One of the earliest and most interesting of the films noir, They Drive by Night is directed by Raoul Walsh and features a screenplay by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. The whole shebang is based on A.I. Bezzerides’ 1938 novel Long Haul, which describes truckers moving fruit and perishables around California.
They Drive by Night is interesting in the way that it transitions from a working class noir to nutty noir, generating a solid foundation from its tale of working men and running it off the rails with its revelation of a crazy femme fatale.
George Raft and Humphrey Bogart stars as brothers Joe and Paul, respectively. They’re independent (or wildcat) truck drivers. Joe wants to open his own trucking company and tries to secure his own loads so he can sell goods at the marketplace. Joe meets waitress Cassie (Ann Sheridan) and falls for her.
Things start to go well for Joe when he’s able to pay off his truck, but there’s trouble when Paul falls asleep at the wheel. Joe heads off to Ed (Alan Hale, Sr.) for business and is reacquainted with Lana (Ida Lupino), Ed’s rich wife. Lana’s been holding a flame for Joe for years and she’s not ready to give up her obsession.
From the moment the wheels on the transport truck are interposed with the opening credits, They Drive by Night sets itself up as a painstaking film noir. It weaves a tale of men who drive all night, who exist on eight cups of appalling roadside coffee, who hit on waitresses, who pick up hitchhikers, who sporadically fall asleep at the wheel and somersault down a hill toward fiery doom.
Truckers are “honest but always broke.” This exploration of the lifestyle is romantic, especially with Paul’s grousing about not having seen his wife (Gale Page) in a long time. And Ed, trucker turned booze-loving manager, longs for the days of the open road because they offered his life some sense of meaning.
This working class material is oddly hypnotic and Arthur Edeson’s cinematography helps sink us into the cab of the truck, with a series of glorious two-shots showcasing life on the road. Walsh doesn’t let things simmer for long, however, and he spins his movie into lunacy with the introduction of Lana.
Make no mistake, she is a compelling character and Lupino is absolutely stunning. She’s the rich wife married to a working class stiff and she can’t quite wrap her head around it. She’s unhappy, to say the least, and this unhappiness leads her to commit some serious sins. The least of these sins is her attraction to Joe, which is apparently bred from a long-held period of lusty vigilance.
They Drive by Night threatens to come apart at the seams for its last quarter, especially after the crime and subsequent trial hauls Joe under the microscope. Luckily, Lupino’s portrayal is so damn enthralling that it’s easy to gloss over just how weird things have become.
Lupino’s performance is hammered down in two critical scenes. The first occurs when she reveals the nefariousness of her deeds. Raft has his character watch stone-faced as she goes over the terms of her fixation and indicates just how far her longing has taken her. The second scene takes place when she’s on the stand, as her hysterics tiptoe to the line of camp.
They Drive by Night is a fitting example of pure cinema, as it lulls the audience into a narrative that is outwardly routine and then jerks the wheel away. Such an abrupt, demented movement doesn’t rip Walsh’s picture off its hinges, though. It actually works, dipping the working class world into the surreal with such shrewdness that it’s hard not to stare in wonder.