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They Drive by Night

by Glenn Erickson Apr 06, 2024

Warners star power triumphs in a patched-together screen classic about the hard life of truckers on the road — that turns into a murder ‘n’ madness melodrama. It’s a special picture in terms of career advancement for Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. The somewhat sexist dialogue feels edgy for 1940, and Ann Sheridan is at her most adorable. Does director Raoul Walsh deserve special credit for keeping this one on its feet?  Even George Raft comes across with a good performance.


They Drive by Night
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1940 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 95 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date March 26, 2024 / 21.99
Starring: George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Gale Page, Alan Hale, Roscoe Karns, John Litel, George Tobias, Joyce Compton, Frank Faylen, William Bendix, Ned Glass, Charles Halton, John Ridgely, Max Wagner, Marie Blake.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art Director: John Hughes
Film Editor: Thomas Richards
Montages: Don Siegel, Robert Burks
Gowns: Milo Anderson
Speical Effects: Byron Haskin, Hans F. Koenekamp
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Written by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay from a novel by A.I. Bezzerides
Executive Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Associate Producer: Mark Hellinger
Directed by
Raoul Walsh

A major hit from 1940,They Drive by Night scores an A+ for performances and an A for Raoul Walsh’s direction. Those achievements make up for some pretty flimsy story construction and characterization. It was crafted as a vehicle for Warners’ top star George Raft, and it may represent the actor’s best screen work outside of Scarface and a few great scenes with Mae West. Raft spends half the movie in a stubble beard, roughing it on the road; in a few reaction shots we actually see natural expressions cross his face. Bogart, unfortunately, is tasked to mope his way through much of the movie.

Raft is propped up by a trio of great performers, each giving substance to a thinly written character. Everybody comes off well, but Ida Lupino got the showcase role. As a seducer who goes mad with guilt, Lupino explodes with emotion during a courtroom scene, and stole the movie outright.

The screenplay is one of those Frankenstein script doctor jobs. Grafted into A.I. Bezzerides’ protest novel about wildcat truckers are melodramatic plot elements lifted from Borderline, a 1935 movie with Paul Muni and Bette Davis. The hybrid storyline works well enough, even though it jams two movies’ worth of incident into one. A lot seems to happen in the film’s 90 minutes.

 

The Fabrini brothers can’t seem to make a go of it as independent truckers. The ambitious Joe (George Raft) wants to be his own boss and start a trucking company like his successful friend Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), but so far nothing is working. They’re behind payments on a truck that’s almost entirely worn out, and their present client Williams (Charles C. Wilson) keeps finding reasons not to pay them. Joe’s brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart) would prefer to give up — his wife Pearl (Gale Page) worries about the dangers of long haul trucking. The brothers recover from an accident, dodge the moneylender Farnsworth (Charles Halton) and forcibly take what they’re owed from Williams. Joe immediately invests in a cargo of lemons for San Francisco, a deal that pays off their debts and more.

The Fabrinis are part of an unofficial trucker brotherhood. At a café stop, fellow long-haul drivers look out for each other. Joe meets Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan), a waitress with a sassy way of fending off the truckers’ rude advances. He lends her money to make a new start in Los Angeles, and they fall in love.

The only way to profit is to take risks, and the Fabrinis’ luck doesn’t last. When Paul falls asleep at the wheel the brothers lose their truck, and Paul loses an arm. Saving the day is Ed Carlsen, a good-old-guy blind to the fact that his spoiled wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is obsessed with Joe. Lana talks Ed into hiring Joe to manage his fleet of trucks. Joe excels in the job, and supports Paul, whose one arm makes finding work difficult. Lana’s constant pursuit of Joe can’t end well: upon discovering that Joe and Cassie have plans to marry, she turns psychotic.

 

The Warner Bros. house style favored brisk stories and snappy dialogue; director Michael Curtiz pushed ‘dense storytelling’ to its limit. Raoul Walsh was usually more relaxed, but he could lean in the same direction when appropriate. The big names in the credits — Wallis, Hellinger — deliver an efficient picture with stars, action, laughs, melodrama and madness. Nowadays the appeal is partly nostalgia, with favorite actors working so well together. A few elements are of course somewhat dated, like the obvious miniature truck effects, and the emphatic foreshadowing when the storyline stops to explain Ed Carlsen’s automatic garage door. It’s operated by an amazing modern electric eye, that we can tell will figure in some dark turn of events. As in a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe story, Lana is driven mad, mad I tell you, by similar automatic doors she encounters later on. They Drive predates the ‘psychology’ trend of the 1940s, yet those visuals had to be at least a little obvious back when the show was new.

