Things I read off the screen in “They Drive By Night”

This is the 1938 British movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, not the 1940 Raoul Walsh one with the same title. Walsh’s film is a searing drama about truck drivers. Woods’ film is a crime thriller that isn’t really about truck drivers at all, which is maybe part of the trouble with it.

Lots to read in this movie! Maybe that’s what they mean by British cinema being in thrall to the literary tradition. Nearly every plot point gets reported in the papers and then shown in print onscreen. Also, the busy studio-based world of the film, a very convincing and atmospheric creation, is alive with advertising, signage and print of all kinds. In one exciting scene the hero flees past a shop selling “everything”, plastered with product names and so busy that the human eye goes spastic trying to take it all in.

Newly released from prison, good-hearted crook Emlyn Williams goes to see a friend who runs a SNACK BAR.

Many are the ads for Player’s Cigarettes in this film! I won’t reproduce them all or you will be hypnotised into craving the Smooth Smoke Doctors Recommend, and I don’t want that on my conscience. The items offered by CHARLIE’S include TEAS, you will note. For a hard-boiled crime drama, this film shows quite a lot of tea being drunk. It’s an odd effect.

Graham Greene praised TDBN, saying it was “on a level with the French cinema” — Greene was a great fan of PEPE LE MOKO — which rather misses the point. What it’s blatantly trying to do is mimic American levels of pace, vigor and aggression. The dialogue is a weird mixture of British (girls = judies) and U.S. slang. The plot races along with casual abandon, driven by outrageous coincidence and a hunger for action, but moving in loosely structured fits and starts. Greene wouldn’t have minded the coincidence — check how, in Gun For Sale (filmed as THIS GUN FOR HIRE) the fugitive assassin hero happens to get on a train with the girlfriend of the detective leading the hunt! The man chiefly responsible for TDBN’s coincidences is film editor Derek Twist, who rescued Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD in the cutting room, and adapted this script.

DIGRESSION — Powell & Pressburger gave Twist his directorial break on END OF THE RIVER, a jungle drama with Sabu. In his highly readable 2-volume autohagiography, Powell blames Twist for the uninspired result, “making the Amazon basin dull”. But my friend Lawrie Knight, who was manning the communications centre back at Rank’s Denham Studios, told me that in fact Twist got sick after a few days and it was Powell himself who took over direction of the film. “And he ruined it. It was supposed to be about the slow pace of life on the river contrasted with the speed of city life, and Mickey directed the whole thing like a train.” Cinematographer Christopher Challis observed in his witty autobio, Are They Really So Awful?, that you couldn’t see the rain forest except by flying over it, so it proved surprisingly unphotogenic.

TRY OUR HOT \__/  \__/ THEY’R GRAND. Hot pictographs! My, that DOES sound grand. Instants later, our hero has stumbled upon an old flame, lying strangled, and goes “on the lam.”

I like everything about the above image. The ad for Woodbines proves the makers’ aren’t totally in Player’s pocket. The tiny sign saying “BLACK CAT” makes it for me, and the nuns. Emlyn Williams is an unlikely hero — he’s Welsh, playing working class, unhandsome, vaguely effete, and cast as a tough hero called “Shorty”. But he’s rather good. He has the advantage of unexpectedness. But British cinema didn’t know what to do with him. Like Robert Newton, he was tried as a male lead and found wanting. Just as Hollywood found a role for Newton (saying “Arrr!” a lot), so it was a Hollywood filmmaker who first saw Williams’ true potential — Josef Von Sternberg cast him in his abortive epic I, CLAUDIUS, as Caligula, a man so decadent he was “maybe even a little sissy, but not too much.”

NEWS THEATRE. That is such an exciting concept — a tiny tiny cinema devoted to newsreels. Next door to a shop selling “TOBACCOS”, so you can go in and smoke and make the projector beam stand out nicely.

Hiding out, suspected of a crime he — for once — didn’t commit, jailbird Williams is upset to find the feature attraction is all about MURDERERS. Is the “No. 17” a homage to the Hitchcock film of the same name? Williams, a talented writer, helped script the original THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock. He’s also the author of a horrifying but moving and brilliant true crime book, Beyond Belief, dealing with the “moors murderers” Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Follow the link to see the iconic mugshot of Myra, which caused John Waters to remark, “She’s going to do an extra twenty years just because she didn’t get her roots done that week.”

But Williams’ greatest contribution to cinema is his play, Night Must Fall, which has been filmed twice. Williams wrote the part of the psychopathic Danny for himself to play, and he seems perfect for it. In movies, the role provided great opportunities for both Robert Montgomery and Albert Finney, who gave contrasting performances of great detail and intensity. Well worth a look — but I wish there was a third version starring the creator of the role.

