|Director Raoul Walsh |
|Ann Sheridan and George Raft|
|The line stretches around the block|
THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT B USA (95 mi) 1940 d: Raoul Walsh
In the best films of Raoul Walsh, you can see the way he can put people into action . . . where they don’t act but move and express, indirectly, subconsciously, their experience of life. What makes something happen? The placement of the camera The angle The lens. The distance of the camera from the scene. The physical execution.
—Pierre Rissient, written lead-in inscription of Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director (494 pages), by Marilyn Ann Moss, 2011
Despite being one of Warner Brothers most popular films of the early 40’s, it’s notable for Humphrey Bogart getting 4th billing, the last time that would happen, as he would go on to become the most popular Hollywood star not only of the 40’s, but by the end of the century the American Film Institute will vote him the greatest male movie star of all time (AFI's 100 YEARS…100 STARS | American Film Institute). For that reason alone this film is a curiosity, also notable for being the first film made about the trucking business, viewed through a working class lens, a product of the hardships of the Depression, with wildcat truckers working for corrupt bosses that would cheat them out of wages and exploit their services, causing them to take enormous chances on the road, all suffering from sleep deprivation, barely ever setting foot in their own homes, constantly hauling produce up and down the coast of California, basically shifting a railroad economy to the highway, where farmers suffering foreclosures took to the road hauling the produce they once grew, one of the few viable alternatives for income. Largely based upon the first novel of A. I. Bezzerides entitled The Long Haul in 1938, Bezzerides is perhaps best known for writing Jules Dassin’s THIEVES HIGHWAY (1949) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), while also co-writing Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) and William Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT (1954). This story is based upon his own experience growing up as a truck driver in California’s San Joaquin Valley, transporting fruit from grower to seller, going to the market to buy produce, where haggling over prices was routine, often victimized by packing houses blatantly undermining their prices, sowing the seeds of dissension among the ranks while painting an acute portrait of the cutthroat tactics of capitalism, becoming an uncondescending and largely unsentimental view of the working class. The camaraderie between the truckers is firmly established, each trying to make a meager living, sharing work experiences, all in the same boat, all equally exploited (“always honest and always broke”), recognizing familiar faces, meeting at various roadside diners, scrupulously avoiding the loan sharks trying to repossess their trucks for a single missed payment, each having the same dream of one day owning their own truck and going independent. While certainly the model for later trucker films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) (1953), this elusive, underlying theme of freedom on the road is part of the American landscape, most notably Jack Kerouac’s generation defining 1957 novel On the Road, perhaps most prominently expressed in counterculture youth pictures like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), where freedom is always viewed as something undefinable that lies just over the horizon and is not easily attainable. While those films ushered in an era of existential anti-heroes, Raoul Walsh retains the traditional format of heroic protagonist pursuing the American Dream, who in this film is George Raft as Joe, one of the two Fabrini brothers, the other being Paul (Humphrey Bogart), almost always on the road together with one driving while the other sleeps.
Joe is the steadier of the two, the one with vision and a business acumen, living by his own credo “We’re tougher than any truck ever come off any assembly line,” while Paul incessantly complains about never being able to spend time with his wife Pearl (Gale Page), who in turn worries about him never being at home, gone for days on end, wishing he’d find a more conventional job where he’d come home every night. While Paul may also want the same thing, he’s not going to leave his brother to fend for himself, particularly when there’s a chance they could get out from under their debt and actually start to make real money. Early in the film the brothers suffer a mishap when some idiot ahead has veered into their lane, causing them to skid off the road, breaking a wheel. Calling their boss from a nearby diner, asking him to wire money for repairs, the boss has other ideas, sending another driver to pick up their load, leaving the brothers stranded. In the diner, however, they run into Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan) behind the counter, who is fending off men’s hands and leers and objectionable comments with apparent ease, a continuing example of the 30’s screwball comedy where a neverending stream of one-liners establishes the brisk pace of the film, while also introducing a complement of familiar truckers, including the overly friendly Irish (Roscoe Karns) and the sleep deprived McNamara (John Litel), a bit grumpy, ill at ease, as he’s obviously overworked, filling himself with coffee to no effect. Joe is impressed by the way Cassie handles herself, taking a liking to her right away, but to her, he’s just another man to fend off. After fixing their wheel, disgruntled that their load has been stolen from them by their own boss, they head back to San Francisco to settle the score, basically manhandling their boss for unpaid wages before heading to Los Angeles with another load, picking up a hitchhiker in the rain, none other than Cassie, whose own boss couldn’t keep his hands off her, so they all head to Los Angeles in seek of a brighter future, stopping at another familiar roadside diner where truckers seem to congregate. In a driving rain, the brothers notice a familiar truck in front of them veering all over the road, McNamara, concluding he’s asleep at the wheel, trying to pull around to wake him up, but the truck crashes around a turn, tumbling down a steep embankment, eventually erupting in flames, killing both drivers inside. Devastated by what they see, Paul is dropped off with his wife while the other two find a room together in LA, the beginning signs of a budding relationship, with Joe getting into a scrap with another driver, which impresses Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), a longtime friend, whose wife Lana (Ida Lupino) takes more than a casual interest in Joe, suggesting they have history together, but Joe deflects her interest, steered into a lucrative load by Ed, picking his brother up along the way, making a handsome profit, even enough money to pay off the loan shark, finally starting to establish themselves. But on the return trip Paul falls asleep at the wheel, losing an arm in the crash (sequence shot by Don Siegel), but their uninsured rig is totaled. At the hospital, Pearl strangely finds the accident fortunate, as it will finally keep her husband at home, thinking it’s a small price to pay.
