They Drive By NightReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/25/15 03:57:23
(Worth A Look)
Depending on your perspective, "They Drive by Night" either takes its sweet time in becoming a crime story or veers off from its story of the challenges faced by the independent trucker in pretty spectacular fashion. I'm going to go with the first, because that puts Ida Lupino's femme fatale front and center, even if it does push Humphrey Bogart off to the side. Director Raoul Walsh and company may handle both halves fairly well, but it's the flamboyant one that gets remembered.It starts with the Fabrini brothers, Joe (George Raft) and Paul (Bogart), co-owners and drivers of a truck that mostly moves produce up and down the California coast, this time a shipment of apples. A delay because of a blown tire puts them behind the eight-ball with a loan shark seeing a chance to repossess their truck, but also means they can pick up some better cargo - hitchhiker Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan), who has has enough of the wandering hands at the greasy spoon where she was working as a waitress. Paul is happily married, but Joe falls hard. Being an independent means taking on a lot of risk, though, both financially and in terms of driving dangerously, which might make an offer from Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) to drive for his company tempting, despite the advances of Ed's wife Lana (Lupino).
There's something almost instructional about the first half of They Drive by Night, not so much that a person could operate a trucking business afterward, but they might get some idea of what the job entails - long nights, days away from the family, a genuinely difficult decision in terms of working for one's self or someone else, razor thin margins for error, the danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Marsh and screenwriters Jerry Wald & Richard Macaulay (adapting an A.I. Bezzerides novel) don't stop to explain much, although the Fabrinis will occasionally toss a line Cassie's way when things aren't immediately clear, and rather than making it dry, it's bolstered by some earnest drama and colorful characters. It's not a bad movie about trucking even without a heightened storyline.
In fact, it takes a lot of twists before Joe is really in over his head, enough to make the last third or so seem almost like a different movie that leaves what came earlier behind, like everything else was a really complicated way to introduce the Carlsens. That's a laudable goal, at least, because the Carlsens are an entertaining pair. Alan Hale grins through the bad jokes Ed tells, much more connected to his working class roots and jovial to the point of driving anybody a bit batty, especially his wife. As Lana, Lupino dives right into the beautiful-but shrewish character, whether as a snobby contrast to Hale's Ed or in full-on femme fatale mode trying to seduce Joe, especially in the home stretch, where Lana snaps and winds up nearly as delusional and scheming as she is selfish, putting a whole string of events into action. Lupino dives right in, giving a big performance that is surely the film's most memorable, aided by a script that has no problem with answering the question of just how much further she can push it at any point.
The rest of the cast is a good group, too. George Raft plays the lead, and the reliable actor proves a veritabe Swiss Army knife over the course of the film, going from the carefree (and sometimes careless) guy who loves the freedom of the open road and all the girls on it to man in love to admired company man with ease, never losing sight of who Joe is in the process. It's still easy to see why his on-screen brother would be the one to have a legendary career, though - even as the settled, less-ambitious Paul becomes embittered by a nasty injury, Bogart is a terrific presence, wry in dramatic scenes and the voice of reason throughout. Ann Sheridan is introduced with sarcasm and sass, but even as she becomes the sweeter, more domestic of the two women spending time with Joe, she's always got plenty of spark and is seldom actually overshadowed or pushed aside by Lupino.That's no small accomplishment, because Lupino's gold-digger is a film noir treasure that makes even the less-smooth parts of this movie extremely entertaining. Some have pegged it as the first real film noir, although (as its placement at the end of the Brattle Theatre's "Proto-Noir" program indicates), there is a bit more evolution to go before everything is in place. You could almost say that this mutation takes place during the movie, as what starts as an enjoyable B-movie becomes a spiffy crime picture by the end.
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