“Bet he’d squish like a watermelon if you stepped on him.”
--Count Three and Pray (1955)
When a Burr Creep walks into a scene, the other characters shrink to the edges of the frame in instinctive loathing. We loathe him, too, even before he does anything. He always does plenty of things eventually to justify our initial response: taking out his cigarette lighter and singeing the ear of his gunsel, for instance. But his soft-bellied presence is enough in itself to promote disgust.
We wait, salivating, throughout each picture for this moment--the moment when the soft, cowardly man is stomped and squished. Whipped, humiliated, beaten, bludgeoned, shot, shattered, burned. His brains beaten out with a firepoker. We like to see that sort of thing. We are justified, clean of conscience. He has asked for it. His fat belly asks to be hit (and it often is). It is the site of everything that is “fem” and wrong in him. It is where he takes the shot.
Dennis O’Keefe plays the protagonist, “Joe Sullivan,” who is serving time for a robbery, having taken the rap for Coyle and his henchmen. They owe him when he gets out--if he gets out and lives to collect. With the help of his moll/partner “Pat” (Claire Trevor), Joe escapes and comes looking for Coyle. Coyle has arranged for Joe to be killed during the break-out in order to avoid confronting him. The failure of this scheme plunges Rick into a state of incipient terror, which he tries (unsuccessfully) to conceal from his henchmen. He now must have Joe done in some other way, by somebody else. Coyle is brutal but, like most of Burr’s noir villains, an extreme physical coward.
In the course of their flight, Pat and Joe kidnap a moralistic social worker, “Ann” (Marsha Hunt) who has been visiting Joe in prison, trying to reform him. He comes on to her crudely, then begins to fall in love with her. She is alternately attracted and repelled by him--or rather, attracted to the inner “goodness” she thinks she sees and repelled by his overt violence and cynicism. Pat loves Joe unconditionally, just as he is. She does not want to change him, even though he dominates and beats her. She stands by her man--or wants to. She is pathetically jealous of Joe’s sudden attentions to Ann. Most of the film involves the complex emotional interactions within this odd menage a trois: Joe, Pat, and Ann.
In choosing between Pat and Ann, Joe is really choosing between alternate versions of himself: the hard Joe and the soft Joe. His continued link to Pat defines him as hyper-macho, protected, unowned. Although she is female, she allies him with the world of outlaw men. Ann brings out the other side of Joe, his yearning for love and surcease, culminating in a fantasy of normative domestic life with her (the wife, the kids, the nice clean house). One of the ongoing issues in the film is whether or not this latent “softness” in him is dangerous to his survival (read “identity”) as a Man. The answer is yes. Fatally dangerous.
If one wants to (it is not required), one can read a subtle bisexual subtext into this plot. Although Claire Trevor is quite feminine, the name of the character she plays (“Pat”) is androgynous in a way that the name “Ann” is not. Pat is not simply Joe’s “girl.” She is his “partner.” The film adopts Pat’s perspective. She is one of the few women characters in noir who is allowed to do the voice-over narration. This does not mean that the film has a female, much less feminist, point of view, however. Far from it. Pragmatically and emotionally, Pat’s interests are implacably opposed to the values of the “family nest” (read “net”) which Ann represents. Pat validates Joe’s hardness and the necessity of binary constructions of gender (“hard” vs. “soft”). She loses in the end, but not because she is wrong. Ann loses, too. Joe dies. His fragile identity has been torn apart by the conflict between the “women”--the conflict within him. Free and clear at last, ready to sail off to a new future with Pat, he goes back to save Ann, sacrificing his life for “love” and long-shot dream of domestic bliss. Ann puts her arms around him and nestles him, as he bleeds to death on the street. It is an ambiguous image.
As Walt Radak in Mann’s Desperate, Raymond Burr played the metaphorical parent (the “Bloody Mama”) of a dark-side “family” which exists in stark opposition to the sunny virtues of normative domestic life represented by Steve and Anne and, also, by Uncle Jan and Aunt Clara. In Raw Deal, he plays a similar role, although the parallelism is more complex and less obvious. The name of his character (“Rick Coyle”) and the name of his address (“Corkscrew Alley”) suggest the twisted deviance of his character. The names of his “family members” reinforce this suggestion: “Fantail” (John Ireland) and “Spider.” These are not men. They are “animals.” They exist outside the human continuum. They are everything that is Not Us.
We can have no empathy with such Creatures. Whatever residual temptation we might have to do so is immediately eliminated in the first moment we see Burr as Coyle. He is doing a Laird Cregar impersonation again, and a very outré version of it (although, in fairness, one should add that Cregar, who had a very short career to begin with, had been dead for four years, and the part now rightfully belonged to Burr himself). He is fat, soft, the curvilinear lines of his face and form emphasized by the low camera angles. He is wearing a floral dressing gown (read “dress”) and smoking from a long cigarette holder. He has a gaudy ring on his right hand. His hair is slicked down. His voice is whispery--“spidery.” His mouth is sensual-obscene, especially when it smiles in pleasure at somebody else’s pain.
