushes back to the lodge, and Joe follows, brooding. Ann goes to Pat’s room and tells her, “Joe means nothing to me. Not now.”
Soon after, a man pursued by the state police runs up to the lodge, shouting and banging on the door. Oscar (the lodge owner), Joe and Ann are on the other side of the door in a hallway. Pat is behind and above them, on the lower steps of a stairway. Afraid the police will come to the lodge and find Joe, Oscar and Pat don’t want to let the man in. Ann begs Joe with her eyes. Joe says to Oscar, “Let the poor slob in.” Pat cries out, “Joe, use your head! Don’t be a chump! Joe, you can’t! You can’t!” Ann looks at Joe again, and he says, “Open it up, Oscar.”
The man bursts in. Everyone moves toward the camera, from the hallway into the living room. Except Pat. She is seen on the stairs, in deep focus, far away and isolated. Joe tells Oscar’s wife to get the man a drink, but she refuses to serve a “wife murderer.” Then Joe is startled to see Ann pouring a glass.
Wracked with remorse, the man runs outside, fires his pistol in the air and is gunned down by the cops. Ann looks at Joe and says, “That could be you.” Crucially, her tone of voice is serious and not spiteful, as it was at the state park and outside the lodge. This is because Joe has changed. By helping the fugitive, he showed he could be unselfish. Ann showed her gratitude by doing what Joe asked and pouring the man a drink.
Just before a state trooper enters the lodge, Joe pulls Ann out of the living room and into a small closet under the stairs where Pat still stands. In previous scenes, to prevent Ann from alerting anyone he is an escaped convict, Joe or Pat held a gun on her. Standing close together in the dark closet, they look at each other, and their gaze is romantic.
Therefore, what happens at the taxidermist’s is because of their new relationship. When Ann sees that Joe is about to “get his,” instead of standing by and letting it happen, she saves his life. Shooting Fantail doesn’t mark Ann’s change in attitude toward Joe. It is the consequence of a change that has already occurred. It didn’t come about because Joe seduced her or because she reforms her understanding of Joe. When Ann is distraught that she might have killed Fantail, Joe says she did it to save his life, adding, “I know I’m not worth it, but then…” Ann interrupts, “Oh, yes, you are!” Once again they look at each other, and this time they kiss. Joe became worthy when he heeded Ann’s unspoken plea to help the fugitive. For that, Joe didn’t get a rock thrown at his head; he got Ann’s respect and love.
Why would Macek and Basinger fail to recognize Joe is changed by Ann? Why would they believe Ann accommodates herself to Joe instead of the other way around? Both authors’ views are based on a hardboiled framework for interpreting film noir. Accordingly, they analyze Ann in terms of Joe, because he is the central character and he is a tough guy. In fact, however, both Ann and Pat convince Joe to do as they wish. Pat stops Joe from seeking revenge on Rick. Ann gets Joe to be decent to the hunted man.
Furthermore, it is right that Joe does what the women want. The fine person he was as a kid is still within him as a man. He was a poor boy, and those life circumstances were a raw deal. But when Ann tells Joe about everyone’s “daily fight,” she profoundly affects him. She gets even deeper under his skin.
After Fantail calls him a “jerk,” Joe says, thinking of Ann, “Called that a lot lately. Much better language.” Joe’s love for Ann and her influence on him are what change him into a different man. On the ship he tells Pat he wants to “start fresh, decent.” As Pat listens to Joe talk about having “a business…a house…[and] kids,” she realizes his dreams are meant for Ann. (In a moment Pat reveals to Joe that “Ann’s with Rick!”)
When Joe sends Ann away after they spend the night together, she thinks he prefers Pat. So until he rescues her, she doesn’t know how much he loves her. Dying in her arms, he tells her not to cry, “I got my breath of fresh air. You….” Joe knew he’d changed the way Ann wanted, which is why Pat sees there’s “a kind of happiness on his face.”
Macek and Basinger’s views fail because to interpret Raw Deal, based on what really happens, requires jettisoning the hardboiled paradigm.
Macek finds faults with Raw Deal when he contrasts it to a normative ideal of film noir, which he derives from the hardboiled paradigm. He says:
“The ironic narration provided by Pat develops the romantic undercurrent evident in many noir films. It remains for the true noir film to debase any sense of pity or love that may be present, replacing it with a tough, cynical nature.”
Similarly, Robert Ottoson complains:
“The only thing that keeps Raw Deal from being an exemplary film noir is its soft center. The love that O’Keefe has for Hunt is not only far-fetched, but Hunt’s excessive moralizing is not in keeping with the film’s overall quality of brutality and pessimism.” (A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir, 1940-1958, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1981, p. 145)
Although there’s no happy ending in Raw Deal, the love story is a deal-breaker for Macek and Ottoson, preventing it from being “true” or “exemplary” film noir.
Yet “moralizing” is an inaccurate term to describe Ann’s criticisms of Joe at the state park and outside the lodge. Furthermore, it is the agonizing romantic triangle that makes Raw Deal so extremely noir. Joe’s physical conflict with Rick (and his henchmen, like Fantail) comes in a distant second to Joe’s emotional struggles with Ann and Pat. Indeed, the film packs a greater wallop by showing Joe’s repudiation of “a tough, cynical nature.”
Raw Deal is a far better film than adherents of the hardboiled paradigm are able to acknowledge. Through a crime story as well as a love story that is the equal in its adultness with the best of French poetic realism, not to mention any other American film noir, Raw Deal shows the heart-wrenching despair men and women endure and the soul-deadening compromises they give in to. Not only the extraordinary visual style but also the exceptionally tense interplay of mature romantic relationships place Raw Deal among the greatest of any kind of cinema, including film noir.