There isn’t much time for subtleties elsewhere, either. Paul and Joe witness the crash of a sleep-deprived trucker who dies a fiery death. Paul learns nothing from the awful spectacle. Good ol’ Ed Carlsen is a big success, but his idea of fun is drinking himself unconscious, and he’s too dumb to notice his wife’s discontent. As that part of the story is a graft from Borderline, the fate of the wealthy Carlsen is not tied in with the earlier theme complaining that American laborers are being cheated.

Nowadays, the Depression-era politics of The Drive by Night really stick out. Joe Fabrini surely clicked with hardworking Americans frustrated by low salaries and a lack of opportunities. Joe never ‘blames the system,’ only his bad luck. But would a conservative of 1940 have called the film’s attitude leftist?

 

The enforcement of the Production Code had a chilling effect on politically daring subject matter, but Warner Bros.’ social consciousness and New Deal liberalism didn’t completely disappear. It can be amusing to tune in to TCM and discover a picture like 1942’s Juke Girl, in which Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan (!) fight for the rights of migrant farm workers (!!). Did Ronald Reagan for a moment think he had been cast in a piece of political propaganda?

Juke Girl was the first produced screenplay by novelist A.I. ‘Buzz’ Bezzerides, whose familiarity with the trucking business was his ticket into the screenwriting racket. Adapted by others, Buzz’s novel The Long Haul became the first half of They Drive by Night, which pre-echoes Bezzerides’ later, very similar film noir masterpiece Thieves’ Highway. Directed by Jules Dassin, the bitterly anti-capitalist thriller stars Richard Conte as an honest independent trucker cheated by a system rigged to steal his labor. The political bias is the same in both movies — the drivers take the risks, and the rewards go to crooked businessmen and moneylenders. If Republican congressmen complained about the negative portrayal of a banker in  Stagecoach, what would they have said about They Drive’s predatory loan shark, played by Charles Halton?

George Raft often seems the weak link in film thrillers, yet he carries They Drive well enough to get a passing grade. Seemingly concerned more this his image than any particular movie role, Raft ended up choosing to play bland heroes, that nevertheless punch out the bad guys and end up with the leading lady.

For this star vehicle, Joe Fabrini has been made both a gentleman and a rogue. He behaves like a choirboy with Lana Carlsen, because married women are hands off, especially the boss’s wife. Although Joe helps Cassie when she’s in a tough spot, giving her full respect was likely seen as bad for Raft’s ‘dangerous’ screen persona. Therefore Joe mildly tries for a seduction, and has to be told more than once that No means No. Exhausted, he falls asleep in Cassie’s bed, a sexual victory of sorts. With the confusing double standard of the day, Cassie fends off Joe’s advances, but not too firmly. Mustn’t dent the hero’s ego by telling him to get the hell out of her bedroom.

Ann Sheridan was always Warners’ ideal ‘neighborhood girl.’ Before 1939 or so she was cast in mostly second-rate pictures, and in occasionaly big shows supporting someone like James Cagney. This very thinly written role is still a good opportunity for her. Cassie the truck stop waitress seems impervious to the mild taunts and provocations of the truckers. The vulgar teases are pitched as good fun, SOP for those long-haul truckers. Even Joe talks about Cassie’s ‘classy chassis’ and the ‘way she fills out her clothes.’ Instead of getting angry or pretending she doesn’t hear, Cassie takes the remarks almost as compliments, and actively plays along. When a trucker continues the truck analogy by saying he’d like to provide for her, Cassie is given a line that must have gone over the heads of the censors at the Code Office: “You couldn’t pay for the headlights.”

That dialogue bite is used in the film’s original trailer, but with a different edit that cuts to Humphrey Bogart, staring directly at Ann Sheridan’s chest.  *  We think the movie is respectful toward Ms. Sheridan — who for all we know loved this stuff — but disrespectful to Cassie. As soon as she stops serving as an object of lunch-counter lust, Cassie is little more than an onlooker in the movie.

Humphrey Bogart is allowed to express a lusty interest in staying home with his wife, but he’s an albatross for his brother Joe … if ya can’t stay awake you pull over, fool. Perhaps George Raft wanted all the other characters to stand in his shadow — while Paul whines, Joe is the one to sacrifice to help with the missing arm problem. But we’re tempted to imagine Raoul Walsh sizing up his actors and thinking to himself, ‘I’m going to push for a promotion for Bogie. He’s a real trouper, and it’s too damn hard getting a performance out of Raft.’

