The 26th entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI is showing Anthony Mann's Raw Deal (1948) October 26 - November 25, 2017 in the United States as part of the double feature Anthony Mann Noirs.
Few film critics intend the same thing when they invoke abstraction in cinema. For some, the reference is to the purity of abstract painting, and its extension into experimental cinema; for others, it points to those moments in otherwise narrative films (such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s) when plot and characters momentarily fall away, and textures or settings surge into the foreground. For some, abstract cinema is Stan Brakhage; for others, it’s particularly kooky action movies where nothing makes much logical sense and so “pure film” takes over.
Watching the remarkable series of works forged by the collaboration of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton—including T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949)—we encounter a fine-grain aesthetic in which storytelling and abstraction are hard to separate. While the plotting follows a hardboiled minimalism familiar from many B movies, the compositions, lighting schemes, and mise en scène of bodily movements pushes into startling, ultra-stylized territory.
Two aspects of Raw Deal are especially strange, and especially forceful. The work with light is intense, to the point where disturbances of illumination seem to stalk the characters from one end of the story to the other: faces are used as screens for the projection of shadows, the lines of walls and ceiling are made to form dynamic geometries, and camera filters create glittering, star-effects in earrings, telephones, eyes, every reflective object.
The other unusual aspect is the use of a voice-over narration that, for a change, does not belong to the main character, Joe (Dennis O’Keefe). Instead, it issues from the perspective of his lover, the ever-faithful but also ever-nervous Pat (Claire Trevor). Her voice floats in a poetic space built on repetition and incantation, like Joan Bennett’s similar reverie in Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door … (1947)—both of the narrative and beyond it.
Concentrating and intensifying these two aspects (by stripping away action, and masking parts of the image), while eliminating the story’s third, major character of Ann (Marsha Hunt), results in a surfeit of abstraction that approaches the avant-garde styles of Maya Deren, or some contemporary Austrian experimentalists.
Different narrative configurations then present themselves. The third point in this “eternal triangle” is no longer a woman, but the incorporeal presence of light that eventually becomes fire. Like other films noir lovingly devoted (as Marc Vernet once observed) to the “blinking, flickering and flashing of black-and-white”, Raw Deal opens its door to a faintly apocalyptic, even science-fiction mood.