They Drive by Night (1940) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This story about truckers back in the depression era is described as a film noir but I think I’d call it a melodrama.  George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini.  They are partners in a long-haul trucking business.  They are owed money by the scheduler who assigns them loads and relatedly they owe money to the guy who sold them their truck.  We see them dealing with both sides of this debt relationship.  We also see how dangerous driving at the edge of exhaustion can be when their friend crashes his truck on the road in front of them because he fell asleep at the wheel.  And finally, it catches up with the Fabrinis.  Paul falls asleep at the wheel and drives off a slope.  The truck is totaled and because of his injuries Paul has his right arm amputated.  Joe breaks the news to Paul’s wife Pearl and she admits she is almost relieved that his disability will keep him from driving trucks ever again and at least spare his life.  Feeling responsible for what has happened to Paul Joe goes to an old friend of his Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) who has a trucking company and obtains a driving job which will allow him to support Paul and Pearl.  But it won’t pay enough to allow Joe to marry his new girlfriend Cassie Harley (Ann Sheridan).  But there is a complication.  Ed’s wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is infatuated with Joe.  She talks Ed into making Joe the scheduler so that he’ll be around the garage and therefore easier for her to fraternize with.  But Joe refuses to go behind his boss and friend’s back with this unfaithful wife.  Finally, after being rejected categorically by Joe because of her status as Ed’s wife Lana goes crazy.  She drives Ed home from a party and after parking the car in the garage she leaves him drunk and passed out in the car and closes the garage door with the car engine on.  She explains the asphyxiation to the police as Ed sleeping drunk in the car as he often did and him somehow waking up, starting the engine and then falling back asleep.

With Ed gone Lana brings Joe into the business as a partner.  But now she finds out that Joe is engaged to be married.  She becomes enraged and tells Joe that she murdered Ed for him and won’t be separated from him for any reason.  Joe rebuffs her and walks away shocked.  Lana, now consumed by bitterness goes to the police and confesses that she murdered Ed but swears that Joe forced her to do it against her will.  Now there is a trial in which the circumstantial evidence provided by Lana makes Joe’s position very bad.  But when Lana finally testifies at the trial she has become totally unhinged through guilt.  She claims that she was compelled to kill Ed by the presence of the automatic garage door mechanism.  And she is dragged out of the courtroom laughing hysterically that it was the door that made her do it.

And so, we get the happy ending.  Joe owns the trucking business, Paul is his scheduler, the truckers admire and like Joe for his honest treatment and now Joe has the money to marry Cassie.

This movie is a product of the Hays Code.  Criminals have to be punished so we know that Lana is going to get her comeuppance and because Joe is a stand-up guy, he’ll end up okay.  And because this is a Warner Bros. studio production it has a lot of the character actors that were around at that time.  Alan Hale, Roscoe Karns and Charles Halton were some of the more memorable faces you see.  Karns has a relatively minor part as one of the truck drivers but he steals several scenes with his goofball manner and his fascination with playing the pinball games that seem to be in every diner that the truckers frequent along their routes between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The camaraderie between the truckers and the diner personnel is a substantial portion of the movie and some of the more interesting dialog.  But the movie belongs to Raft and Lupino.  Her ill-fated infatuation for him powers the plot, such as it is.  As I said, I consider this a melodrama and not a great movie.  But the Raft’s interaction with the rest of the cast other than Lupino makes this movie an interesting slice of life from the depression era and full of human interest.  This is not a great movie but it’s fun to watch. I recommend it on that basis.