They Drive By Night (1940)

I first saw the Raoul Walsh movie They Drive By Night about 30 years ago. At the time, I remember being slightly startled that long-distance drivers are presented in such an heroic light, and finding it faintly ridiculous when they are shown driving along roads at night accompanied by the sort of insistent, doom-ridden music which might usually mean a battle is about to break out. Watching again after all these years, I don’t find it ridiculous at all, but poignant.  I’m now a big fan of early, gritty Warners movies, with their focus on working lives, and am impressed the way that this film shows just how hard  it was for lorry drivers to make ends meet. 

I was struck now by how much it is a film of two halves. For me, the first half is brilliant – a powerful depiction of the tough conditions facing truckers – while the second  half is a rather weak film noir with a far-fetched crime plot. However, I am aware some critics think just the opposite and love the noir part.

GRITTY DRAMA: Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and George Raft

Spoilers behind cut


The first half of the movie shows George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as two brother truckers, struggling to keep their heads above water, and just to stay awake at the wheel during their long journeys through the dark. From my first viewing, I’d really only remembered the scenes with Bogart, and had got it into my head that he was the main star. He isn’t – it’s very much Raft’s movie, with Bogie as the weaker younger brother who can’t really take the pace and looks permanently bewildered, asking hopelessly if he can have a couple of hours sleep or go home to see his wife, Pearl. (“I know how Pearl worries”, he says plaintively.) Raft usually says no and forces him to carry on. I find it hard to say much about Raft’s performance, although his presence does dominate the film. His character seems very tough and determined, and as if he would never break, whatever anyone threw at him – so I suppose that probably makes him less interesting for me than other tough guys like Bogart or Cagney, because he doesn’t have that underlying note of vulnerability.
Inevitably, it’s Bogart who finally falls asleep at the wheel – the scene of him desperately trying to stay awake is one of those which had stayed in my mind over the years.  Bogart loses an arm in the crash – and the other scene I thought I’d remembered was one where he weeps after a friend visiting for dinner makes a tactless remark about his disability. I was wrong – Bogart stays dry-eyed. (According to a biography I read recently, he found it impossible to cry on camera, although he often did in real life.) However, the friend does indeed make a tactless remark, Bogie does break down in fairly spectacular style, and I think I was right to remember this as the  most powerful scene in the film. 
This first half of the movie also stars Ann Sheridan, giving an appealing performance as Cassie, a waitress who quits her job because she is fed up with the sexual harassment from her boss – and goes on to fall for Raft. It’s a shame none of the Warner movies of this period seem to focus on women’s working lives quite as they do on men’s, but I think there is a feeling of Cassie having to make her own living and how difficult this could be.

Unfortunately, the second half of the film turns into pure melodrama, as Raft takes a job at a truck company run by Alan Hale (one of my favourite Warner character actors, and the main highlight of this section of the movie). Raft runs into a femme fatale, Ida Lupino, playing Hale’s bored  wife – and it all ends in murder. I enjoyed Hale’s performance as the drunken husband, but found Lupino’s performance wildly over the top,  especially when she goes mad in court. I know this part is said to be a film noir, but I’d say it isn’t a very good one! A shame Walsh didn’t just stick with the tough realism – and the real issues – of the opening 45 minutes or so. 

However… after writing this review, following comments by a couple of friends, I saw Lupino in another movie, Out of the Fog (1941)  where she plays another frustrated woman driven to despair by her limited life, and I realised watching this that maybe I should have thought more about her character’s dilemma in They Drive By Night. I’ll have to watch the movie again, hopefully without waiting another 30 years.