The other one.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT — again!

Raoul 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 it’s taken me a ridiculously long time to get around to. I did see WHITE HEAT as a kid, and it upset me — as it should. A few others along the way, but only in the last few years have I started seeking his stuff out.

One could be pretty brutal about 30s British cinema by contrasting Arthur Woods’ film with Walsh’s. Walsh has unfair advantages, of course: a bigger budget, the studio apparatus, and access to genuine movie stars. And what stars! More on them in a moment.

Both films have an admirable interest in carving exciting drama from working class life, but unfortunately both do so by shoehorning in murder stories that aren’t especially germane to the lifestyle portrayed. A movie like Dassin’s THIEVES’ HIGHWAY does the hard-boiled trucking thing far better by basing its whole story around the conflicts and crimes that can arise naturally from the milieu – that movie only goes wrong with its Hollywood ending. Dassin’s screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides (amazing list of credits!) wrote the source novel for Walsh’s film, and even without having read it I can guess where the adaptation starts to seriously stray. Walsh’s film scores in the first half by concentrating on the work angle. It’s when a PLOT is injected, too late and not carefully enough, that his film crosses the meridian line and finds itself in trouble.

That first half, pairing George Raft in the lead (short, mellow and understated, oddly likable) with Humphrey Bogart as his brother (just before Raft handed Bogie the leading man roles that made him a real star, by turning down THE MALTESE FALCON and HIGH SIERRA) is superb, full of bad behaviour, good wise-cracks, and the fine proletarian toughness of classic Warner Brothers. Ann Sheridan enters the picture as a waitress and gets to shine with some fine smutty dialogue, bantering with schlubs ~

Raft: “A classy chassis.”

Sheridan: “Yes, and it’s all mine, too: I don’t owe any payments on it.”

Schlub: “I’d be glad to finance it, baby.”

Sheridan: “Who do you think you’re kidding? You couldn’t even pay for the headlights.”

Plus she’s gorgeous and sexual — her nipples are like bullets aimed straight for my heart. What goes wrong with the film can be traced in her character arc: to begin with, she’s tough, sassy and brazen, like the film. When Raft starts talking marriage, she’s become a supportive, respectful partner — kind of boring in screen terms, at least as portrayed here. By the last act, she and Bogie are thoroughly sidelined, yielding to Ida Lupino’s crazed vamp.

Now, I can’t not like Lupino in a film, she’s far too fabulous for that, but her character here is a piece of high melodrama grafted in by Dr. Orloff, and the body of the film is trying hard to reject the new tissue. Lupino fights for her place, hamming ferociously, working her way through every stock symptom of Hollywood lunacy. By the time of her last scene, her forehead is literally bulging with madness.

Top left — see the bulge?

It’s a gaudy and inappropriate display, made more entertaining by the stray bits of cockney in her accent, which come through most strongly when she’s being demented, which is most of the time. The whole Lupino plotline wrecks a very good film, but at least it wrecks it shamelessly and with verve. That’s part of the beauty of Walsh’s films, before widescreen and old age slowed him, they do everything so wholeheartedly.

While the trucking genre has never been what you’d call extensive, I kind of lament it’s apparent demise — I can’t think of any recent examples — did CONVOY shame it to death? It used to be that the really gutsy, smart American films were very often about working-class life. Now indie cinema deals almost exclusively with the middle classes and professional criminals. I love the idea of roping social consciousness together with genre and entertainment, but hardly anybody seems interested in doing this — genre films are just about genre and the committed social realists have a loathing of entertainment and a fear of trusting the audience to absorb a social message from subtext.

Still, I’m enjoying my time in truckerdom, so I shall be running Cy Endfield’s HELL DRIVERS shortly…

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7 Responses to “The other one.”

  1. A marvelous dcumentary about Bezzerides was made in 2005 — two years before he died.Quite an amazing man.

    I confess to loving Lupino in They Drive By Night, frequently using “the doors made me do it!” in conversation.

  2. I feel obliged to mention “Bordertown” as the source of the Lupino-goes-crazy subplot. In that one, of course, it was young Bette Davis as the adulterous woman of unstable mental state who was linked to “underclass” Paul Muni (playing Latino).

    It’s been decades since I’ve seen “Bordertown,” and I remember very little of it — although one bit does stick with me where Eugene Pallette, as the wealthy husband, tries to be affable by showing off his new false teeth. HOW romantic!

  3. I had heard that Warners were apt to graft one old movie plot onto another to create something new. In this case I would think separating out the two stories and extending them to feature length would get better results.

    I love the thought of Eugene Pallette’s plate. I bet it WAS a great improvement over a) the old set or b) the gummy maw.

    Hope to see the Bezzerides doc sometime, I’d heard about it and thought it sounded terrific.

  4. Good! But not in the UK, so it may have to wait until my birthday, when some relative with a credit card can get it for me!

  5. One explanation did occur to me for Ida Lupino’s bulging forehead. Perhaps her character’s from the planet Metaluna (cf. “This Island Earth”)?

  6. She’s from the planet Mental Loony.

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