“Half social-realist drama about truckers, half women’s genre melodrama about a neurotic rich wife who murders her husband and makes a play for another man”, as Robert Sklar explains, even for a Raoul Walsh movie They Drive By Night is hard to define.1 A loose adaptation of A. I. Bezzerides’s terrific pulp novel Long Haul (1938), about brothers hauling loads between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the film was scripted by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay — the writing team behind The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939) and Manpower (Raoul Walsh, 1941). Wald would later co-produce a number of Walsh’s movies at Warner Bros. including Background to Danger (1943), Objective, Burma! (1945), and One Sunday Afternoon (1948).

Bezzerides’s tough guy, pro-labor working men story about the socially sanctioned and corrupt marketplace became a moral tale about the court system working for those who trusted it enough. Not a very Bezzerides sentiment for the writer with a cynical view of depression-era capitalism who would go on to script some of the toughest nihilistic noirs of the period: Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949), On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951) and Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955). 2 What Wald and Macaulay kept from the novel, however, was the proletarian theme of American capitalism and the scramble for those at the bottom.

Such a theme was suitable material for Warner Bros. and also contract players of George Raft and Humphrey Bogart whose reputation was formed on the production of gritty crime stories of characters determined to rise to the top regardless of their dire consequences. As with the novel, the film’s first half has a crime story sentiment (helped by the casting of staple gangster regulars Raft and Bogart) with the emphasis on money and independence regardless of the physical and financial toll. This theme shifts into gear when Paul (Bogart) demolishes the family truck, and loses his right arm in the carnage (in a gripping sequence shot by Don Siegel).

Joe (Raft) – without his truck to run his hauls – accepts an offer to work for good-guy trucking business owner Ed (Alan Hale). And from here the film relegates Paul (Bogart) to the background as nothing greater than a constant reminder of Joe’s guilt and justification for his decision to “sell out”.  Although today it seems as a misstep for the film to discard Paul from the story, Hollywood cinema has never been comfortable with physical deformities and disabilities — unless those deformities can be easily corrected like say Velma’s (Joan Leslie) clubbed foot in High Sierra (Raoul Walsh 1941).

In the screen time that he has, Bogart showcases his ability to deliver fast snapping sarcastic dry-wit dialogue that would come to personify his cranky screen persona in the 1940s and 1950s: “Don’t get me wrong sister. All you make me think about is how much I’d like to be with my wife”. A later scene at the market haggling with a lemon seller demonstrates Bogart’s natural talent (and limited opportunities) for visual humour, and Walsh’s eye for comedy, which is prevalent across the film’s first half. 

With most considering Bogart’s career to really begin post High Sierra, it does seem surprising that such marginal attention is given to his performance in this earlier film, where with Walsh he fleshed-out a typically secondary and forgetful part into somebody empathetic, loveable, and involved. As a trait of Walsh’s men, here he gets to play a real and ordinary person (which for Bogart at this time was a rarity): a modest husband craving the domestic suburban life, a steady income, and some regular sleep: “Sure, I want to sleep. Everyone sleeps once in a while, remember? You’d think I wanted to do something peculiar”. 

The film’s second half becomes less a story of capitalist America than a proto-noir about a femme type played by Ida Lupino, in a rehashing of a 1935 Warners movie Bordertown (Archie Mayo) starring Paul Muni and Betty Davis. Ed’s wife Lana (Ida Lupino), takes a fancy to Joe despite him spurning her advances and his intentions to marry the good-girl, Cassie (Ann Sheridan). On an impulse Lana kills her husband and frames Joe out of jealousy. In the scenes as the wrong man, Raft gives perhaps his most fully-formed performance in a chequered career that never reached the heights many (including Raft) thought he was destined. But it is Lupino who steals the film. Just twenty-two at the time of this film she announced to Hollywood, and Jack Warner who put her under contract, that she was a star demanding top billing, which she was given for her next film alongside Bogart in High Sierra. Unfortunately (as with Jane Russell and Virginia Mayo) Lupino was never as good as when under the direction of Walsh. Argued by David Thomson, They Drive By Night became a seminal movie for an actress shifting the gender power set-up at Warners, which had historically been dominated by males and the male narrative.3

Not that Walsh’s film on the outset of the truckers’ camaraderie seems any different, which is why Lupino’s performance is so subversive and bewildering. While everyone tends to point to her insane and wonderfully captivating “the doors made me do it” courtroom breakdown that concludes the film, the execution of Ed is even more gripping, demonstrating the faith that Walsh had in his female actor to carry heavy emotional baggage without it ever becoming a weepy melodrama or story of a demonised snake. For a relatively unknown and inexperienced actress (albeit Walsh had previous cast her in his comedy Artists & Models (1937)), no director would ever show her the same confidence as Walsh.

One night after homely and portly Ed drinks himself into a stupor, forcing Lana to drive, she parks in the garage. Ed is too drunk to walk, and Walsh holds the shot on Lupino’s eyes as Lana begins to think through the plot of her husband’s “accidental” death. Never overplayed by Lupino as she leaves the motor idling and exits the garage, Walsh provides the film’s greatest shot as he tracks her walking from the garage in a moment of horror and guilt as the doors close behind her, announcing the garage as a gas chamber for her unconscious spouse. In this scene, Walsh gives us a femme fatale that is equally impulsive, real, and terrifying.  In a jarring plot shift and performance, this film demonstrates the way that Walsh often used his female actors to subvert his stories and genres by often taking them into much darker and complex places than anyone (especially the men) thought possible.

 

They Drive By Night (1940 America, 95 minutes)

Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Mark Hellinger Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr:  Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay  Phot: Arthur Edeson Ed: Thomas Richards Prod Des: John Hughes Mus: Adolph Deutsch

Cast: George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Hale, Sr.

Endnotes

  1. Robert L. Sklar. (1992), City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield. Princeton: Princeton Univ Pr. p. 102.
  2. Jake Hinkson. (2015). Introduction to Long Haul. California: University of California Press.
  3. David Thomson (2014) “Have You Seen. . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Deckle Edge. P. 873.

About The Author

Dr Stephen Gaunson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, where he teaches undergraduate courses on Australian cinema, film adaptation, and documentary studies.