PCA Retro Review: They Drive By Night (1940)

PCA reminds you that the world’s best movies are NOT in the new release section at Blockbuster!

They Drive by Night (1940)  – One of Hollywood’s stranger melodramas, They Drive By Night features the dangerous lives and loves of the men on the trucking lines, hauling freight and cargo through the darkest nights on what could often be a cruel and lonely roads.  Featuring an impressive all star cast including George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and Ida Lapino, They Drive By Night is an early tribute to the world of the trucker.

George Raft and Humphrey Bogart play Joe and Paul Fabrini, two brothers who drive an independently owned cargo truck.  As they go from town to town and diner to diner, avoiding money collectors and repo men, the Fabrini brothers find friendship amongst the other members of the trucking community and Joe finds love in feisty waitress Cassie Hartley (Ann Sheridan).  While Joe dreams of starting their own trucking company, Paul wishes that he could spend more time at home with his young wife (Gale Page).  However, when the brothers finally manage to get a big break putting them ahead of the trucking game, their opportunity is crushed in a single moment when they smash their rig and Paul loses an arm.  As Paul must learn to live with only one appendage, Joe goes to work for trucking mogul Ed Carlson (Alan Hale Sr.) who’s cruel gold digging wife Lana, (Ida Lapino) sets her sights on him.  However, when she finds out that he has no interest in fooling around with the boss’ wife, Lana will do anything to get Joe Fabrini all to himself….including murder!

George Raft and Humphery Bogart are joined by Ann Sheridan in "They Drive By Night" (1940)

They Drive By Night is a unique time capsule of the early romantic image of the truck driver.  Today the pop culture image of the trucker is imbedded in the country songs of CW McCall and Red Sovine, and films like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit.  However, They Drive By Night was the first film to depict the lives of truckers when the trucking industry was still in its infancy.  Less “hayseed” or glamorous, the film depicts the dangers and destitute on the open road, and glorifies the comradery of truckers long before there was such things as CB radios or flatbed tractor trailers.  They Drive By Night has a little bit of everything – thrills, romance, suspense, murder, mayhem, court room dramatics and comedy which keeps the pace at every turn in the road.  Already a major star at the time, George Raft takes head billing, while Bogart, Sheridan and Lapino get another notch in careers that were still up and coming.  The all star cast is rounded out by a number of Hollywood’s greatest character actors including boisterous Alan Hale Sr as the jovial but doomed trucking mogul, Roscoe Karns as goofy trucker Irish McGurn and Joyce Compton as his dizzy girlfriend Sue Carter. 

George Raft (with Ann Sheridan) takes star billing in "They Drive By Night," but due to a number of mistakes in his career, co-star Humphery Bogart would prove to be the bigger star

However, what truly makes They Drive By Night interesting is the pairing of George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini.  George Raft was already an established Hollywood star when they made They Drive By Night and was one of Hollywood’s biggest tough guys.  Known to cavort with gangsters in real life, Raft talked the talk and walked the walk and, as rumor had it, even stopped a hit on Gary Cooper at one time.  It was in 1939 when Raft met younger actor Humphrey Bogart in a forgettable gangster film called Invisible Stripes.  Impressed by Bogart’s acting ability and own tough guy persona, Raft befriended the up and comer and requested that Bogart play his younger brother in They Drive By Night.  The pair play beautifully off of each other and show a good deal of support and respect as two brothers on the open road, while Bogart shows his true ability as a dramatic actor as a man that loses an arm.  However, in an almost All About Eve type scenario, shortly after They Drive By Night Raft would make a series of fatal mistakes that would greatly benefit Bogart’s career, eventually allowing Bogart to eclipse his mentor.  When Raft was offered the leading role in High Sierra after the filming of They Drive By Night, he turned it down.  Humphrey Bogart took the film instead, which became his breakout film and transformed his career from character actor to bankable star.  Later that year Raft was the first choice to play  Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon but, once again, turned it down and, once again, Humphrey Bogart took the role strengthening his presence in Hollywood.  Then, in 1942, not learning his lesson, George Raft turned down a third film leaving Humphrey Bogart to pick up Raft’s “sloppy seconds.”  The film was Casablanca.  The role was Rick Blaine,  The part would make Humphrey Bogart a legend while today George Raft is only remembered by film buffs.  The pair would remain friendly for the rest of their lives, but George Raft’s mistakes put him in Humphrey Bogart’s shadow for eternity.  However, They Drive By Night is the opportunity to see these two legendary Hollywood tough guys together in all their glory – George Raft at the top of his career and Humphrey Bogart in one of his best early performances. 

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