Paul grows bitter at being treated as a charity case, yet Joe provides for all his needs, given a new job opportunity by Ed, who initially wanted to hire him as a driver, but his conniving wife convinces him he needs to hire him as a garage manager, selfishly allowing her more time with him, a decision with drastic consequences. Lana undermines their marriage at every turn, hating her husband’s drinking habits and his interest in sharing his success with the drivers, enjoying their camaraderie more than the ice-cold looks he gets from his wife, who is viewed as a social climber, marrying for money and the prestige it brings, showing no interest whatsoever in her husband, fawning over Joe every chance she gets. As for Raft, his portrayal of Joe is a little too saintly, too nice of a guy, hardly representative of someone from Hell’s Kitchen who grew up in the school of hard knocks, friends with mobster Dutch Schultz and a driver for childhood friend Owney Madden, delivering bootleg liquor during Prohibition. His character has few rough edges, overly cleaned up, where he’s just too squeaky clean. When Ed gets inebriated at a party, Lana drives him home, concocting a plan to leave him in the garage all night with the engine running, deftly conveying the mood almost entirely through her eyes, showing a melodramatic sign of remorse for the police, who call it an accidental death. Enlisting Joe as a partner, he’s initially suspicious, knowing her real motives, but it’s a great business opportunity if they can keep it strictly business. Moving Paul into a dispatcher position, the business thrives beyond their wildest dreams, with Joe and Cassie finally having the money to get married, a decision that leaves Lana devastated, as if punched in the gut, suddenly seeing all her scheming plans flying out the window, so she returns to the police claiming Joe forced her into murdering her husband, that he forcefully overwhelmed her and intimidated her. Ida Lupino turns her into one of the most vile and wretched characters to ever grace the screen, synonymous with the lies and betrayals of a murderous Lady Macbeth who could never wash the blood off her hands, consumed by guilt and plagued by madness (You know the saying – Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned), she delivers a ballsy, off-the-wall, tour de force performance with exploding fireworks everywhere, like a walking time bomb that could detonate anytime. Her erratic behavior starts slowly but builds to a climactic courtroom scene where she grows hysterical, spewing utter nonsense, creating a courtroom climate of utter chaos. Before they can regain their collective breaths, all charges are dropped, with Lana sent to the funny farm. Borrowing heavily from Archie Mayo’s BORDERTOWN (1935), there are similar plot points that seem fused into this picture (recycling scripts is a Hollywood studio tradition), feeling overly contrived, where the spontaneous freshness in the early dialogue sequences is replaced by a grim, overwrought melodrama that leads to a conventional ending. Surprisingly, it’s the women who exhibit a hard edge in this picture, driving the storyline into even darker territory, with the men resorting to more conventional Hollywood caricature. It was the final picture featuring Raft as a headliner star, soon to be replaced by Bogart, literally, as Raft turned down roles made famous by Bogart in his very next picture, HIGH SIERRA (1941), working again with Raoul Walsh, then again in THE MALTESE FALCOLN (1941) and CASABLANCA (1942), astonishing opportunities that made Bogart a star. Raft even turned down the lead role in Billy Wilder’s fabulously successful Double Indemnity (1944), ushering in an era of film noir in American film. Bogart’s success allowed Warners to let Raft walk away from his contract, but his career as a freelancer never blossomed.