Monday, December 29, 2014

They Drive by Night (1940)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                       Writer: Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                              Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino

While nearly everything about this film, from the cast and the director to the producer makes it seem like it should be a crime film, They Drive by Night is actually a more of a social commentary on the plight of wildcat truck drivers. George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are independent truckers who are trying to pay off their truck and make more than just a subsistence living working for someone else. But the going is tough as they are taken advantage of in almost every way, and worse, they have to drive nonstop in order to make their delivery times, which puts them in constant danger. The story was partly derived from the novel Long Haul by A.I. Bezzerides, and then combined with elements from the 1935 film, Bordertown, which accounts for the schizophrenic nature of the film, part social drama and part film noir. Warners decided that Raoul Walsh was the only director who could bring the two parts of the film together and merge them into one. At the same time Raft was looking for a way to break out of his parade of tough guy roles, while Bogart would benefit in the same way. In the end, both actors came out of the picture with tremendous performances that showed much more range than they had been allowed previously which led to stardom for Bogart and, ironically, a series of bad film choices for Raft that began a long career slide.

As the film opens, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers in the trucking business. But the business is tough, driving long hauls and seemingly always behind. As they head into L.A. with a load of apples, some kids playing chicken run them off the road. When Raft walks up to the nearest truck stop to call Charles C. Wilson, the guy they’re shipping to, for funds, they run into another trucker, John Litel, who tells him the guy’s a crook. Sure enough, Wilson not only doesn’t send them money but he sends another trucker, John Ridgely, to pick up the load as well as the repo man, Charles Halton, to take away their truck. Fortunately they dodge Halton while Ridgely helps them deliver the load rather than abandoning them. Then they go to Wilson’s in San Francisco and take the money by force, money they were owed for the haul. Back on the road to L.A. they pick up Ann Sheridan who has left her job at the truck stop diner. Up ahead on the road they see Litel who is falling asleep at the wheel and runs off the road, dying in the explosion. Finally they drop Bogart at his house where he’s met by his wife, Gale Page, while Raft and Sheridan head for L.A. and fall for each other on the way.

In the second half of the film Raft runs into an old friend, Alan Hale, who was able to buy his own trucks and now has his own company. But he has a scheming wife, Ida Lupino, who has her eye on Raft, even though he’s made it clear he’d never do anything with her. Hale gives them a tip on a load they can buy themselves, and then things start looking up as they pay off their truck and buy another load. But tragedy is waiting just around the corner, and after the brothers are forced off the road Lupino puts things into overdrive trying to land Raft, a drive that also includes murder. Lupino is a terrific choice for the femme fatale of the second half of the picture and while she seems to go a little overboard at the end of the film, she manages to make it work in context. But then all of the principals do a tremendous job, and that is probably due to the no-nonsense direction of Raoul Walsh. Of course Bogart and Lupino would go right from this film into another Walsh production, High Sierra, which would make both of the actors major stars rather than just supporting players. Raft would try to recapture the same magic with Edward G. Robinson in Manpower, a story of power company workers, but it didn’t have the same spark as the Walsh film. Ann Sheridan, on the other hand, would continue to make one great film after another throughout the forties at Warner Brothers.

The film earned good reviews and was popular with audiences, though it hasn’t really become a top tier film for modern audiences. One of the benefits of this being a Warner Brothers film is the surfeit of great character actors. The memorable Frank Faylen and Pat Flaherty play drivers in the truck stop, while Roscoe Karns has a running gag as a driver who is always playing on a pinball machine, and Henry O’Neill is the district attorney. If there’s a real negative it’s the role played by Alan Hale. A tremendous actor and a frequent comedy relief man, he was never a clown, but that’s exactly what this film tries to make him and it doesn’t work, especially considering that Hale is much too smart and that his character has apparently built up a thriving trucking business from nothing. Other than that, however, the snappy dialogue and the double entendres written by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay make the screenplay arguably the best part of the film. The film also benefits from a film score by Adolph Deutsch, though it is not as memorable as the ones he would later write for High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. In the end, They Drive by Night is not one of the Warner classics, but it is a great film and enjoyable for the stars and the writing and the crisp direction by Walsh.

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