They Drive By Night (1940)

A box office hit in its day, They Drive By Night (1940), with George Raft, Ida Lupino, Ann Sheridan and Humphrey Bogart is a film noir trucker movie, which opens on the embattled lives of some West Coast fruit hauliers, and closes on murder, madness and corporate corruption ― as obsession and madness destroy femme fatale Ida Lupino’s life.

The rub is that director Raoul Walsh had a flair for subverting genres, and really only made what you might call “Raoul Walsh pictures” whatever the basic  genre ― and this one is about as Raoul Walsh as you can get.

It’s a trucker movie, it’s a comedy, it’s a romance and it’s a thriller. It’s a picture about class relationships and the cutthroat nature of business; and it’s a picture about madness and the little guy rising to the top.

Raoul Walsh ― who also made the following film noir favourites ― High Sierra (1941); Pursued (1947); and White Heat (1949) ― had a feeling feeling for regular people, informal surroundings, and he portrays the hustle and bustle of working life very well.

It’s almost like the dirt on the men themselves ― it suggests a populist and almost an anarchic streak, and even though there is plenty opportunity here to focus on ideological material about bosses and workers, and the capitalist production of fruit ― an ideological theme in many films from East of Eden to Chinatown ― it should be said that this movie's depiction of blue collar life rings truer than most, and it’s never presented as doctrinal lesson in socialism or workers’ rights.

Ann Sheridan and George Raft in
They Drive by Night (1940)

Yeah literally driving by night in They Drive by Night (1940)
George Raft and Humphrey Bogart

A film of several parts, They Drive By Night does not commence as one might a film noir to. There’s no dark city glamour, or tortured male hero; there are no gangsters, guns or femmes fatales, and no night clubs or soldiers returning from World War 2.

West coast fruit markets and monuments in The Drive By Night (1940)
Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco) and Los Angeles City Hall

There aren’t even any shadows and atmospheric effects or camera angles ― instead what They Drive By Night offers  are the crummy lives of working class haulage contractors, shipping perilously ripe loads of fruit up the highways of the west coast for a meagre profit, if any profit at all.

These are the casualties of the American Dream ― no hopers renting their trucks in an effort to make a meagre living, and prey to the vagaries of the road, of nature, of their bosses and the mechanics of their shoddy trucks.

Alan Hale in They Drive by Night (1940)

If this is establishing material, it runs for a full 20 minutes; the crummiest trucks, parked outside the crummiest roadhouses, wherein the crummy banter rolls as desperate blokes scrape together a few nickels to make a call to find a spare part, or an extra hour of leeway with the boss.

The roadhouse is a barrel of laughs in fact, presided over by the amazing Ann Sheridan as sassy waitress who in fine 40s film tradition seems to be as tough as nails, but is about to soften up and be the perfect female foil for the hard-driven and somewhat eccentrically told stories of the men.

Forced engagement — Ida Lupino pressures George Raft in
They Drive By Night (1940)

Forced engagement — Alan Hale pressures Ida Lupino in
They Drive By Night (1940)

What is driving these people definitely happens at night!

Much of the success of They Drive By Night, must be down to the fact of its four superstar cast members, some of the finest actors that ever graced the film noir screen:

George Raft as Joe Fabrini

Ann Sheridan as Cassie Hartley

Ida Lupino as Lana Carlsen

Humphrey Bogart as Paul Fabrini

Although George Raft was certainly a star, and had been since his coin-flipping turn in Scarface, the other three had probably not hit the limelight full on ― although all of these actors are serious talents indeed, and made and appeared in many of the best film noirs of the 1940s.

Humphrey Bogart (with Gale Page) is man-spreadingly challenging the Production Code here with only one foot on the floor in
They Drive By Night (1940)

Another point of success here is the super-hardboiled dialogue, which allows for quite mundane and ordinary scenes to be turned into something grimy and exhilarating, just with a few words. They Drive By Night is particularly littered with these types of quotations. 

This is the heart of the noir fantasy ― although the characters and situations are to begin with, at least, photo-real ― the language reminds us that we are still witnessing theatre. ― and it is a darkly comic theatre, a world of guignol, in which every driver is a grotesque, every boss is a dollar-toting villain, and very few people in between matter.


Farnsworth: Well, you don't have to be nasty about it.

Paul Fabrini: We don't have to be, but it's more fun that way.


Lana Carlsen: I wonder what I see in you, anyway. You're crude. You're uneducated. You've never had a pair of pants with a crease in them. And yet, I couldn't say no to you.


