Made the same year as Wellman’s great Beau Geste, this lesser-known drama, sadly not on DVD as yet, is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling. There was clearly a demand for such films in 1939, in the early days of the Second World War. Once again, the story ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. However, in this film much of the drama takes place within the four walls of an 1880s London flat, framed by battle sequences at the start and end.
Anybody watching in search of war scenes might be surprised by just how much of the film is made up of Ronald Colman fighting his own private battle behind closed doors. Colman stars as Dick Heldar, an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-painter, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino). I don’t think the film stands up as well as Beau Geste, but it does have powerful performances by both Colman and Ida Lupino, as well as atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, with the pictures flickering in and out of focus as Heldar’s sight fades.
I came across this movie included on a DVD bringing together three strangely-assorted films under the title Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen. However, despite Joan Fontaine getting top billing, the lead character is definitely fourth-billed Edmond O’Brien, who stars as lonely travelling salesman Harry, torn between two wives and two lifestyles.
Today, though, the film is mainly remembered because it was directed by Ida Lupino, a rare woman director in 1950s Hollywood, who also stars as Harry’s second wife. It was the only time she directed and starred in the same movie. (Oddly enough, the screenwriter and producer, Collier Young, was Lupino’s real-life ex-husband and had recently married Fontaine.)
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