They Drove By Night – US, 1940
The entrepreneurial spirit hovers over most of Raoul Walsh’s 1940 road film They Drive By Night, and it is both a blessing and a curse. I say this because while it inspires people to dream of economic freedom and security, it also acts like a siren, calling normally sensible men to accept sometimes dangerous tasks simply because they get them a step closer to their all too elusive goals. It is this danger that worries the housewives and girlfriends left behind by their journeyman husbands, and it is this danger that ultimately pushes some into much more stable 9 to 5 jobs, jobs which lack the sexiness of being a rig runner but which put people at the kind of ease that is difficult to put a value on. It is this incongruity that makes one character in the film curse that her husband was in an accident in one breath and thank the heavens for it in another.
The film tells the tale of Joe and Paul Fabrini (played by George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), two rig runners with dreams of finally taking charge of their lives. Their dream, in keeping with the times, is a rather small one: owning two or three rigs and running a shipping business with them. At the start of the film, their dream has them in debt and, in Paul’s case, extremely sleep-deprived. Regardless, Joe’s dream remains in tact. As viewers hear Joe and Paul discuss their plans for the future, they are also shown their alternative – working for an established trucking company, a job with would possible give them steady work but leave them with little chance of moving up in the world.
At a diner frequented by truckers, Joe and Paul meet Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan), the diner’s sassy, no-nonsense waitress. The scene in which this character is introduced is slightly uncomfortable, for as much fun as it is to watch Cassie fend off the flirtations of her male customers – and those of her employer apparently – the scene is a reminder of just what women have had to endure over the years and subsequently why movie characters like Joe must have seemed like every woman’s dream. She ends up heading with them to Los Angeles, and along the way, she and Joe bond in a sweet and slightly realistic way.
If the film had kept its focus on Joe and Paul’s dream, as well as Joe’s relationship with Cassie, I have no doubt it would work much better today that it does. However, while the first half builds up the dream of making it on one’s own, the second half moves away from it completely. In that part of the film, we find Joe in the kind of job we never thought he would take while simultaneously being pursued by a character much more appropriate in piece of film noir than a road movie about real world issues. It’s as if Hitchcock’s screenwriters got a hold of the script and said, “What this script really needs is a murder.” It didn’t.
Also dating the film is its inclusion of two characters purely for comic relief, an unfortunately common occurrence in early dramas. The first character is a truck driver known as Irish (Roscoe Karns). For some reason, his character has a particular odd attachment to a pinball machine, and I’m not sure how that could have been funny even back in 1940. The second comic character, Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), is slightly less confounding. He’s a former trucker who worked his way up the corporate ladder without losing one iota of the trucker inside him. When we first see him, he sticks his head out the window of his corporate office to watch a fist fight. As he offers both play-by-play analysis and in-fight coaching, he resembles a kid getting his first look inside a candy store. Ed is a pivotal character, yet he tells some of the worst jokes you’ll hear in a film. Even stranger is the fact that the crowd he travels with howls in appreciation. Perhaps they’re just kissing up to him.
I have no doubt that some viewers will find the second half of the film extremely enjoyable. For me, it strays too far from the social themes that the first half of the film works so hard to establish, resulting in a film that will likely be remembered more for its noir elements than for its social commentary. It’s a pity, really. The film is well acted throughout, and Bogart, here featured in a supporting role, demonstrates just why he would be elevated to A-list status a year later. Sheridan is memorable in a role that requires her to show both her rough and soft sides, and Ida Lupino gives a credible performance as Joe’s pursuer, Mrs. Lana Carlsen. As for the film’s climactic scene, it only works if you belief that Lana, with all of the money she possesses, would hire a completely incompetent lawyer who doesn’t question his own witnesses beforehand and who doesn’t know how to protect his own case. If that’s your idea of realism, then have at it. (on DVD)