Wednesday 7 May 2014

Movie Review: They Drive By Night (1940)

A rough and tumble story about independent truckers that morphs into a film noir, They Drive By Night is always engaging but suffers from some lack of cohesion.

Brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) operate an independent long-haul truck on the west coast, scrapping for jobs, driving for dangerously long hours, and always running the risk of being jipped out of their pay by unscrupulous shippers. Paul is married to Pearl (Gale Page), but their domestic bliss is threatened by his frequent long absences. Joe meets sassy waitress Cassie (Ann Sheridan) and they start a friendship that turns into romance.

Just when it seems that the brothers are getting ahead and paying off their debts, a disaster on the highway interferes with their progress, forcing Joe to park his ambition and accept a more secure management job with the trucking company of jovial tycoon Ed J. Carlsen (Alan Hale). But Carlsen's wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is bored with her marriage and has her lecherous eyes on Joe. When Lana realizes that Joe is serious about Cassie, an evil murder plan is conceived.

They Drive By Night is two almost distinct stories wrapped into one film. The first part is a relatively unique look at the world of truckers living a life on the road, pushing to find and make the next delivery, and stopping only to drink enough coffee to keep themselves awake. It's a greasy, dark, and desperate occupation, as men like Joe and Paul chase the next paycheque, and dream of owning their own truck and expanding the business beyond the limits of their drooping eyelids, all while staying barely one step ahead of the bill collectors.

The second half of the film shift gears and heads purposefully towards frantic but less kinetic film noir territory, quickly piling on unrequited lust, jealousy, murder, a conniving femme fatale losing touch with reality and finally a courtroom showdown. It's an abbreviated crime drama, captivating enough by itself, but not sufficiently connected to the truckers' life established in the first 45 minutes. Director Raoul Walsh ensures that the quality never flags and delivers both sides of the film with verve, but there is a definite sense of truncated business, the script (by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay) perhaps running out of ideas to properly feed the initial on-the-road story of Joe and Paul.

With Raft at his peak and Bogart rapidly climbing towards the top, They Drive By Night enjoys two tough men in fine form. Raft takes the lead and is sympathetic as a well-meaning and ambitious man striving to better his lot. Bogart supports with a more conflicted personality, Paul torn between loyalty to his brother and trying to appease his worried wife.

The leading ladies put on a strong showing as well, Ida Lupino dominating the second half of the film with her turn as the bored and jealous Lana, a role that starts flirty, passes through steely determination and then slides towards destructive irrationality. Ann Sheridan is more prominent in the opening half, her Cassie tough enough to fend off hordes of leering truck drivers but sweet enough to melt into a relationship with Joe once she gets to know him.

They Drive By Night finds two different roads to navigate, and despite the rather abrupt transition, the drive is enjoyable on both.

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