Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940) was one of Humphrey Bogart’s last supporting roles before he ascended to perpetual leading-mandom in Walsh’s next picture, High Sierra, in 1941 (and in The Maltese Falcon the same year). High Sierra co-starred Ida Lupino, also back from They Drive By Night, in which her portrayal of an entrepreneur’s wife murderously obsessed with one of her husband’s employees had earned her a seven-year contract at Warner Brothers.
Apart from being a milestone for its stars, They Drive By Night is a movie about labor, almost didactic in its depiction of the deadly dangers that long-haul truckers face because of inhumane hours, dishonest bosses, and predatory lenders. (The film is so blunt on this subject that the American Trucking Association threatened legal action against Warner Brothers, saying it was a “direct slap at the effective safety regulations of the Interstate Commerce Commission”.) Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Bogart) transport produce for a shyster named Williams, who would sic a loanshark on them rather than hand over their paltry wages (Joe: “Why do we stay in this racket? We’re not gonna make enough dough out of it to get ourselves nice coffins”). Dreaming of going into business for themselves, the brothers push themselves harder than ever (“Can’t make no dough drinking coffee”) and wind up in a ditch with a totaled truck after Paul falls asleep at the wheel. He loses an arm and is henceforth totally dependent on his wife and brother. His humiliation is brutal, doubly so because of its avoidability: had he caught an extra two hours sleep, he might still be in one piece.
The movie’s main virtue is its razor-sharp dialogue. At Mandel’s truckstop cafe, Bogey complains about a tough steak he had last time, to which the waitress quips, “This one’ll be so tender, it’ll throw its arms around you and kiss you.” Bogey promises his wife a more settled-down future: “We’ll have so many kids we’ll run out of names.” Fellow trucker Irish (Roscoe Karns) criticizes a colleague’s driving: “When the road turns at the same time he does, it’s just a coincidence.” He repeatedly tells a prosecutor that he doesn’t remember anything about the evening his boss died: “Why don’t you remember?” “Must be because I’s got a bad memory!”
Many of the film's zingers are at the expense of its female characters (Irish and his dumb-blonde-stereotype date: “It’s drinking that makes you beautiful.” “I haven’t been drinking!” “No—but I have”), and it is generally ambivalent about women; some are strong (when Joe tells Cassie (Ann Sheridan), “I always have liked redheads,” she retorts, “You shouldn’t—red means ‘Stop’”) while others become sacrificial victims to a male-owned world (the main thing that drives Lana Carlsen (Lupino) insane is the suffocating feeling of being the private property of her husband: “Mrs. Carlsen, Mrs. Carlsen! Mrs. Mrs. Mrs.!”).
Long-haulers still work absurd hours, with the difference that now they have energy drinks and amphetamines to help them. What would a They Drive By Night remake set in 2017 look like? Lana Carlsen would probably develop a neurosis not around an electric eye but a garage-door app, the murder scene climaxing not in her walking through the motion-sensored gate but fatefully swiping the “Close” switch on her phone. Raoul Walsh in the age of the Internet of Things… The Roaring Twenties about two guys running a weed delivery service?