They Drive By Night
An episodic tribute to the trucking life, Raoul Walsh's They Drive By Night (1940) is notable as Humphrey Bogart's final appearance as a supporting actor before his leading-man breakthrough the following year in the director's High Sierra. One might be tempted to praise Walsh for catapulting Bogie into the spotlight after recognizing the actor's uniquely seductive, world-wearily charismatic performance as the hapless Paul Fabrini, but history tells another story namely, that Bogart only won the role after it was refused by his co-star, George Raft, who, playing Paul's principled brother Joe Fabrini, anchors this film to stultifying effect. It must be said, though, that even had the roles been switched in this particular instance, it wouldn't have mattered: They Drive By Night, though probably an entertaining slice-of-life picture in its day, has not aged well. The story concerns the struggles of the Fabrini brothers as they hack out a life in the round-the-clock world of the trucking industry. Three months behind on the payments for their vehicle, they're forever ducking the repo man while desperately trying to hit deadlines at the expense of their personal lives. Though the lack of a home life isn't that much of a blow for Joe, it's an absolute hindrance for the married Paul, who's forever longing for an evening spent in the arms of his devoted wife a wish that's tragically granted one night when Paul falls asleep at the wheel, thereby wrecking the brothers' livelihood and losing his arm in the process. His dream of working as his own boss dashed for the time being, Joe begins working for Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), a former trucking buddy who now runs his own successful shipping company. For Joe, Ed represents the dream of independence and solvency that, for now, seems further out of reach than ever before. But it all ends up being given to him on a silver platter when Ed's scheming wife Lana (an exquisitely evil Ida Lupino) stages her husband's suicide by leaving him passed out drunk in the garage with his car running. For her, this brings her nearer to the two things she's always desired: the reins of the company and, most importantly, Joe. She's out of luck though, because the good-hearted Joe only has eyes for the tough-minded Cassie (Ann Sheridan), which sends Lana into a jealous rage that finds her plotting to pin Ed's murder on Joe. Written by the workmanlike duo of Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, They Drive By Night is partially undone by its stock plotting and ham-fisted foreshadowing that gives it the feel of a common soap opera, but it's tripped up out of the gate by Raft, who is, as ever, a vacuum of personality as the lead. That the film is not a complete wash is mostly due to the colorful supporting performances of Hale, Bogart, Sheridan, Lupino, and Roscoe Karns as the pinball-obsessed comic relief, Irish. That said, it never hurts to have a sure hand like Walsh at the wheel, and he steers this lumbering vehicle through its minefield of clichés with terrific verve. Warner presents They Drive By Night in a beautiful full-screen transfer with clean monaural Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a "making-of" featurette entitled "Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive By Night" (11 min.), which gives a brief overview of the production while not making a very convincing case for its supposed greatness. Also on board is "Swingtime in the Movies," a color musical short from 1937 featuring cameos from some of Warner's contract players, including Bogart, who gets to share the screen with a bunch of bratty child actors. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.