Raoul Walsh also clearly liked what he saw in Ida Lupino, a resourceful actress with good instincts for show business. In his very next movie High Sierra Walsh would propel Bogart and Lupino to full star status. Lupino handles Lana Carlsen’s mental breakdown with impact and precision. Hers is the standout performance, despite being so over-the-top ‘big;’ Bette Davis wasn’t the only diva at Warners who could blow away the scenery.

Walsh knows he’s not working with great literature, and to some degree allows each capable performer to Fly Solo. The most natural presence is Ann Sheridan. Bogart has less to do and at times almost fades into the background. Featured support players Alan Hale and Roscoe Karns play everything big and loud, without let-up. With George Raft cruising through on autopilot, Ms. Lupino has little choice but to dial things up a few notches. Lana seems a bit much even before she goes off her rocker.

They Drive By Night is rousing entertainment, not a movie one associates with theatrical finesse. In the late 1990s I had the opportunity to talk on the phone with Mr. Bezzerides for several hours. He was happy to find someone who knew some of his movies, and proceeded to lecture me on which ones he thought were terrible and which ones he deemed worthwhile. ‘Buzz’ was grateful for the sale of The Long Haul but appalled by the finished film. He found the characters to be movie star constructions with little connection to real life. Bezzerides told me that he thought Thieves’ Highway and On Dangerous Ground were his only pictures that suggested the full-dimension ‘Faulkner’- type characterizations he was after … and he didn’t like those pictures for other reasons. His by-far most celebrated movie Kiss Me Deadly is something completely different, a cynical critique of its own its literary source.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of They Drive by Night is yet another restored eye-opener. Adolph Deutsch’s music smashes in over the Warner shield with more punch than ever before. Those artful main titles now seem stuffed with famous names.

No longer considered fully in the top rank of Warner titles, They Drive has mostly been seen in older transfers, with the same built-in flaws from an older film element, possibly not even 35mm. We now see the whole range of ‘looks’ in the film: the rough night-for-night truck action that intercuts with too-clean miniature work; the atmospheric diner with its round-up of random contractee actors in the margins (Frank Faylen, William Bendix); and Lana Carlsen’s swanky house and automated carport. Ida Lupino looks truly glamorous (overdressed?) in those fancy gowns, all the better to sell the front-office brass on her advancement to stellar status.

Besides the original trailer, the WAC gives us a radio adaptation with George Raft and Lana Turner. In a making-of featurette, Leonard Maltin confirms that They Drive is two stories glued together. A two-reel color short subject billboards swing music, with Fritz Feld playing a goofy film director named Mr. Nitvitch. A full twelve Warner stars make unbilled guest appearances, including, Humphrey Bogart, George Brent, John Garfield, Priscilla and Rosemary Lane, Pat O’Brien and Marie Wilson.

We note that the posters highlight the four top players, ignoring both the film’s trucking context and its actual character relationships — Bogart’s Paul is repeatedly paired up in ‘romantic’ two shots with Ida Lupino, not his screen wife Gale Page.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


They Drive by Night
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Lux Radio Theater Broadcast with George Raft and Lana Turner (6/2/41)
Featurette: Divided Highway-The Story of They Drive By Night
WB Short Swingtime in the Movies (1938)
Original Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 2, 2024
(7104they)

*  We only caught up with the term ‘headlights’ in this context when reading about Dr. Wertham’s 1950s campaigns against Horror and Crime comics — the artists frequently showcased breasts, front and center. Then again, a lot of comic books pitched over the Donald Duck age level were considered vulgar.
CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Barry Lane

A fine review of a fine film, but the rote knocking of George Raft, a top star for twenty years, seems ridiculous, as does the criticism of Raft’s so-called desire to play good guys. It worked for him, and for Cary Grant, who had a set of rules; Cary Grant gets the girl and Cary Grant does not die at the end. Makes sense for success. Otherwise, it is thumbs up.

Barry Lane

Personal observation, I cannot remember any top star giving a worse performance than Bogart in The Petrified Forest. Often called a star-making turn, but it was not, Leslie Howrd got him in t he door, and he was able to hang around long enough to figure it out.

Chas Speed

I am usually not a big fan of George Raft, but I thought this one of his better films and performances. I always liked Bezzerides writing. He was a great noir writer.

Last edited 1 month ago by Chas Speed
Trevor

“Lana seems a bit much even before she goes off her rocker.” good observation! She also appears to be about fourteen years old & constantly puffing on cigarettes, all of which throws the movie off balance in a bad way. They could have used a more mature actress to better effect. Raft, Bogart & Sheridan are great, Hale is out of his depth, Ida Lupino is far better in High Sierra.

Barry Lane

Completely agree.

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