Dennis O'Keefe plays Joe Sullivan, a convict serving time in the State Penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit, though he's willing to take the fall for his gangster friend, because to him there is still honor among thieves. Marsha Hunt plays Ann, a social worker who sat through Joe's trial and has visited him in jail, urging him to begin working on his parole and straighten himself out while in prison. Claire Trevor plays Pat, Joe's girlfriend who helps him break out of prison and plans to escape with him to South America. Raymond Burr, never slimier, plays Rick, the friend that Joe thinks is helping him flee the country, but is actually setting him up to be killed by the police so he'll never be able to testify against him. Things don't go the way Rick hopes and plans, however, and Joe, with the help of Pat, is able to outsmart and avoid every obstacle that keeps popping up. The plans never work out perfectly, but they show an amazing talent for improvisation while on the run from the law. Along the way, they kidnap social worker Ann and evade roadblocks by stealing a car, and having the theft victim arrested by the police when he chases after them.
Noir films frequently place the hero between two women of polar opposites, the Good Girl and the Femme Fatale. The femme fatale who is poison for our hero, but he just can't keep himself away, and the good girl, who only wants what's best for our hero but is usually ignored for the more exciting options on the other side of the tracks Rarely are those two diametric poles more pronounced than in Raw Deal, which posits the two female leads as two sides of Joe's conscience. An angel and demon on his shoulder, each trying to steer him down a different path. Superficially those labels would fit here, as Ann wants Joe to go straight and lead a steady life, and Pat wants Joe to flee the police and live a life of adventure with her. But below that surface, the labels begin to blur. Pat honestly loves Joe, and is merely trying to make him happy in their escape attempts, and Ann herself begins to sympathize more and more with Joe's position. By the end of the movie Ann will have gunned a man down and Pat will sacrifice her one shot at happiness in order to save Ann's life. And Joe? What happens to him? About what usually happens to the anti-heroes of films like this.
Raw Deal is as fatalist as noir films get. Each character in the film plots and schemes in their own way, and tries to grasp what they perceive as happiness. Several characters act in a manner counter to their immediate desires in order to achieve their greater goal of happiness, only to have those acts amount to, as the man said, a hill of beans. Joe desperately wants revenge when he discovers Rick has been trying to kill him, but at Pat's urging pushes that desire aside in order to go off and live with her. Ann wants Joe to turn himself in, and attempts to call the cops herself, but gives up later and decides to let Joe decide his own fate. Pat wants nothing more in the film(not money, not material goods, nothing) than to live and be loved by Joe, but she lets him run to Ann's rescue because she wants him to be happy. The only character in Raw Deal with unwavering conviction is the villain of the piece, Rick, who can't see how his own plans to secure happiness end up leading him towards despair.