Pat Regan (Claire Trevor) has been waiting patiently for her gangster boyfriend Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) to be released from prison, but word has reached her that he will be sprung from the joint tonight, and she visits him to find out if all is going to plan. However, on reaching the visiting area she is told he is already speaking to someone, and her suspicions are aroused, even more when she realises it's that girl from the lawyer’s office Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) who has taken a rather deeper interest in Joe's case than makes Pat comfortable. But what none of them are aware of is that the boss who Joe is taking the rap for plans to ensure he doesn't spill the beans...
Before he branched out into highly regarded Westerns in the nineteen-fifties, director Anthony Mann was a film noir specialist, and those dark psychological currents in that genre were subsequently applied to the genre he is now best know for. But a change of style doesn't mean his earlier work was worthy of dismissal, and he presented some intriguing characters who, here in particular, proved difficult to predict in their behaviour, one character especially who performs such a dramatic volte face that it's surprising she didn't suffer whiplash. And always with the grimmer Mann efforts, the threat of violence was in the air, intermittently erupting into action.
While Raymond Burr as Rick Coyle, the mobster, had his own quirks in his love of fire - as usual, an indication in film noir of the descent into the inferno of Hell - Joe was no pussycat either. Although O'Keefe won most of the screen time, the possibility he may be murdered by Rick or the cops on his trail after he escapes from jail seems to fuel his anger, and not being too bright, he regards the muzzle of his gun as his best friend when it comes to slipping out of a tricky situation, all immersively photographed by expert John Alton. But he has a strange hold over Pat and Ann as he goes on the run with the former and takes along the latter as a kind of hostage/insurance policy that she will not blab everything she knows to the police.
Pat we can see from the start is utterly in his thrall, as Trevor's almost whispered voiceover adds an eerie, almost dreamlike mood to the plot, opining on her love of Joe and subsequently working out her issues with herself as his eventual second choice to Ann. Pat could be seen as a rather pathetic character, and Trevor could play hardboiled yet an underdog in her sleep, so was superbly cast in this as we are alternately sorry for Pat and almost disgusted by her: Joe simply is not worth this trouble, as O'Keefe played him a few steps away from thuggery, manipulating those around him through an unthinking cunning more than being a sympathetic soul who needs help to get out of an unfair situation. He may have been banged up for something he didn't do, but did Rick deserve this favour?
Given Rick's idea of fun is throwing flaming cherry brandy into his moll's face (years before Gloria Grahame suffered a similar fate in Fritz Lang's The Big Heat), then he is absolutely not worth any preferential treatment, and the only reason anyone does his bidding is thanks to his propensity for brutality - Mann got into trouble with the censors for just how far he went with the violence in Raw Deal. But what of Ann? The most frustrating player in this game of death, she spends the first half of the movie telling Joe that he is a lowlife, then apparently by osmosis his criminality rubs off on her and she shoots one of his attackers: suddenly she's captivated by this lawbreaker, transgressively thrilled by participating in his crimes. Deciding a good girl gone bad is a lot more attractive than a bad girl staying bad, Joe's use of Pat is both unfair and something he barely thinks through, and she curiously becomes the focus of the emotions, played for a patsy in a way she accepts in a perversely romantic manner. Basically, everyone in this was nuts. Music by Paul Sawtell.