THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and its “classy chassis” barreled into theaters in the summer of 1940, a high-powered 95-minute entertainment from Warner Brothers, featuring solid work from a pair of their dependable tough guys, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart and scene-stealing turns from ‘Oomph Girl’ Ann Sheridan and brash cookie Ida Lupino. Action ace Raoul Walsh directed, foot on the pedal. “If we go over a cliff, wake me up.”
Hard-charging independent long-haul truckers, the ‘Fabrini’ brothers ‘Joe’ (Raft) and ‘Paul’ (Bogart) work themselves to exhaustion in order to stay ahead of being chiseled by two-timing businessmen and having their rig repossessed by a sleazy loan shark. Joe falls for waitress ‘Cassie’ (Sheridan), who ad-libs with her coffee refills, and then Paul is crippled in a wreck. Going to work for the hearty ‘Ed Carlsen’ (Alan Hale), Joe has to constantly rebuff advances from Ed’s vixenish young wife ‘Lana’ (Lupino), who will stop at nothing to jettison clueless oaf Ed in order to snare Joe.
Screenwriters Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay had whipped up the fast fun for Brother Rat, The Roaring Twenties and Torrid Zone; in this rowdy effort they not only adapted A.I. Bezzerides 1938 novel “Long Haul” but, in keeping with Warner’s tradition of beating horsepower unconscious, they swiped the carbon monoxide plot gimmick from a popular 1935 Bette Davis vehicle, Bordertown.
Neat and surprising characterizations, crackling period dialogue, sharp cinematography by Arthur Edeson (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca), some fisticuffs, a couple of well-staged truck accidents, and a daisy of a Bad Girl. Recall this was before the Interstate Highway System and a regulated transportation industry; long-haul trucking is enough of a job today, back then—on rough roads, over compound hours, working for slave-drivers, in beater rigs— it could be a killer.
Raft, 38, had been complaining about gangster typecasting, and he gets to be a good guy here: his decent, straight-shooter Joe could be his best performance. Two years older, Bogart also got a sympathetic role instead of the hoods he was similarly tiring of, though he wasn’t too thrilled to be given 4th billing. His next job, which Raft turned down, was also directed by Walsh and co-starred Lupino—High Sierra marked a turning point. Saucy and earthy Sheridan, 25, deftly cracks wise in her back & forth with the guys; her sly grin carries an enticing hint. The juiciest part, acting honors, best reviews and career boost went to 22-year-old British import Lupino, who gets the snarkiest putdowns, slinkiest insinuations, snazziest clothes, a cold-blooded murder to die for and one of the all-time courtroom witness stand melt-downs. The last is a textbook example of how to go to the very edge of over-the-top and yet keep it tight enough, and so believably fierce that it grips you with admiration. It earned applause when people saw it in theaters. *
Rolling off the efficient studio assembly line for $400,000, grossing ten times that, this parked at a comfortable 47th place for the year. With Roscoe Karns (comedy shtick as ‘Irish McGurn’), Gale Page, Charles Halton, John Litel, Joyce Compton, George Tobias, Paul Hurst, Frank Faylen, Henry O’Neill, John Ridgely. William Bendix has an unbilled bit—his first—two years before he’d hit big, going down fighting on Wake Island. Byron Haskin (War Of The Worlds) did the special effects for those truck crackups, Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) handled montage work.
* Raft: “I must have gone through $10 million during my career. Part of the loot went for gambling, part for horses and part for women. The rest I spent foolishly.”
Bogart: “Acting is like sex: you either do it and don’t talk about it, or you talk about it and don’t do it. That’s why I’m always suspicious of people who talk too much about either.”
Sheridan: “They nicknamed me “The Oomph Girl”, and I loathe that nickname! Just being known by a nickname indicates that you’re not thought of as a true actress . . . It’s just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that’s all she’ll ever be thought of as.”
Lupino: “My agent had told me that he was going to make me the Janet Gaynor of England – I was going to play all the sweet roles. Whereupon, at the tender age of thirteen, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.”
They don’t make dames like they used to, brother…