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Tag Archives: Dennis O’Keefe

Raw Deal (May 26, 1948)

Raw Deal
Raw Deal (1948)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) together form one of the most powerful one-two punches in the history or film noir.

Both films star Dennis O’Keefe, both feature musical scores by Paul Sawtell, John C. Higgins has a writing credit on both, and both feature the exquisite cinematography of John Alton.

What makes these two films such a great one-two punch is that they are each one side of the film noir coin. T-Men is a docudrama, purportedly made to show square-jawed agents of the Treasury Department cracking a big case, but like all great noir docudramas, the depiction of the criminal demimonde and the gray areas of its protagonists’ moral codes are the most interesting parts of the film.

Raw Deal is the other side of the coin. It’s a film noir purely about crime and criminals, and it has all the great elements of noir — a doomed male protagonist on the run, a “good girl” and a “bad girl” competing for his love, dream-like voice-over narration, a casually sadistic villain, and it’s set in one of the great noir cities — San Francisco.

Like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945), and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), Raw Deal is the Platonic ideal of a film noir.

Raw Deal begins with aging gun moll Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) going to visit Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe) in prison. Right away Raw Deal establishes that it is not a run-of-the-mill crime film, as Claire Trevor’s voice-over narration is accompanied by a haunting theme played on a theremin. The element of the theremin is only present in Paul Sawtell’s score during these voice-overs, and establishes Pat’s point of view as dreamy and hyperreal. Raw Deal is the first film in which I’ve heard a theremin since Miklós Rózsa’s masterful scores for Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), both of which used the eerie sound of a theremin to establish altered states of perception.

When she arrives at the prison, however, Pat is told she has to wait a little while because Joe already has a visitor — Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). Ann works for Joe’s defense lawyer’s office and she cares about his case and wants to see him paroled, but she admits that he will probably have to wait at least three years. She leaves, Pat enters, and Joe is faced with a more tantalizing prospect. Gang boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has devised an escape plan for Joe. If he can make it over the wall Pat will be there waiting in a getaway car.

Of course, nothing is what it seems to be on the surface, and Coyle — whose double-cross is how Joe ended up in prison in the first place and who still owes Joe his cut from a robbery — is hoping that Joe will be shot by prison guards during his escape, taking care of Coyle’s problem for good.

Burr formerly played a memorable villain in Mann’s noir Desperate (1947), but he’s an even nastier and more violent character in Raw Deal, casually setting his girlfriend on fire in a shocking scene of cruelty that presages a similar scene in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). His right-hand man, the bizarrely named “Fantail,” is solidly played by John Ireland, who formerly starred in Mann’s noir Railroaded (1947).

First and foremost, Raw Deal is a masterpiece of suspense. For most of the movie Joe, Pat, and Ann are on the run from the police, and the film hits all of the classic “fugitive movie” moments — navigating a road block, hiding out in a cabin in the woods, one narrow escape after another, etc. Finally, for the last act of the film, the type of suspense changes, and a ticking clock takes the film closer and closer to its inevitable violent confrontation.

Since so much of Raw Deal takes place on the open road, there aren’t as many opportunities for Alton to flex his cinematographic muscles in the same way he did in T-Men, which mostly took place in urban environments. But he makes the most of what he has to work with. There’s a lot of day-for-night shooting in Raw Deal, and it’s a technique that never looks quite right, but at least with Alton operating the camera it always looks good. Finally, scenes toward the end with Claire Trevor’s face reflected in a ticking clock as she weighs a decision in her mind are absolutely masterful.

Anthony Mann was a great director who made wonderful films in all genres, but among his film noirs, I’ll never be able to decide if I like Raw Deal or T-Men better. They’re both great, must-see pictures for every aficionado of film noir.

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)


T-Men (1947)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

McGraw and Ford

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

O'Keefe and McGraw

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

Dishonored Lady (May 16, 1947)

Robert Stevenson’s Dishonored Lady is a classic piece of slickly produced fluff from Hollywood’s Golden Age. It has a little something for everyone; romance, sex, courtroom drama, murder, and psychotherapy.

The stunningly beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr plays Madeleine Damien, the art editor of Boulevard, a chic Manhattan fashion magazine. Exhausted and unhappy with her life of constant parties, dates in nightclubs, drinking, and meaningless affaires de coeur, she attempts suicide in the most sensible fashion imaginable, by driving her car straight into a tree. Luckily for her, it’s a tree on the front yard of the home of psychiatrist Richard Caleb (Morris Carnovsky), and she’s not seriously injured. Dr. Caleb declares that she has no bones broken, but that she needs the courage to face herself, which she’s unwilling to do. Dr. Caleb drives her to the train station and says, “Miss Damien, you’re an intelligent woman, not an idiot. Can you promise me one thing? When you get ready to throw yourself off Brooklyn Bridge Bridge, will you come and see me first?” He gives her his card and she smiles a little. Maybe there’s hope for her after all.

On Monday morning, however, little seems to have changed. Madeleine arrives at work accompanied by that frenetic orchestral music that’s always used in movies from the ’40s to accompany Manhattan street scenes. She appears to be the only woman on the editorial staff of Boulevard, but she’s no shrinking violet. She refuses to be intimidated after she kills the art layout of one of their most prominent advertiser’s spreads, calling it not art, but “a press agent’s dream.” That night, however, she meets the prominent advertiser, Felix Courtland (John Loder), and accepts a ride home from the tall, gray-haired, mustachioed, dapper, handsome, and very wealthy gentleman. After backpedaling on her decision on the art layout, one of her bitter co-workers, Jack Garet (William Lundigan), tells her exactly what he thinks of her and the way she lives her life.

Distraught, she sees Dr. Caleb, and through good old-fashioned talk therapy, realizes how much she hates her life. She was always trying to emulate her father, a successful painter who loved and left more women than he could count. Madeleine adored her father, and thought he was the happiest man in the world. Until he killed himself, that is. Dr. Caleb convinces her to find her true self. She quits her job at Boulevard, gives up her apartment, and moves into a cheap, one-room flat under the name “Madeleine Dixon,” where she pursues her painting.

It just so happens that one of her neighbors is a big handsome lug named David Cousins (Dennis O’Keefe), a pathologist working on a report called “The Effect of Anti-Reticular Serum on Cell Tissue.” He needs some medical illustrations of blood cells done, and Madeleine is just the person. Madeleine and Dr. Cousins fall in love, but she can’t bring herself to admit to him who she really is, and all the details of her past life, even after he proposes marriage.

Her past life comes back to haunt her in the person of Felix Courtland, who finds out where Madeleine is living, and comes a-courting. With David out of town, she unwisely accepts his offer of a night on the town, and becomes embroiled in a murder investigation in which she is the prime suspect.

Will David be able to accept Madeleine after he learns the truth about her and realizes that she’s been lying to him all along? Will Madeleine be able to forgive herself? Or is she heading for a one-way trip to the gas chamber?

Dishonored Lady, which was re-released under the title Sins of Madeleine, is based on the 1930 play Dishonored Lady by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes. It’s competently made entertainment elevated by Hedy Lamarr’s performance. She’s beautiful to look at, and she strikes a nice balance between wide-eyed vapidity and muted sadness.

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