Joe Fabrini: Do you believe in love at first sight?

Cassie Hartley: It saves a lot of time.


Ed Carlsen: Early to rise and early to bed, makes a man healthy, but socially dead!


Sue Carter: What's your name?

Irish McGurn: What's the difference? Sit down and have a drink. It's drinking that makes you beautiful.

Sue Carter: Aw, I haven't been drinking.

Irish McGurn: I know, but I have.


Men with men and men with women in
They Drive By Night (1940)

This being Raoul Walsh, there is an ongoing discussion of male relations in They Drive By Night (1940). This is couched in a vision which looks at the problems of working class truck drivers. It shows how these men are exploited by their bosses, and face difficult working conditions and financial hardships.

The film is filled with detail about this profession, and could even serve as a documentary about the industry. The poverty of the characters reminds us that Walsh was a disciple of D. W. Griffith, and often made films about the poor. These men are not slum dwellers or even working people portrayed as an underclass. They are working class people at their most financially desperate.

They Drive by Night does shows a powerful capitalist system driving  over the lives of ordinary people who are probably trapped. Later, in the film The Naked and the Dead, the system is modern warfare; but here it is the exploitative system of contract truckers. Both movies are constructed at times like documentaries, offering a systematic exposition of the social systems they describe.

Beaming Ann Sheridan as the marital prize for good old moral hard work in
They Drive By Night (1940)

They Drive by Night also studies exhaustion. The night-driving truck drivers are in a constant state of exhaustion, and are desperate throughout the movie for a good night's sleep. The film builds up a hypnotic mood, with the characters' hypnagogic and nearly-asleep state evoked by the repetitive surroundings.

The film ends with a most strange refrain ― Ida Lupino’s character Ann Carlson yelling and crying “The doors made me do it!”

The line is strange ― but it may have something to do with the absolute novelty of such a thing as an automatic door in 1940.

In all, They Drive By Night is a movie of three thematic sections, and the departure from the first to the second section is wholly unexpected. And it gets even more unusual, and is in fact anything but predictable.

Although a horror genre did not exist as such ― or at least as we know it ― in 1940,  the dark atmosphere, plot and characters are gripping and the madness, rampant. Ida Lupino offers an icy and maddeningly cold persona holding the screen better than anyone else, and the murder scene is hugely effective ― one of the best in film noir.  

She arrives on screen man hungry and vixen like and yet she has a serious glare that oozes business sensibility, and her performance here earned her a studio contract. Comment should even be made on her excellent wardrobe, which is as fully distracting s it was intended to be.

Ida Lupino in They Drive by Night (1940)
Less femme fatale — more psychopath

Humphrey Bogart here plays more of a low-key family man whose wife is the wholesome type who frets about him having an accident all of the time. This is one of the last movies Bogart made before he became a star and could only be seen in the central position in any work he did, and it suits this film to a tee bringing out more of an ensemble feel.

Lupino is very good as the vicious scorned woman, a role she found herself playing in a number of films.

George's rise from blue collar working to full-on business owner is suggestive of multiple lives, and the mad and random nature of sex and capital, as here combined.

They Drive By Night (1940) is a schizophrenic movie. It's so early on in the film noir cycle that it doesn't know what it is, some of it just being the screwy exhibitionism of the 1930s, that's not going in any direction.

The first of the film is a labour relations based look at the Californian fruit industry from a working man's perspective. In this film Ann Sheridan is a sassy wise-cracking like it or lump it waitress with a quickfire tongue and a no nonsense outlook.

Later They Drive By Night becomes a classic film noir psychotic murder story, with actors driven by power and madness, and Ann Sheridan is a demure and patient home-dweller of a wife-to-be, wioth soft focus smiles and kind words and tears for everything and everybody.

Ida Lupino — "The doors made me do it!"
Descent to madness in They Live by Night (1940)

Ida Lupino being the evil-doer of the film noir action scenes of They Drive By Night, she might be more often than not classed as the femme fatale type. However the classification which may be needed instead is that of the film noir psychopath.

Ok she is a fatal femme, but that does not automatically make her a femme fatale. The character of Lana Carlsen may scheme and even user sexuality, but she is of course actually ill, as we witness in a bravado set of scenes which are terrifyingly real, as Ida Lupino creates a monster, a true horror of the screen. 

Ida Lupino — not scorned but psychotic?
They Drive by Night (1940)

They Drive By Night (1940) on Wikipedia

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