Rick Leland makes no secret of the fact he has no loyalty to his home country after he is court-martialed, kicked out of the Army, and boards a Japanese ship for the Orient in late 1941. ... See full summary »
An American tanker is sunk by a German U-boat and the survivors spend eleven days at sea on a raft. They're next assigned to the liberty ship "Sea Witch" bound for Murmansk through the sub-stalked North Atlantic.
Brothers Paul and Joe Fabrini run a trucking business in California mainly shipping fruit from farms to the markets in Los Angeles. They struggle to make ends meet in the face of corrupt businessmen and intense competition. They are forced into driving long hours and one night pick-up waitress Cassie Hartley who's just quit her job at a truck stop. The three of them witness the death of a mutual acquaintance when he falls asleep at the wheel. This has a profound effect on Paul and Joe and they become determined to find a way to make the business pay so they can quit. Written by
Col Needham <email@example.com>
The beginning of the 1940s in Hollywood sees the loosening of genre conventions as different movie formats began to interbreed. In particular a kind of gangster-flick meanness began to shove its way into regular drama, eventually producing the style we now call film noir. They Drive By Night is an odd little transition movie from this period, one of those awkward little steps in an evolutionary process.
The leading role went to George Raft, which was as good a way as any of sticking some gangland atmosphere into the picture. Raft can't act though, at least not very well, being at turns jittery and wooden very much the poor man's Cagney. He should have gone into musicals like Cagney did, as he was a very good dancer. Raft is supported by Humphrey Bogart, who was at the time just on the cusp of becoming a major star, although no-one knew it at the time. It looks very odd to see him next to Raft, a bit like spotting Elvis Presley in somebody's backing band, since although he is rarely centre-stage he has fantastic presence, always on the verge of upstaging. They Drive By Night also features one of the earliest big parts for Ida Lupino, and I regret to say she is at her most hysterically bad. Admittedly bits of her performance look OK, but to see the whole thing shows it to be very forced and calculated, lacking in any kind of natural flow.
The director is Raoul Walsh, which is a bit of a mixed omen. Although Walsh was a fine craftsman, no studio ever gave him a really important project since The Big Trail in 1930 and nearly all his later pictures smack of potboiler. Still, a good man with a bad movie. In They Drive By Night he keeps his camera close to the action to elicit a feeling of intensity and restlessness. He doesn't over-emphasise interiors and doesn't clutter shots with props or shadows, but still the atmosphere is cramped with the way actors all seem to huddle together, filling the frame. He uses wider, open shots for emphasis at important moments in the same way another director might use a close-up. Still, the story lacks the free-spirited romanticism that inspired Walsh's most memorable moments.
And that's not all that's wrong with the story. They Drive By Night sets itself up, quite promisingly, as a gritty action drama about the lives of bottom-rung truckers. Then, halfway through, the plot is hijacked by Lupino and turned into some femme-fatale murder wotsit, and all the business about trying to scrape a meagre profit and stay awake on long hauls (not to mention Bogart's character) is forgotten. It's not that this is confusing, as both parts are fairly straightforward, it's just that neither of them is fully developed. Each bit looks like half a movie, the first one trailing off into nothing, the second boiled down into forty minutes of clichés.
Of course the device of slightly barmy yet beautiful women bumping off their husbands would become something of a film noir staple. But here is where They Drive By Night shows its primitiveness alongside later noirs. Raft resists Lupino like a saint, and stays true to goody-goody Anne Sheridan (and on the subject of Sheridan, why is she suddenly transformed from smooth-talking floozy to prim housewife-in-waiting?) Over the next two decades Fred MacMurray, Orson Welles and even Jimmy Stewart would be getting suckered in by the "wrong kind of woman" and being dragged down to a sorry end. And perhaps this is the final flaw in They Drive By Night. In pictures like this, we don't want perfect morals and cosy endings. We want the hero to take the bait hook, line and sinker.
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