|Bogart and Lupino in a scene that's Totally Not In The Movie.|
They Drive By Night (1940) is a circus sideshow freak of a movie, really two movies grafted together at the hip, with one of them significantly better and more interesting than the other. Both are directed by Raul Walsh, so there’s no nonsense and a good deal of noir style to hold the whole Frankenstein-monster-creation together. But the guts are all in he first half.
The first movie stars George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as a pair of brother truck drivers trying to get ahead in a system that is skewed badly against them. The subject matter gives the thing a unique flavor and allows for some arresting scenes -- for once, Raft and Bogart aren’t playing gangsters, but tough honest Joes who just want a good life and have chosen a bad game to get it.
Raft spends his half of this first movie with black make-up smeared under his eyes to show how tired he is. Bogart, as one of the supporting players points out, spends a lot of time asleep... and when he isn’t asleep he’s complaining about not being asleep. He is allowed to wake up just about long enough to lend sone strong-arm tactics when an unscrupulous employer refuses to pay them. When you get to scenes like that, you see the wisdom in keeping him asleep... because when Bogart’s awake, you’re hardly aware that Raft is even on the screen.
It’s hard to believe that in 1940 Bogart was still a second fiddle, getting fourth billing here and essentially evaporating in the movie’s second half. He has one terrific scene, in which he gives Ann Sheridan a burning X-Ray look, and follows it up with a Raft two-step as both men examine her chassis. How is it that, even after this picture, the studio brass still didn’t see Bogart’s commanding star power. It wasn’t until a year later that Bogart got his breakthrough role with Ida Lupino in High Sierra.
Things are going pretty tough for our boys... so when the circumstances suddenly seem to take a turn for the better and things start to look up for them at the midway point of the picture, you know it isn’t going to last. And you don’t have to wait long. Not sixty seconds after finally paying off their truck, Bogart falls asleep at the wheel and sends it and him crashing through the guardrail and into one of those omnipresant California gullies.
Just when you think the picture is on the verge of displaying its Social Consciousness, that’s when it takes an abrupt U-Turn and becomes Movie Number Two. The second movie stars Ida Lupino in one of her first big roles, and it’s strictly a Noir Potboiler, baby, about a young spoiled wife in a bad marriage who soon bumps off her husband (the uncannily Skipper-like Alan Hale Sr) and then frames Raft for the crime when he spurns her advances. Never fear; the murderous wife has an irrational fear of mechanical doors, and thanks to a completely nonsensical set of circumstances she wigs out on the stand, in time to make a full confession, save Raft from the chair, and allow Sheridan to close out the whole movie with a joking wink at the camera!
Lupino looks alarmingly young here; but she takes control of the movie and never lets go, even during a witness-stand breakdown that any actress could be justifiably nervous about pulling off.
There’s a lot to admire about They Drive By Night, and if its dark first half had been allowed too play out realistically we might even be remembering it as a classic today. As it is, it’s a full-blooded curiosity, half involving and humane, half entertaining and featherlight. You come away wondering what really would have happened to those two cursed brothers in the first half -- and then when you think about it, you realize why the studio took it off on a different tangent: because the truth might have been too hard to bear.