Warner Bros. // 1940 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 19th, 2004
"Sounds funny, I know, but I can't help feelin' sorry for that dame." -- Joe Fabrini
Over 60 years after its release, They Drive by Night isn't primarily remembered as a George Raft flick, nor as the film that made a star of Ida Lupino. It's now remembered as Humphrey Bogart's last go-round in character-actor purgatory. The next year he would lead the casts of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon; the year after that, he'd make Casablanca.
But They Drive by Night isn't a Bogart picture, regardless of how people view it today. It's a George Raft picture. And a pretty good one at that.
The Fabrini brothers are independent truckers with dreams of owning their own business. They haul loads of produce day and night in the hopes of paying off their truck so they can break free of being the low-paid middlemen for other sellers. Joe (George Raft, Scarface, Some Like It Hot) is the hard-driving brother, willing to work around the clock to pay off the truck. Paul (Humphrey Bogart) is married and misses his wife during his long stints on the road, but feels obligated to give the business a go for his brother's sake. Joe begins to feel domesticity's pull, though, when he meets Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan, Angels with Dirty Faces, I Was a Male War Bride), a truck stop waitress with a quick wit, sharp tongue, and flowing red hair. The two men scratch out a living even as their boss tries to double-cross them, and a bank man tries repossess their truck because of late payments.
When Paul falls asleep at the wheel, wrecks the truck (just after it's been paid off), and loses his right arm, Joe takes an office job from Ed Carlson (Alan Hale Sr., Stella Dallas), a wealthy friend with a fleet of trucks. Carlson's young wife, Lana (Ida Lupino, High Sierra), wants Joe for her lover. He brushes off her advances out of love for Cassie and loyalty to Ed. Lana, however, isn't above a little murder to get what she wants.
If the plot description of They Drive by Night sounds like two loosely-related movies mashed together, it's because that's basically what it is. The first half of the film is an adaptation of The Long Haul, a social-commentary novel by A.I. Bezzerides; the second half is a loose remake of Bordertown, a 1935 bad-girl melodrama starring Bette Davis and Paul Muni. Since both stories are compelling, the two-part structure wouldn't be a problem -- in fact, it would be a refreshing change of pace from the more well-worn studio formulas -- except that it undermines some of the picture's high profile actors. Ann Sheridan starts off strong, her verbal sparring with the truckers at Barney's café crisp and wry and thoroughly entertaining. She fades into the background in the second half of the film, though, becoming little more than a symbol of the stability of Joe's new life and his growing legitimacy as a businessman. As a matter of fact, one wonders why the couple aren't married immediately after Joe takes the job with Ed. It's a nagging continuity problem born of the differing dramatic requirements of each half of the film.
Bogart is as wasted as Sheridan. Paul disappears to home and wife for long stretches of the first half, then has only one brief but memorable scene post-accident. His big moment is when he lashes out at Joe in frustration because of his lost arm and his dependence on his brother's charity. It's well-acted, but the character is so weakly scripted, the scene feels tacked on and artificial.
Our frustration at the lack of quality screen time for Sheridan and Bogart can probably be dismissed as a modern conundrum -- audiences of the day wouldn't have expected to see more of either (they may have been surprised that Bogart's character actually survives to see the end credits). The picture is designed to belong to Raft and Lupino, and it does. Both deliver some of the finest work of their careers. Raft was seeking a break from the vicious gangster roles that had made him famous. His gravely voice, sharp features, and quick mind make him a natural for the role of a smart and driven working stiff. Joe Fabrini is a fresh take on the established Raft persona, his ambition and tough-guy tenacity bent on a noble dream instead of a gangster's life of crime. In the end, the actor wouldn't quite succeed in breaking his own typecasting, but he's good enough in They Drive by Night to make us wish he had.
Lupino is the real stand-out in the picture, though. Her take on Lana Carlson is slightly softer around the edges than Bette Davis's performance in Bordertown (probably inevitable since Joan Crawford was maybe the only actress who could match Davis's bitchery), but her handling of the cold-hearted dame's creeping lunacy is a genuine treat. Her steep descent into raving hysteria on a courtroom witness stand at film's end is the piece of acting that made her a star. It's pure melodrama, and a pure delight to watch.
Fans of Hollywood's golden era will also be delighted by the plethora of recognizable character actors. In addition to Alan Hale's (the father of Gilligan's Island's Skipper) predictably hearty and jovial performance, Roscoe Karns (who played the silly bus passenger who gets fresh with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night) is put to good use as trucker Irish McGurn, a goofy clod who gets falling-down drunk at Ed's fancy soiree. Charles Halton delivers a solid turn as Farnsworth, the stuffy banker who's duty-bound to repossess the Fabrinis' truck, a performance similar to his impatient bank examiner in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Also recognizable from It's a Wonderful Life is Frank Faylen (he played Ernie the cab driver in Capra's film) as a trucker whose innuendoes and double entendres get a verbal smackdown from Sheridan. And Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will recognize George Lloyd as Barney, who's as tailor-made as Vic Tayback to play a short order cook in a diner. Lloyd practically made a career of it and appears in a Barney-like role in the MST3K-skewered stinker, I Accuse My Parents. More than just entertaining wallpaper for those in the know, these skilled character performers give the film a charming texture that was common back in Hollywood's studio era, but is hard to come by now.
They Drive by Night is presented on DVD in a fullscreen transfer of its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The image is black-and-white with strong contrast and sharp detail. The gray scale is full, blacks are mostly solid, and whites sparkle. Dirt and damage from the source are minimal for the most part, though there are some scenes near film's end that are less than ideal. Scene transitions are mostly -- though not entirely -- stable in the gate. It looks like Warner has performed a light restoration of the source materials. They're far from perfect, but look surprisingly good considering this isn't one of the studio's high profile catalogue titles.
Audio is single-channel mono, but it appears to have been restored, too, as there is almost no hiss and absolutely nothing in the way of serious damage.
Supplements are limited, as this is a single-disc release. Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive by Night is an 11-minute featurette that discusses the film's odd structure, as well as its place in Bogart's career. The best stuff in the too-brief piece is background on director Raoul Walsh, though, whose fascinating career stretched back to silents like The Thief of Bagdad, but also included such classic talkies as High Sierra, Cheyenne, and White Heat. If anything brings continuity to They Drive by Night's oddball structure, it's Walsh's typically crisp and fast-paced direction.
Swingtime In the Movies is a 20-minute promo piece for Warner's backlot, made in 1939. Full of corny comedy, the short film is mainly notable for its use of Technicolor, and its parade of cameos by Warner contract players like John Garfield, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, Pat O'Brien, and Bogart.
They Drive by Night's theatrical trailer is also archived on the disc.
If you were thinking of adding They Drive by Night to your Humphrey Bogart collection, think again. He did the best he could with what he was given, but his performance in the film is so slight, you're bound to be disappointed.
Considered as a George Raft/Ida Lupino flick, though, They Drive by Night is well worth your time.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Featurette: Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive by Night
* Musical Short: Swingtime in the Movies
* Theatrical Trailer