“You come out of the movies and the world’s changed,” complains Steve Martin in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Emlyn finds this especially true: not only is it raining (a proper British downpour which will last for the next two reels) but he’s now officially wanted for murder. Bummer.

Grabbing a bus out of London — the conductor is “Billy Hartnell”, future film star (BRIGHTON ROCK) and TV’s first Dr. Who — our Emlyn winds up at the first of the film’s several Transport Cafes, where CAMP COFFEE is on offer but the long distance drivers inexplicably prefer tea. It was at “greasy spoons” like this that Anthony “Puffin” Asquith, top film director and son of the prime minister, would moonlight, helping out in the kitchen in order to pick up truckers. Emlyn is himself picked up by a trucker, and after numerous adventures, ends up — at another cafe.

Along the way there’s an altercation with what should be some “Truck Stop Dames”, but since this is England, we have to call them “Lorry Girls”, which doesn’t sound right, somehow.

The big attraction at WALLY’S CAFE is the TEAS again:

British tea-drinkers are strongly advised not only to DRINK, but also to ENJOY their MAZAWATTEE TEAS. You have to remind them or they’ll forget, you know. The film now gets on with the lorry-based action, fifteen minutes of it, after which it moves on, having justified its title to its own satisfaction. Winning over a dubious trucker, bumping into an old friend who’s a dance-hall hostess and friend of the murder victim, and escaping from police, Emlyn makes the headlines again — stick with me, this is ABOUT TO GET WEIRD.

I question the “glamour girl” part slightly, but not as much as I question the other “top stories” — MERMAID WEEPS and DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Remember, this is 1938. Europe is poised on the brink of war. And the paper devotes its front page to a penny-ante murder story, a sobbing water nymph, and advice on what to not suck. BIZARRE. Oh wait, it’s the Daily Mirror, that explains it.

These aren’t quite as good, but HANDBOOK TO GUIDE VOLUNTEERS and RADIO JERKS FINANCE HITCH are still pretty interesting. This is a completely unnecessary newspaper montage anyway, recapping the action we’ve just seen, and introducing headlines we’ll get to see later.

Now the plot swerves into PIEGES / LURED territory, with Emlyn’s lady friend attempting to ID the real killer from among the clients at the PALAIS DE DANSE where she works. It suddenly becomes clear that the movie could have usefully omitted Emlyn altogether and made her the hero. The pretentious French of PALAIS DE DANSE was a British tradition — nearly all dance halls were known as “the palais“, it seems.

In an American movie the professional dance partners would be prostitutes, disguised for the sake of the Production Code. And I guess they are here, too. Some of them sound pretty POSH though. Now the film tips its hand, revealing the TRUE KILLER — Ernest Thesiger. Yes, red-blooded, testosterone-fuelled Ernest Thesiger is strangling dance hall girls with silk stockings and then going home, slipping into his housecoat and leering at hardcore pornography:

PARIS NIGHTS. Disgusting! The film devotes the rest of its running time, apart from the matter of rounding off the plot, to Ernest’s reading material. Apart from the odd house number (Ernest resides at No. 3), we only get to read what Ernest has read. His literary sloppy seconds, as it were.

MODERN DANCE AND THE DANCER, and THE STOCKING PARADE. It’s beyond depravity! Ernest plays Walter Hoover, a retired schoolmaster and pub bore who lectures the local drunks on the niceties of psychopathology, explaining how the killer derives a thrill from wielding power over life and death. “You do give things a queer twist!” remarks a regular. Maybe because the psychobabble is, for once, coming not from a pipe-smoking Lew Ayres type prof, but from an actual murderer, it’s surprisingly reasonable.

Thrillingly, the flick affords us not one but TWO glimpses of Ernest’s library, where he keeps his many leather-bound volumes. The room no doubt smells of rich mahogany. And semen.

SEX IN RELATION TO SOCIETY sounds hilariously dry and vague, but SOCIAL CONTROL OF SEX EXPRESSION is the real winner. Havelock Ellis was a real author, wasn’t he? (He was — I just read up on him, and he’s bloody fascinating. Click on his name.) So these aren’t mock-ups, but perhaps items from the Sinister Library of Derek Twist. “You do give things a queer Twist!” But there’s more to come:

CROOKED PERSONALITIES IN CHILD HOOD AND AFTER — well, that “AFTER” certainly covers everything. TWENTY HUMAN MONSTERS sounds like a damn fine read, likewise THE THRILL OF EVIL, but it’s SEX IN PRISON that makes me choke on my Mazawattee Tea. That’s so frank I can’t believe they even included it. Is it the novelisation of William Dieterle’s SEX IN CHAINS, I wonder?

