The stars of Raw Deal are certainly behind the camera. Anthony Mann directing and John Alton as DP alone make the film a must-watch. The picture belongs in that subset of noir films like The Big Combo (also shot by Alton), Scarlet Street, and Gun Crazy, movies that aren't staples on best-of-noir lists, but that nevertheless represent the finest the genre has to offer. Raw Deal is exquisite, with the look and feel of a dark dream that's bound to end badly but that also manages to be completely sublime in the process.
Dennis O'Keefe, an actor who never made much of a name for himself outside of B-movies, plays Joe, a criminal who escapes from prison (his crime is unspecified, though it's made clear he took the fall for whatever did actually happen) and goes on the run with his girl, Claire (Pat Cameron) and a kidnapped social worker named Ann, who also seems to have an eye for him. Mann sets up the story to be both an escape movie and a revenge tale: while Joe is running from the police, he's simultaneously planning to get back at the mobster Rick (a chilling Raymond Burr, who, among other notable roles, played the killer from Rear Window), who owes him fifty grand. It's like The Fugitive, only without the tricky plot.
What's especially interesting about the movie is the way it toys around with noir traditions. Rather than two lovers on the run, there are three, only it's not clear who Joe is actually interested in. The women are also fairly unconventional for this type of movie. Claire is a little sultry, but she's more a woman with an aching heart than a femme fatale. And Anne seems completely out of place, a social worker who's much more like a real person than a noir character. She's a tough girl, though, it turns out. Just when it seems like she can't handle her environment, she shoots a man in the back to save Joe.
Another of the movie's unusual qualities is that Anne is the narrator, rather than Joe, who, in a typical noir, would certainly have that duty. It gives the film a fresh perspective. Joe is fairly bland, so anything he had to say would be pretty predictable. Claire, though, is interesting, a woman who not only is risking her life for Joe, but also has to battle with the fact that he might decide to go after Anne instead. Due to the context of the story, it's one of the more unusual love triangles I've encountered in a movie.
Ultimately, then, this is more a romance than a crime story, and Mann and Alton make sure it looks as such. The images often possess a lyrical quality, in part because much of the story takes place in the countryside. Alton's use of light and shadows are more beautiful than ominous. The world that Joe is running through is a pretty one, partly because he says at the beginning how he longs to breath freely. He's after something idyllic, and thus Mann makes the world he enters once he escapes prison rather inviting. And yet a sense of doom pervades the air Joe breathes because we know, and he knows, that he hasn't really found freedom yet.