They Drive by Night (1940): Early Film Noir, Vigorously Directed by Raoul Walsh

An early hard-boiled film noir about two tough truck drivers, They Drive By Night is directed by Raul Walsh in his characteristic vigorous and energetic way, and extremely well acted by the four stars, all Warner contract players.

Bogart, just before becoming a major star, gets last billing, below George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino.

The tale is based on A.I. Besserides’ 1938 novel The Long Haul, which was later reprinted under the title They Drive by Night to cash in on the success of the film.

One of the film’s subplots–Ida Lupino’s character murdering her husband by poisoning–was borrowed from another Warner film, Bordertown (1935), which starred Bette Davis.

Raft and Bogart play brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini, embattled truck drivers who make a meager living. Joe convinces Paul to start their own business, staying one step ahead of loan shark Farnsworth, who is trying to repossess their truck.

At one stop, they meet a young and appealing waitress, Cassie Hartley (Sheridan), and Joe shows instant attraction.  Later, the brothers pick up her up as a hitchhiker going to Los Angeles; she quit her job after her boss had harassed her.

While driving, they witness a truck whose driver is asleep at the wheel, causing a fatal accident . When they return to L.A., Paul is reunited with his patient wife Pearl (Gale Page), who wishes Paul settled down in a safer job so that they can raise a family. Meanwhile, Joe finds Cassie a place to stay, and they begin dating. When Paul falls asleep at the wheel, he causes an accident that costs him his right arm and wrecks the truck.

Enter femme fatale Lana Carlsen (Lupino), who has desired Joe for years, but he rebuffed her advances as she is married to Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), a trucking business owner and former drive who’s his friend. When Ed hires Joe as driver, Lana persuades her husband to make him traffic manager.

Joe spurns Lana’s advances, and one night, Lana, murders Ed (drunk after a party) on impulse, leaving him in the garage with the car motor still running. When the police investigate, she persuades them it was an accident. She later gives Joe percentage of the business as yet another seductive gesture.

Bitter over his inability to support his wife, Paul returns to work as a dispatcher.  Joe managing the business efficiently, and when she learns of his marriage plans to Cassie, she confesses of her killing.  Enraged, she accuses Joe of committing the murder, but during the trial, the guilt-ridden Lana breaks down. Laughing hysterically, she claims that it was the electric garage door that made her do it; the case against Joe is dismissed and Lana is declared insane.

Joe considers going back to the road, but Cassie talks him out of it. He returns to the trucking business, with Paul as his traffic manager and Cassie as future wife.

Early on, George Raft remarks of his breed of drivers, ‘We’re tougher than any truck ever come off an assembly line,” a sentence that could be applied to the whole movie.