Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DVD Review: They Drive By Night (1940)

They Drive By Night (1940)

(Released: 2003 by Warner Home Video)

Another long (...but not looong) DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

We’re tougher then any truck that came off any assembly line!”

George Raft and Humphrey Bogart “hit the road” (sometimes literally) to back that claim in “They Drive By Night”. As Joe and Paul Fabrini, they do their best to negotiate the competitive (and sometimes deadly) existence of the “wildcat trucker” in an era still scarred by the Great Depression. Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino bring both pleasure and complications along for the ride. And Alan Hale Sr. (“The Skipper’s” father) rounds out the cast as the genial murder victim. …Gotta have one of those, I reckon.

Humphrey Bogart is still a supporting player in this film, while George Raft is the true headliner. Indeed, Bogie almost vanishes about halfway through the picture, when he loses an arm in a trucking accident, leaving Raft, Sheridan, and Lupino to… um, “carry the load” – trucking pun intended.

After this, Bogart and Lupino would move on to “High Sierra(SEE THAT REVIEW HERE) and bigger, better things.

“They Drive By Night” gives us entry into a world that is now almost as remote as that of the range-riding cowboy. Battling, brawling truckers – all in competition to make that elusive hauling buck and outrun both the finance company and the law when necessary, with equipment sporting canvas covers, big fenders, radiator caps, running boards, and the like! But with the more timeless elements of romance and murder thrown in to keep things… um, “rolling”.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


Not much in the way of “CONs” to list.

There is NO COMMENTARY TRACK to accompany “They Drive By Night”! Such features on other Bogart films have proved to be of great interest, and so the lack of one here is unfortunate. Bogart biographer Eric Lax is involved with the included documentary feature, but this not being a true a “Bogart film” he might not have been tapped for a commentary. Still, Lax or another film historian could have provided some valuable insight into the film and its times.


The Film: The story begins as a “Tale of Two Truckers” and… um, “shifts” into a crime drama. Both approaches work well.

The cast is first rate, and the print quality is fine for a 70-year-old film.

Extra Features:

Theatrical Trailer for “They Drive By Night

By now, you all know how much I love theatrical trailers of this vintage! Especially when foot-high hyperbole like THIS explodes across the screen:



And, in keeping with our series of “trucker-puns”…


This trailer is oddly notable for the LACK of participation by “The Voice of Warner Bros.” Robert C. Bruce, who seemed to be a WB trailer mainstay. Actually, there was no promotional narration at all, the only audio being music and clips from the film.

“Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive By Night” (Runs 10:36).

An informative “Making Of” documentary. This feature somewhat (but not completely) mitigates the lack of a true commentary track.

The film is described as “An immediate hit with the public and critics alike, and it marked a watershed moment in the careers of both Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Yet, as good as it was, 'They Drive By Night' seems to fall between the cracks of film history”. I’d have to agree with that assessment.

They Drive By Night” is also described as: “…two entirely separate films”. Agreed, once again. The trucker film and the murder case film. So seamlessly done, though, that you don’t really notice the “trucker portion” has passed until you are firmly and squarely into the “murder portion”.

Also, that director Raoul Walsh shot the film ENTIRELY IN SEQUENCE (no cutting or jumping around from scene to scene) over a period of five weeks!

Participants include: Film historians: Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne, and Bogart biographer Eric Lax.

Finally, the oddest extra feature of all:

“Swingtime in the Movies” (1938)

I had NO IDEA what to make of this “comedy/musical short subject” starring FRITZ FELD (!), the short, German-accented fellow best known for his “trademark gesture” of smacking his open-palmed hand over his “rounded lips” to produce a POPPING SOUND that darn near everyone can emulate if they care to try – and familiar to audiences from the sixties and well beyond for his frequent appearances as the officious “Zumdish” on LOST IN SPACE.

Our story consists of Feld’s attempts to direct a musical western for Warner Bros. Yes, really! Disappointingly, Fritz Feld never once makes “The Popping Sound”. Perhaps, this occurred before he developed that now-famous shtick. The short runs for a length of 19:09.

Given the 1938 date, vs. the 1940 date for “They Drive By Night”, there is no evidence that this short ever played on the same bill with the Raft/Bogart/Lupino feature. Yet, its inclusion here would seem to indicate some association between the two.

The Three Stooges excepted, this entire area of filmmaking has receded into a huge historic mystery and something – if only a screen of explanatory text – should have accompanied the presentation of this short. Still, I’m very glad to have seen this oddity.


They Drive By Night” may indeed have “…fallen through the cracks of film history”, but it IS a GOOD film, and worth seeing at least once for a solid story, a great cast, and our last look at the “pre-stardom” version of Humphrey Bogart.

The DVD Extra Features are more than worthwhile, with the Fritz Feld short really putting the package over the top!

It is recommended for Humphrey Bogart fans despite his less-than-meaty role, enthusiasts of the period and its particular brand of crime story, and anyone who likes great big old trucks – especially those that careen out of control and off of cliffs!

If anyone wants to contribute a good “trucker pun” to go out on, I’ll take suggestions!


Chris Barat said...


Remember DUEL, the Steven Spielberg TV movie with Dennis Weaver being pursued by the demonic trucker in the big rig? Anything like that happen in this movie?


Joe Torcivia said...

No, but that would have been cool to see 1930s vintage trucks stalking victims!

Just trucker rivalries, romance, outrunning the law and repo men… and murder. Certainly enough for an hour and a half.