Raoul Walsh, 1940
Starring: George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart
Joe and Paul Fabrini are truckers desperately trying to make a name for themselves so they can work independently, but a series of obstacles fall in their way. They are screwed over by a wealthy business partner, creditors are after their truck, they get a flat tire they can’t afford to fix, and Paul is exhausted and ready to return home to his wife. On the road, they witness the accidental death of two friendly truckers, who drive off a cliff when one of them falls asleep. They also pick up a hitchhiking waitress, Cassie, who Joe quickly falls for. Though Joe has a few breaks, they get into a series accident causing Paul’s arm to be amputated. Out of guilt and desperation, Joe is forced to quit the road and take a job in L.A.
He is soon hired by the rich and friendly Ed, a former truck driver turned successful business owner. Ed’s lustful, young wife Lana wants Joe for herself, and becomes obsessed, even getting Joe a promotion. But Joe continually rejects her because of his friendship with Ed and his budding relationship with Cassie. Lana won’t take no for an answer and kills Ed, though the police think it is an accident. She splits the business with Joe, making him an equal partner, which allows him to marry Cassie. In a rage, she admits to killing Ed and names Joe as her accomplice…
Based on the novel, The Long Haul, by A. I. Bezzerides, Raoul Walsh’s film about desperate truck drivers is a mix of early film noir and gritty realism. It is also notable for being one of Humphrey Bogart’s first major roles, allowing him to separate from the gangster films of the ‘30s and go on to the success of the early ‘40s, including The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. However Bogart is not the star here and plays second fiddle to George Raft, then known for a series of tough guy roles in gangster films. Raft is likable, but is overshadowed by Bogart, the sassy Anne Sheridan, and Ida Lupino. He had key roles in gangster films like Scarface (1932) and was a bigger name than Bogart’s in 1940, though that was soon to change. In the coming years, Raft turned down the leading roles in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca, all of which were picked up by Bogart and turned him into a star.
Part of the problem is that Raft’s milquetoast trucker, Joe, isn’t interesting enough to command the entire film. The truck-related conflicts of the first half of the film provide plenty of suspense and drama, though it seems a bit implausible that such a nice guy would want to risk everything and stubbornly stay out on the road. With numerous characters deprived of sleep, money, stability, and dignity, in many cases, They Drive By Night is the first depiction of the often brutal lives of truck drivers at a time when the industry was just developing. The road is shown as a dangerous, hostile, unpredictable place, but it is also shown as the potential path to freedom.
The film prefigures WWII disillusionment and frustration, the striving for masculine ideals and personal economic success, themes that would be further developed in later noir films. The nihilism and despair of the years following the Great Depression are also captured here, and it fits in with the social-realist dramas produced during WWII. I recently read Ginger Strand's Killer on the Road, a study of violence and the U.S. highway system, which seemed particularly apt while I was watching this film. The book stresses that the inherent violence of the capitalist machine creates both urban and highway crime, giving rise to opportunity for drug dealing, prostitution, gang violence, and serial murder. It is easy to see the early tendrils of that developing in this film and the brothers’ greedy, capitalist debtors and business partners are certainly depicted as parasitic and destructive. There is a heroic air to the truck driving characters and many are depicted as adventurers seeking independence and fortune.
Critics tend to be divided over whether the first or second halves of the film are superior. I can see merit in both sides, though I think the first half — a gritty, realistic drama about the plight of truckers — is superior. While Ida Lupino gave a career making performance in the second half (which is a noir-like melodrama about a scorned woman setting a man up for murder), it lacks the depressing realism of the first half. Both Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart all but disappear, to the film’s detriment. Apparently plot elements from the second half were lifted from Bordertown (1935), a Bette Davis vehicle, and I just don’t think they’re a necessary addition. The film’s happy ending is equally awkward and forced. Though I really enjoyed the film, it’s a shame to consider that this could have been the very first road noir, but sadly veers into more predictable, melodramatic territory.
While Raoul Walsh made his name directing dozens of silent films including his most famous, The Thief of Bagdad (1924), he had a lengthy career that spanned several decades and a variety of genres. He made classic gangster films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and White Heat (1949), while also directing Bogart in They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941). His covered nearly every genre, including historical war films (They Died with Their Boots On), romance (The Strawberry Blonde), WWII films (The Naked and the Dead, Desperate Journey, and Objective, Burma!), musicals (The Horn Blows at Midnight, A Private’s Affair), westerns (Cheyenne, Silver River), adventure (Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N., Blackbeard the Pirate), and many more. His excellent sense of atmosphere, pacing, and style are obvious in They Drive By Night, even though it might not be one of his most famous works.
The script is really the film’s main issue, mostly centered around the divide. There’s a somewhat predictable, dull courtroom scene and though Ida Lupino gives an excellent performance, her character’s ending hinges on some pretty silly Freudian psychobabble. Perhaps ironically, They Drive By Night boosted Ida Lupino to fame as an actress, while another film about the perils of the road, The Hitcher, was her most successful film as a director. The great supporting cast is also not to be ignored and includes Roscoe Karns (His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night) as a truck driver addicted to pinball and Alan Hale (The Sea Hawk) as the loud, jovial, and generous Ed. It’s truly shocking when Lana murders him.
Though They Drive By Night will be most appreciated by fans of classic tough guy movies and film noir, it’s worth a watch, if only for Ida Lupino’s withering performance. And though it’s hard to watch Raft steal so much screen time from Bogart, Raft was a solid actor and gave a dependable performance here. Learn more about him in George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart. They Drive By Night is available on DVD and comes recommended.