- For the 1938 British film, see They Drive by Night (1938 film).
They Drive by Night is a 1940 black-and-white film noir starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, and Humphrey Bogart, and directed by Raoul Walsh. The picture involves a pair of embattled truck drivers and was released in the UK under the title The Road to Frisco. The film was based on A. I. Bezzerides' 1938 novel The Long Haul, which was later reprinted under the title They Drive by Night to capitalize on the success of the film. Part of the film's plot (that of Ida Lupino's character murdering her husband by carbon monoxide poisoning) was borrowed from another Warner Bros. film, Bordertown (1935).
Brothers Joe (George Raft) and Paul Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart) are independent truck drivers who make a meager living transporting goods. Joe convinces Paul to start their own small, one-truck business, staying one step ahead of loan shark Farnsworth (an uncredited Charles Halton), who is trying to repossess their truck.
At one stop, Joe is attracted to waitress Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan). Later, the brothers pick up a hitchhiker going to Los Angeles; Joe is pleased when it turns out to be Cassie, who quit after her boss tried to get a bit too friendly with her. While en route, they witness a truck, its driver asleep at the wheel, go off the road and explode in flames. When they return to Los Angeles, Paul is reunited with his patient, though worried wife Pearl (Gale Page), who would rather have Paul settle down in a safer, more regular job. Joe finds Cassie a place to stay, and starts seeing her.
Just after the brothers finally pay off Farnsworth, Paul falls asleep at the wheel, causing an accident that costs him his right arm and wrecks their truck. Lana Carlsen (Ida Lupino) has wanted Joe for years, but Joe has always rebuffed her advances, especially since she is married to trucking business owner and former driver Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale, Sr.), a good friend of Joe's. When Ed hires Joe as a driver, Lana persuades her husband to make him the traffic manager instead (and starts dropping by the office frequently).
Joe spurns Lana's advances. One night, when Lana drives a drunk, unconscious Ed home from a party, she murders him on impulse, leaving him in the garage with the car motor still idling. When the police investigate, she persuades them it was an accident. She later gives Joe a half-interest as a partner in the business in a subsequent attempt to attract him.
Bitter over his inability to support his wife, Paul returns to work as a dispatcher for Joe. Joe does a fine job managing the business, but when Lana learns he plans to marry Cassie, she becomes so enraged, she reveals to him that she killed Ed so that she could have him. She then goes to the police accusing Joe of forcing her to help commit murder. During the trial, the weight of circumstantial evidence looks bad for Joe, but a guilt-ridden Lana breaks down on the witness stand, laughing hysterically and claiming the electric garage doors made her do it. The case against Joe is dismissed after Lana is determined to be insane. Joe considers going back to the road, but Cassie, George and the boys manage to convince him otherwise. He thus returns to the trucking business that he had dreamed of owning, with Paul as his traffic manager and Cassie as his bride-to-be.
Popular Culture Perspectives
This movie also contains early cinematic representations of pinball culture and man's frustration with modern technology. In today's world of video game addiction, it's interesting to see a grown man in 1940 talking about how he can't get away from the pinball machine. Also in the movie, Alan Hale, a truck driver turned trucking proprietor, became very frustrated trying to operate an early office phone switchboard of some sort. And to fans of Gilligan's Island, it was hard not to see the Skipper's mannerisms in his father's excellent performance in this movie.
Pinball Culture Detailed
The movie was astounding in that the pinball machine looked much more like a modern era machine than one might think. It had thumper bumpers, lots of flashing lights, and springs to the left and right of the drain hole, similar to the rubber band slingshots that are a staple of modern machines. The ball was much larger than in modern machines. And there was a magnetized area above the drain hole where the ball would loop into erratic orbits, something that remains a novelty on some modern machines. The pinball machine is in a roadside cafe frequented by truckers, and appears at 8 minutes into the movie, again at 20 minutes into the movie, and at least once more later on in the movie.
It's interesting to see this early movie characterization of a pinball player. 25 years before The Who's Pinball Wizard, it was more like Pinball Oddball. The character playing the machine was clearly obsessed with it, and showed lots of finesse with how he shot the ball and how he nudged the machine back and forth to prevent the ball from draining - a tough task without the benefit of flippers that apparently weren't introduced until 1947! The character also expresses frustration that despite having earned 53 free credits, he still couldn't manage to win. This clearly indicates that pinball machines during that era were intended for cash gambling.
The film was a big box office success.
When the film was released, The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, gave the film a positive review, writing, "But for fanciers of hard-boiled cinema, They Drive By Night still offers an entertaining ride. As Mr. Raft modestly remarks of his breed, 'We're tougher than any truck ever come off an assembly line.' That goes for the picture, too."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 94% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 17 reviews."
- They Drive by Night at the American Film Institute Catalog
- They Drive by Night at the Internet Movie Database
- They Drive by Night at AllMovie
- They Drive by Night at the TCM Movie Database
- They Drive by Night film trailer on YouTube
- They Drive by Night at Film Noir of the Week by film author Stone Wallace