They Drive by Night Blu-ray Review: They Live by Day

One of the interesting things about becoming a classic movie fan is how you wind up just wandering around an actor or director, or anybody else’s filmography. With modern films when you become a fan of an actor, or whoever, you can follow along with their career chronologically. I’ve been a fan of Scarlett Johansson since first seeing her as a teenager in The Man Who Wasn’t There and Ghost World in 2001. I’ve been following Elijah Wood since he was a child actor in films like Forever Young and The War. It is fun to have watched them grow as actors, taking on different roles and seeing how their careers come along.

Buy They Drive by Night Blu-ray

But with classic actors and filmmakers, their careers are largely over; most of them are no longer with us at all. Their entire careers are at our disposal, but I tend to discover them through their big films, the true classics. The ones that made them stars. Then I’ll move to lesser films and the more obscure ones.

Humphrey Bogart is my favorite actor. I’m sure the first film of his I ever watched was Casablanca. Then I moved on to other heavy hitters like The Big Sleep and The African Queen. From there, I expanded to lesser-known films and it’s only been in the last few years that I started digging into his early career where he was mostly playing heavies in gangster films.

That’s the thing about Bogart. He was a supporting actor, a contract player, for a decade before becoming a star. He was stuck playing the heavy in gangster pictures. He wasn’t even the lead villain, being billed third or fourth from the top in those films. He played the type of character studios didn’t mind killing off in the third act. When he made They Drive by Night in 1940, he had grown concerned with his career. He needed a role that would make him famous. He’d get it just a year later with High Sierra. A year after that he’d become an icon with his role as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

George Raft was a star when he made They Drive by Night, but he too had been stuck making gangster films. By this point in his career, he was ready to move on – to play a real hero or at least something more than a criminal. He’d never fully get away from those types of roles, but he does some of his best work in this film, and this would help him to branch out into other types of films.

Ida Lupino had found some success in England, where she came from a long line of artists and performers, but she’d not yet made it in America. They Drive by Night would change that, skyrocketing her into stardom and putting her on the path to becoming an icon.

The film was a huge success and it has become a fascinating snapshot of three actors in transitional periods of their careers. I don’t know that it is the first film I’d send anybody to if they were interested in Raft, Bogart, or Lupino, but it is definitely worth checking out if you are already a fan.

The film itself is a bit of an oddity. It’s like a mixture between a social message drama and a straight film noir. Raft and Bogart play Joe and Paul Fabrini, truck-driving brothers. They are an independent operation and the film pits them against the bigger trucking companies, financial institutions, and various other large corporations all of whom have no place for the little guys.

As the film begins, they have to take delivery orders from a crooked dealer who is always trying to fleece them and finds some way to get out of paying them for their work. At every turn, they are chased by the loan shark whom they borrowed the funds from to buy their truck. Along the way they stop at gas stations and diners where they meet an eclectic cast of characters. This includes Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan) who becomes Joe’s girl and gets all the best lines. Paul has a wife at home (Gale Page) who frets and worries about him, practically begging him to take some other steady job where he’d be home more often. Paul would like that, but Joe is determined to make something out of their little operation and Paul doesn’t want to disappoint him.

About halfway through the film something (that I won’t spoil) occurs causing Joe to take a job with one of those large trucking operations he spent the first half running away from. It is owned by Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale, Sr.), a good guy and an old friend. He’s married to Lana (Lupino) who barely holds back her contempt for her husband. Joe and Lana used to be an item and she keeps making passes at him. He repeatedly turns her down, but she’s relentless, and increasingly crazed, in her attempts. It all ends with a big courtroom scene with Lana completely losing her mind while on the stand. It made Lupino famous and won her a lot of credit amongst critics, but it plays like a little too much for me.

The first half is the better part of the movie. Director Raul Walsh gives it a dirty, gritty feel and it’s terrific fun watching the Fabrini brothers struggle up against an eccentric cast of characters. The second half is more film noir with Lana serving as the femme fatale and her husband becoming the likable dupe. The first time I watched the film I hated the second half, but I’ve come around. It does feel like quite a gear shift, and it takes some adjusting to get used to it, but Lupino really is terrific (though I still think she’s a bit over the top in that final scene). Raft, who was usually a bit stiff in his performances, is all warmth here, and Bogart is just beginning to show signs of that star power he’d maintain for most of his career.

As a fan of all three actors (and Ann Sheridan too, who I’ve mostly ignored in this review, but is terrific in the film) it is interesting to watch They Drove by Night in connection with their careers. They were all in different stages and this film propelled them in different directions. That’s one of the things I love about being a classic film fan, finding these fascinating intersections. Whether or not you are as interested in these things as I am, it is a good film by its own merits, and well worth adding to your collection.

The Warner Archive presents They Drive by Night with a new HD master of a 4K scan of the original nitrate negative. Extras include a fun little featurette on the film, the Lux Theater radio adaptation of the film with George Raft and Lana Tuner, plus the original theatrical trailer.

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Mat Brewster

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