And this is from Ernest’s scrapbook of murder, hidden behind the porn. BEDROOM MYSTERY is a fine, fine headline. Unfortunately, since Ernest has clipped out and saved all the bits relating to his crimes, he’s failed to preserve the advice DON’T SUCK YOUR PEN! Perhaps this will be his downfall.

Now the film continues to become derailed and unstuck, as the climax hinges on whether Emlyn can lick Ernest in a fight. IN A FIGHT — get your minds out of the gutter. Since we’ve already seen Em knock Er for six with a single mighty chop, there’s not much suspense in this. Ernest is a fey cat-loving schoolteacher(“Come here, my subtle one,” he coos at a kitty) while Emlyn may be a shorty but he’s a hardened crim. “Ernest Thesiger could be overpowered by his own kittens,” remarks Fiona. Emlyn beats them to it, and the film’s glossolalia serves up one final message: 

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17 Responses to “Things I read off the screen in “They Drive By Night””

  1. Excellent plot resumé! Sounds like a mvoe I’d love to see, seeing as how I enjoyed HELL DRIVERS so much on the telly.

    Regards,

    djp

  2. Mvoe? Looks like I’ve invented a new wrod. Oh wlel…

    djp

  3. Wow — what a bookshelf!

    Williams cast himself as the kind of guy he went for. As I trust you know Night Must Fall was inspired by Williams’s discovery that an ex-boyfriend had become a serial killer. His interest in the Moors Muders (Beyond Belife is really something) shows his interest in murderers didn’t wane. Thus he’s somewhere between Patricia Highsmith and Dennis Cooper in literary iconography.

  4. I did NOT know that about Night Must Fall! It makes sense that there’s a personal connection behind it. I read A Murder is Arranged and thought it a bit bland, but NMF is electric stuff.

    Ridiculously, I’ve never watched Hell Drivers, though I have a copy here. I think that one would make a good double with the US They Drive, or with Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway.

  5. Or The Wages Of Fear, perhaps…

  6. Well yes! Although that one’s a bit long for double-billing. At the EIFF screening the audience staggered out, drained, looking older than when they went in.

  7. Hell Drivers is Cy Endfield, a particular passion of mine. Besides Zulu (which everyone knows) there’s Sands of the Kahlahari and the incredible Try and Stop Me (aka. The Sound of Fury) whose climax is the most scarifying lynch mob scene ever filmed.

  8. I’ll have to watch out for those! I have the obscure The Limping Man lined up, maybe I should make it a double with one of my newly acquired Loseys. The presence in it of the great Leslie Phillips adds appeal. I quite like his Hammer flick The Witches — the black magic orgy at the end defeats him, as it would in DeSade, but there’s lots of good stuff. And he was maybe the best director ever to do a Harryhausen film, as the opening of Mysterious Island shows — the film actually goes downhill when they reach the island.

  9. […] Walsh’s 1940 classic may offer less reading material than it’s same-name British counterpart, but it’s a superior film. I’d never seen it — Walsh is one of those directors […]

  10. I love this film and am jealous of the quality of the copy you’ve got. Mine is just awful.

  11. I got mine from the Lindsay Anderson Archive… if you want to trade for a copy, let me know.

  12. Just took a break from watching TDBN that I acquired years back (from Movies Unlimited by way of Nostalgia Video) to go online, and discovered your post on this film. Just to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed the running commentary you provided in the procession of stills. I’m with Steve Hill, the quality of my VHS copy pales in comparison to what you have. A film I’m dying to get my hands on is Temptation Harbour, with Robert Newton and Simone Simon, have you seen it, do you have it or know anyone who does? Also Dedee D’Anvers, with Simone Signoret. My copy comes from Nostalgia Home Video, and looks to be the only outfit out there that has it. Their copy leaves a lot to be desired. The young Signoret looks great in this film, better than I’ve ever seen her anywhere else.

  13. Wow! I hadn’t even heard of this one, but it sounds great. You might try the folks here:
    http://www.britmovie.co.uk/forums/looking-video-dvd-film/
    Some of them have a tendency to ask for rather a lot of money, but I bet one of them has a decent off-air. Generally speaking, if it’s aired in the last 25 years on UK TV, somebody here will have it.

  14. […] me, Denis Gifford’s big green A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, turns up again! I’m always interested in what books movie characters have on their […]

  15. Very interesting, I’ve created a link to this on my group on British crime and nor films on Facebook, hope that’s OK. I see Guy Budziak, a member of that group, has got in first a few years ago with a comment!

  16. That’s fine! You might find some more British thrillers here. I recall writing about Wanted for Murder…

  17. […] British film They Drive By Night is not to be confused with the terrific Raoul Walsh film noir starring Humphrey Bogart, George […]

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