That sadistic administration of pain comes immediately: as Burr walks past his henchman Spider, he flicks his cigarette lighter and runs the open flame along the man’s ear. He laughs at the scream. This is his idea of a tasty joke. Throughout the film, Burr will continue to toy compulsively with the lighter, never letting us forget that opening moment--or the much more appalling scene to come. We know from the beginning how this unmanly man will meet his death: in flames.
Coyle sits with Fantail who is building a house of cards on a table. Rick explains, coyly, how he has set up Joe’s ostensible escape in order to eliminate him. He has no sense of honor or loyalty. He is a coward: “You always get somebody else to pull the trigger for you,” Faintail comments, with amused disgust. (He is a low-life himself, but not that low.) Coyle is beyond shame. He takes his middle finger, extends it in a frank obscenity, and pushes it down on the house of cards, collapsing it. This is what he will do to Joe. Fuck him.
Whom Coyle fucks and does not fuck is a central issue in this film--and there is suprisingly little metaphorical disguise about it. This is a Queer Text, albeit in rather different terms than Desperate. In Desperate there is a subtly positive valuing of male love and loyalty. However twisted Walt’s love for Al is, the emotional energy of the film comes from it. Here the emotional power of the film comes from Coyle’s inability to make love to women--the ways in which he is tortured for it and tortures others in response. That torture is expressed in the metaphor of fire, burning pain, and flamin’ gestures.
Significantly, Joe Sullivan is a kind of fireman manque. Trying to “bring out the good” in Joe, Ann reminds him that, as a boy of 12, he rescued a dozen fellow children from a terrible fire. He was a hero. “What happened [to that boy]?’ she asks. “Maybe there were other fires. Maybe he became a fireman. Maybe he got burned. I wouldn’t know,” Joe replies, trying to cover the emotion she has wakened in him, his memory of another possible self.
The image of what it means to be “burned” culminates in an unforgettable sequence halfway through the film (and then is reprised at the end). Ann, Pat and Joe have taken temporary refuge in a lush northern forest. They have coffee, a simple meal. There is moment of respite, of “softness.” Then a forest ranger approaches, questioning. Joe is poised, ready to kill him. Ann diverts the ranger, saving his life. She turns to Joe, revivified in her loathing of his animalistic capacity for violence. “You’re something from under a rock,” she says.
On that line, the view cuts to a shot of Rick Coyle. He is sitting at a casino table opposite Fantail, playing poker. He is looking at his hand, smiling slightly at his henchman. A blonde bimbo, whom we have seen lounging in the background of the initial ear-singeing scene, comes up behind Coyle and coils her arms around his neck. “This is no way to celebrate your birthday,” she says playfully. His smile fades. He freezes and becomes tense. He is visibly uncomfortable. He unwraps her arms. “Stop it...You’re making me nervous.” “But I thought we were going to have a party, not a card game.” Coyle ignores her and reaches to rake in the pot. Fantail stops him and shows his own cards: “Guess this just isn’t your lucky day,” he says with a mocking smile. Rick Coyle is a Loser, in every way. And everybody knows it.
“You!” says Rick to the blonde. “You go dance with Brock [a henchman]...or the waiter.” He rips her hands off his shoulders. “You’re bothering me!” He stares darkly off into space as she obliges him with a broad smile and moves to dance with Brock, who readily embraces her. As the music plays, they circle behind him, softly laughing. Coyle looks down, unable to engage Fantail’s sarky eyes. He is rigid. He is simmering. At this moment Mann and Alton give Burr a wonderful semi-close-up. His hair is loose, coiling down over his forehead. He is oddly handsome--or handsomely odd. It would be difficult to say which.
A waiter brings a special punch in a silver bowl (or perhaps the makings of Crepes Sussette). “This is for your birthday.” Coyle tastes it with a silver spoon. “Put some more Curvoisier in here, just a drop or two.” The waiter obliges. Coyle takes out his lighter and ignites the mixture. “That’s beautiful,” he says, mesmerized by the flames. Fantail begins to tell Rick about Joe’s escape. He is amused by the fear in Coyle’s eyes and the sudden nervous movement in his hands (the thumb rubbing the forefinger, compulsively). “A million-to-one shot,” Fantail says, mocking Coyle’s initial boast that he would fuck Joe so easily. He totes up how much Rick owes him from the poker game. It is a lot. “Sure is your birthday.” Brock and the blonde, dancing in the background, break into sudden laughter over some private joke.
Coyle stands up abruptly. The blonde has been holding a drink in her hand as she dances, and her arm accidentally hits his back as he arises, spilling the liquor over his shoulder. There is a low angle shot as he wipes off his suit. No more simmer. He is burning now. He takes the bowl of flaming booze and throws it in the blonde’s face. She screams like a banshee.
This is one of the most appalling acts in the entire film noir corpus (and certainly the most mysogynistic). Yet it is also extremely complex and subtle as well. In Desperate we never actually see Radak’s punch land on Steve’s mouth. Similarly, here we never actually see the flaming liquor hit the blonde’s face--though we may think that we do. (Such is the illusion of art.) We never see her face at all, in fact. What we do see is the horror and disgust in the faces of the onlookers who come to her aid and lead her away, weeping. (“He’s a brute,” one says, understating the matter.) We see something else as well, if we look carefully. At the moment in which Coyle’s slow burn flames up into open rage, Burr turns to the camera. He reaches back, grabs the fiery bowl in his right hand, and hurls it directly into the lens. That is “flamin’ in your face.” Flamin’ in our face.
