They Drive By Night (1940)

29 03 2009

Almost, almost a masterpiece. For whatever reason, this is only the third film I’ve seen from Raoul Walsh, and it is probably the best. For a good hour or so, he manages to capture this beautiful low-key gritty realism and incorporate it beautifully into a very “genre film” narrative. Once Ida Lupino and Alan Hale’s plot shifts into focus, things get a little messy. The performances begin to skirt the line of over the top, the characters are drawn a bit more broadly, and the tone turns to absurd from realism. Whatever the case, I can still appreciate the first half, which is pretty much about as perfect as a film can be.

Humphrey Bogart and George Raft are brothers and co-workers. They eek out an existence as truck drivers. Up to their heads in debts, they begin to feel the pressure of ahem, “the man” which encourages them to take their services elsewhere. The chemistry between Bogart and Raft is overwhelmingly brilliant, and a result of a casting genius. It’s a very small thing, but the fact that have very similar voices seems to perfectly underscore their (believable) relationship as brothers. There’s little nuances in each of their performances, though definitely unintentional, that contribute a great deal to the realism of their brotherhood.

This may or may not play a significant role in the brother’s relationship, but I’d like to think the gorgeous photography, courtesy of Arthur Edeson – who shot everything from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Maltese Falcon – perfectly accompanies not only the tone of the film, but Bogart and Raft’s performances as well. More often than not, I have a big problem with “snappy” over-written classic Hollywood dialogue, but its delivered here in a very downbeat and deadpan manner and done so perfectly by Bogart, Raft, and Ann Sheridan.

About fifty minutes in, the brothers have a near-fatal accident, which results in Bogart’s character losing an arm. The relationship of the two brothers begins to collect dust, while Ida Lupino’s character, Lana Carlsen, becomes a focus. Her character may have had a romantic affair with Raft (who is now keen on Sheridan) and she is eager to renew it. He politely brushes off her advances, which makes her go completely insane. I haven’t seen enough of Lupino’s performances to classify her as “good” or “bad” but her performance here, especially in the final fifteen minutes or so, is completely ridiclous. Considering all the talent involved with the production, I’d like to think the absurdity is intentional. Never the less, it rubs me the wrong way and puts a damper on one of the greatest films of its kind.

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