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‘They Drive by Night’ (Blu-ray review)

One of the very first books in Booksteve’s Library, circa 1973, was Bogey: The Films of Humphrey Bogart.

The legendary tough guy actor had become a cool cult figure on college campuses a decade after his 1957 death.

After I saw Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, in which an actor playing Bogart’s ghost gives advice to Woody’s typical nebbish character, I found myself wanting to know more about the real Humphrey Bogart.

Luckily, his best films were often revived on the big screen in those days and even his worst films filled the weekend movie slots on TV.

I was sure I had seen They Drive by Night (1940) but if I had, I didn’t remember a thing about it when I watched it today.

Watch out for spoilers on the road ahead.

For one, thing, They Drive by Night is not a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Oh, he’s in it, all right, along with many of the great Warner Bros. contract players, but he is not the star. That would be George Raft.

Raft, like Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, was known for his gangster roles but in this one he’s the strong, kind-hearted, sympathetic hero. He and Bogart play brothers, independent truck drivers who still owe money on their truck.

Along their route, they stop at a diner where they meet Ann Sheridan playing the waitress. Somehow, she even sneaks in an adult joke! If you don’t know who Ann Sheridan was, I feel sorry for you. You kids today with all’a yer Emmas and Sydney Sweeneys missed out on “The Oomph Girl,” so-called because she most definitely had “OOMPH!”

Here, she ends up hitching a ride with our heroes and slowly falling for Raft (as opposed to Bogart’s married character).

About halfway through this well-written and well-acted slice-of-life of pre-war truckers, though, They Drive by Night takes a wide turn, ultimately becoming a murder mystery. Well, not so much a mystery. We see who done it.

Alan Hale, Sr. (lookalike pop to Gilligan’s Skipper) hires Raft after he loses his truck in an accident that leads to his brother’s arm being amputated. Hale is a big, cheerful sort—an ex-trucker himself, now married to Ida Lupino.

Ida decides she “wants” Raft for herself. This is a post-Code movie, but it’s pretty clear why she wants him. Being a good guy, though, Raft reminds her often that she is married…so when she gets a chance, she takes care of that little problem.

She then entices a reluctant Raft to become her business partner but he still rejects her pretty obvious advances, telling her that he and Ann are about to wed. She loses it, and tearfully confesses to murdering her husband just so she could have Raft. Shocked, he leaves, and she decides the only logical thing to do now is to go to the police, accusing him of forcing her to kill her husband.

Several screenwriters are credited with the fast-talking script so this may be one of those “too many cooks” cases but the film comes across as two distinctly separate episodes. Both are good, but it doesn’t really play well as a film. Director Raoul Walsh coaxes perfect performances from all involved. Raft didn’t often get to be the hero, partly because of his well-known proclivity for turning down hit-making roles (including Casablanca a couple years later). Here, though, he’s almost too nice, as is Bogart, who wasn’t quite yet the breakout star he was about to become with his very next picture, High Sierra.

Ironically, it would also be directed by Walsh, who had initially approached Raft about the lead. Ida Lupino, also from this film, actually gets top billing in High Sierra, the last time anyone would be billed over Bogie.

Sadly, Ida Lupino is unjustly forgotten these days. She was a bright young star in the 1930s and 1940s, becoming one of the most important female producers and directors later on, especially on television, as well as a prolific character actress. She even played a Batman villain in 1968! In They Drive by Night, she has the showiest role and does the best acting (although it might at times be termed overacting!).

As noted, the rest of the cast is rounded out with a number of Warner Bros. best character people including Roscoe Karns, George Tobias, Marie Blake (later The Addams Family’s Grandmama, Blossom Rock), and even a blink and you’ll miss him William Bendix, uncredited in his first film role.

Remastered for Blu-ray for the first time via the Warner Archive, the picture looks fantastic and the sound is serviceable despite the mastering, sometimes emitting a low hiss.  Nevertheless, it’s likely the best the picture is going to presented.

Extras include Lux Radio Theater Broadcast of an abridged version of Drive by Night featuring Raft and Lana Turner; A short retrospective documentary, a Vitaphone short and trailer.

They Drive by Night was a huge success in 1940 but while there’s no question that it still grabs and holds one’s interest today, I don’t really think it works well as a movie.

Seeing Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino on the cusp of High Sierra, though, makes it worth watching, and oh, did I mention Ann Sheridan?

Oomph, indeed! Keep on truckin’.

Booksteve recommends.


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