The punch bowl scene plays two ways at once. Two acts of torture occur, not one. What we see depends on who we are. What most people see (or saw in 1948) is what happens to the blonde: her scream, her agony. We imagine her burning face, her disfigurement. She is an innocent victim of a torturer who is inhumanly indifferent to the pain he has caused. (“Take her away. She should have been more careful,” Coyle says coldly.) What we do not see so readily is that Coyle himself has been an object of torture throughout this entire scene and has finally responded in kind. That torture is not physical; it is emotional--and metaphorical. But it does cause pain. Or, rather, it would cause pain if we could grant Coyle the capacity to feel. We do not grant him that much humanity. We have been prompted not to do so. We see him as an object.
During most of the scene, the camera placement puts us in Fantail’s position vis a vis Coyle. We look at him as Fantail looks at him--and with the same mocking contempt. In effect, Fantail speaks for us, does our taunting for us. It is important to note that here Coyle is being humiliated and reviled not for what he has done or what he will shortly do but for what he is, and isn’t. It is “unmanliness” that makes him a fit target for general laughter: his cowardice in relationship to men, his impotence in relationship to women. Implicitly, he is homosexual--”homosexuality” here being defined negatively, not as a “love” but a “lack.”
Faintail’s taunting of Coyle begins precisely at the moment when the blonde wraps her arms around his neck and he freezes in fear. (“You’re making me nervous.”) Coyle’s response to the subsequent mocking is to “burn.” If this were a color film, he would “turn red.” And, in fact, Burr’s performance is so intense that he actually makes us see that flush, invisibly. Coyle is being shamed. His face flames.
The burning face he inflicts on the woman is not merely a random act of violence. It is a metaphorical equation. Her flaming face is a mirror image of his own. Is not her pain then his pain, in disguise? A terrible pain, a maddening pain that makes her scream and weep? Is it not what he would feel if he could feel anything...which he can’t. He is only a cartoon villain who feels nothing at all. Which is just as well for us. Because if he were real and his pain were real (which it is not), then who would we be but torturers ourselves, enjoying a little schoolyard act of taunting and humiliation.
Like many of Burr’s best characters in noir, “Rick Coyle” is a set-up. It panders to our sadism while subtly indicting us for it. Having watched Coyle first burn his henchman’s ear and now burn the blonde’s face, we are absolutely entitled to our desire to see him burned alive at the stake. Screaming. And it doesn’t even matter that we would probably have wanted him burned alive anyhow, even if he had done neither of these things--burned simply for wearing that florid dressing gown and using a cigarette holder.
Mann accommodates us, as always. Coyle sends Fantail to lure Joe into a trap and kill him. There is an extraordinary fight scene in a taxidermist’s shop, the heads and bodies of stuffed animals looming grotesquely in the shadows. (At one point, Joe mistakes a bear for Coyle.) At the climax, Joe overpowers Fantail, impaling him through the cheek on the horn point of an antler. Sadomasochistically-speaking, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Fantail survives, captures Ann, and brings her to Coyle’s lair. He is sitting at his desk, eating an avocado by the light of a candelabra. “Elegance” is “decadence,” at least in America. The mobsters want to know how much Ann knows. “There are ways of finding out,” says Coyle. He takes out his cigarette lighter and gives it a flick.
Joe and Pat are on shipboard, ready to escape to South America. She knows what has happened to Ann but is concealing it from him. At the last moment, she tells him the truth, not simply for Ann’s sake but because she knows that he is really lost to her and that her life with him in South America would be a sham. Joe rushes off in the fog to save Ann from Coyle’s torture.
There is a gunfight in the street. In the dark, Coyle watches fearfully from his second floor office window as Spider and Fantail are shot. He is drinking Courvoisier. He turns to light a three-tiered candelabra. Joe comes up behind him, holding a gun. Coyle plays helpless. “You know I never carry a gun.” Joe hesitates a fraction of a second, reluctant to shoot in cold blood. (He has gone “soft.”) This gives Coyle time to reach into the pocket of his dressing gown and shoot through the folds of the cloth, without removing the gun he has hidden there. They exchange shots. Both are mortally wounded. The candelabra falls and ignites the window curtains. They struggle in the dark, Joe relentlessly forcing Coyle’s body back toward the window, finally shoving him into the flames. (Ah, yes.) As he burns, Coyle falls backward through the window and headfirst down to the street below. Squish!
We should be sated, but in case
we are not Mann tosses us a final tidbit. There is a process shot so we
can actually see Coyle as he falls. (It is very fakey...but no more so
than Hitchcock’s famous reprise of it in Rear Window.) The
camera is positioned directly over Burr’s belly so that, in effect, we
ride him down, looking at his terrified face as the ground comes up behind
him. His arms are thrown up over his head, hands cringing. His mouth is
open. He gets off two pretty good screams before he hits.