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They Drive by Night [1940)

When most of us think about truck drivers we probably picture a redneck chewing Red Man and listening to Merle Haggard (or, to keep the motif going, Red Sovine).  Our truck drivers do an unenviable job which requires great intestinal fortitude (figuratively and literally).  It’s a hell of a thing to have a profession where the transport of goods (or people) requires driving at all hours of the day and night.  If you’ve never slapped yourself or blasted the A/C to try and stay awake–never searched desperately on the dial for some music to spur you on, then you may not understand this cautionary film noir from Raoul Walsh.

It’s cautionary in at least two ways.  Early in the film we see a couple of drivers go over a cliff and burn alive in their rig.  Even our hero Bogart loses an arm in a particularly nasty crash.  But the other half of the moral tale involves a theme common to film noir:  crimes of passion.  In this case, it is the jealous love of Ida Lupino which causes her to murder her husband in hopes of clearing the way for a romance with the straight-laced George Raft.

Raft can’t be tempted because, along with that intestinal fortitude of which I spoke, he has a salt-of-the-earth righteousness which keeps him from betraying his friend (the soon to be murdered husband of Lupino’s character).  That and he’s in love with Ann Sheridan.

Laced throughout this gritty struggle is the thread of capitalism.  We see Raft and Bogart appreciate the first fruits (pun intended) of their labor when they sell a truckload of lemons and are able to pay off the accrued debt on their truck.  Just when it’s paid off, tragedy strikes in the form of a wreck and they are back to square one.

Raft is excellent if stiff as Joe Fabrini.  Bogart plays his brother Paul.  Though Bogie is not really the featured player here, he delivers his lines with such wry languor and cool that we recognize the true star on set.  Sheridan looks lovely throughout as Cassie Hartley, but it is the overwrought Lupino who takes center stage as Lana Carlsen by throwing a wrench into Raft’s acquisition of the American Dream.

For me, the most beautiful aspect of this film is in its beginning sequences…when we see the brothers work and sweat and dream.  They have nothing but debt, yet they persevere and put their street smarts to work.  Film noir may have given us a heroic dose of scandals, but it also brought us the verismo of such as the Fabrini brothers.  It’s nice to see this slice of life on the silver screen.  As Alfredo instructs Toto in Cinema Paradiso (1988), “Life isn’t like in the movies.  Life…is much harder.”  Sometimes directors like Walsh bring life into our living rooms.  We can thank Raoul…and Rossellini…even Leoncavallo and Mascagni.  Throw in Zola too.  It’s only natural!

 

-PD

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