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They Drive by Night

They Drive by Night(1940)

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They Drive By Night (1940), Raoul Walsh's action melodrama of long distance truckers, follows the edge-of- the-seat travails of the Fabrini brothers Joe (George Raft) and Paul (Humphrey Bogart). These "wild catters" drive perilous roads and take enormous chances, all in the hopes of one day owning their own truck and going independent. When Joe is hired on by an ex-trucker turned entrepreneur, Ed J. Carlsen (Alan Hale), to oversee his massive trucking business, all the Fabrinis' problems appear to be over. In fact, they've only just begun. For years, Ed's wife Lana (Ida Lupino) has been carrying a torch for Joe, and Lana is not the kind of woman who takes "no" for an answer. Caught in a typical black widow double bind, Lana can't let go of Ed's substantial wealth, but can't have Joe as long as she's married to Ed. The only solution...murder, of course.

George Raft was instrumental in recommending Lupino for the part of Lana and her brilliant rendition of the jealousy-deranged, glamorous wife decked in a king's ransom of jewels and furs turned out to be her first important film role. Raft also had a hand in helping Bogart's career take off. Though Bogart played a secondary role in They Drive By Night (1940) as the hangdog married brother to Raft's savvy lady killer, that understated role would soon lead to higher profile work. Raft, who didn't want to die in another picture, passed on the starring role in Walsh's next picture, High Sierra (1941), and instead, recommended Bogart for the film -- a part that made Bogie into a major star.

As memorable for its fast-paced, realist introduction to life on the trucking circuit as it is for its later descent into murder-thriller mode, Walsh's road movie - now on DVD from Warner Video - manages to combine hairpin action, crackling hardboiled dialogue and charismatic performances from Lupino, Bogart and Raft.

Raft "trained" for his career playing gangster and petty criminal roles in films like Scarface (1932) as a kid growing up on the mean streets of New York's Hell's Kitchen and then as a crime-connected hoodlum. His background as a rum-runner came in especially handy when an accident on the set of They Drive By Night required the actor to use his bootlegger driving skills to deal with failed brakes on one of the trucks being used to shoot a driving scene with Raft's on-screen love interest Ann Sheridan and Bogart on board.

The characteristic Warner Brothers realism is apparent in the early truck driving scenes which establish the Fabrini brothers' world of long distance wild-catting with its trucker camaraderie, crowded truck stop diners, grueling schedules and corrupt bosses. A loose remake of another thriller, Bordertown (1935), starring Bette Davis as the murderous wife, They Drive By Night is considered one of the best films in director Raoul Walsh's canon. Its two-fisted action and snappy dialogue is a wonderful combination of the gritty Warner Brothers "working man" film style and Walsh's own talent for crafting instinctive, suspenseful thrillers, while still demonstrating a rare sympathy for the difficulties of his working class characters.

The Warner Video DVD release of They Drive By Night boasts a sharp, relatively clean transfer (there's some very minor film speckling at times) with nicely balanced levels of black and white. It certainly beats any previous television airing or theatrical showing of this familiar title. And it comes with a few extras that are worth your time: "Swingtime in the Movies," a Technicolor musical short with cameos by Bogart, John Garfield, Priscilla Lane, George Brent, Pat O'Brien and other Warner stars, and "Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive By Night," an original featurette created especially for this DVD.

For more information about They Drive By Night, visit Warner Video. To order They Drive By Night, go to TCM Shopping.

by Felicia Feaster