They Drive By Night
Director: Raoul Walsh
Adapted from a 1938 novel by A. I. Bezzerides, They Drive by Night is a rather unusual film which, although released before the era is deemed to begin, is an early display of film noir and the themes that would become synonymous with that particular style of cinema.
A film which is split into two linked but seemingly different acts, it centres around the character of Joe Fabrini, played by 1930s Hollywood stalwart George Raft, who is a downbeat truck driver working alongside his brother carrying out odd jobs for a cheap shyster, trying to squeeze enough money out of him to pay off a crooked loan shark while dreaming of hitting the big time and running his own business. The first half of the story introduces him and his brother, showing the perils of life on the road. His brother, Paul, laments the time constantly spent away from his wife with little to show for it, as they spend their days in cheap car stops, living off of coffee to get them through the long nights without any guarantee of a pay check the next day. It comes to a head after an accident leaves Paul with a missing arm and no future as a driver. The pair move back to Los Angeles, with a sassy-mouthed hitchhiker named Cassie (Ann Sheridan), who quickly becomes a love interest of Raft, who manages to get himself a job working with an old friend who set up a trucking business of his own, along with his manipulative wife Lana (Ida Lupino), who has a history of her own with Joe. From here, the story moves more into noir territory with a murder and confused love triangle at its core.
The story is definitely split along the two lines – firstly, a story about life on the road, with a range of memorable characters, both fellow truckers and the cheap crooks operating behind the business. The perils and trials of the job are given a lot of focus, including one scene where a pair of fellow drivers crash to their deaths from sleep deprivation, but it’s not too heavy-handed with it. The second part of the film is certainly the stronger, and strays much more into what noir would become within just a few years. Although the murder mystery element of the plot only really takes up about one third of the screen time (and therefore risks feeling a bit ‘tacked on’), the plot is developed sufficiently well enough throughout the time allowed to make it satisfying to watch.
Directed by Raoul Walsh – known for films like The Roaring Twenties and, subsequently, High Sierra and White Heat, the soul of the film is all in the cast and the film doesn’t really step a foot wrong in this regard. Raft takes the starring role as Joe Fabrini, and most of the screen time is devoted to him. He plays the lead well, despite playing more of a romantic hero rather than any of the ‘bad guy’ roles which he personified in the preceding decade. He’s confident and assured in the role, as is Sheridan who and who is seemingly designed to be a moral counter to Lupino’s more sinister femme fatale. Sheridan’s character seems to make a few odd shifts in the movie – initially as a wise cracking waitress capable of talking down any man in her path, before moving into a more standard (and seemingly innocent and naïve) love interest for Raft.
In one of his last roles before hitting the big time with the following year’s High Sierra (also with Lupino) and The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Paul, Joe’s younger brother stuck between trying to make a success in business, whilst trying to satisfy a wife who wants a more settled home life for them both. It’s very much a supporting role, and his prominence is reduced come the second part of the film, but Bogart still gets some good scenes early on alongside Raft, although the effects of him losing his arm half way through the film aren’t given as much focus as they might have been (aside from one notable scene involving a family dinner).
There is plenty of memorable dialogue and witty exchanges throughout the movie, particularly an early scene between Joe, Paul and Cassie (a café waitress churning out one liners against the plenty of men making a pass at her), and each actor plays off well against the other. Raft and Bogart have a god chemistry as brothers, even if Bogart is quite substantially overshadowed by Raft (understandable, given Raft’s dominance within the business at the time). But the film’s shining star is definitely Ida Lupino, who is utterly brilliant in her role as the manipulative, sexy and sometimes even scary femme fatale driving the film’s second story. Her character, and performance, is almost a foreshadowing of the role that Barbara Stanwyck would go on to play in 1944’s Double Indemnity. As a bored, unappreciated wife of a drunken (but well-meaning) businessman, she leaps on the chance to make a success of herself alongside Joe when he arrives back in town. Murder leads to success, before turning to suspicion and betrayal, leading to a final descent into madness (Lady Macbeth style). She has a powerful chemistry with Raft, and her showdown with him as she confesses her crime to him is superb. It’s a great performance, and seems a shame that she didn’t quite break out in the way that she should have done judging on her performance here.
Overall it’s an oddly-plotted film which, despite the challenges that it wold seem to face, manages to carry the overall story effectively and is an interesting blend of styles and an early demonstration of noir. The script is great, and there are no real roles which look to have been miscast, either amongst the leads or the supporting roles. Raft and Bogart are strong as the leads, but it is definitely Lupino who steals the show. It may have been somewhat overshadowed by the tide of films that was to follow, but They Drive by Night is worth stopping for.