They Drive by Night (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: May 06, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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They Drive by Night (Blu-ray Review)


Raoul Walsh

Release Date(s)

1940 (March 26, 2024)


Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B

They Live by Night (Blu-ray)

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Warner Bros. was known for dusting off old scripts, reworking, recasting and recycling them. They Drive by Night is the studio’s remake of afilm made five years earlier. Starring George Raft, one of the studio’s major box office draws, it features two other actors who would gain stardom in just a year.

Joe Fabrini (George Raft, Each Dawn I Die) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon) are truckers trying to make an honest living despite bosses who try to cheat them. The brothers dream of becoming independent, answerable only to themselves. Disgusted with their employers’ refusal to pay wages and honor contracts, Joe and Paul strike out on their own. But a near-fatal accident destroys their truck and causes Paul to lose his right arm, leaving him unemployable and seething with resentment at not being able to support himself and his wife.

Their prospects look hopeless, until their old friend Ed Carlson (Alan Hale, The Adventures of Robin Hood), now a prosperous trucking company owner, offers Joe a white-collar job as the firm’s traffic manager. The salary is more than sufficient for Joe and will also allow him to help Paul. Joe doesn’t know, however, that he owes his new job to the influence of Ed’s wife, Lana (Ida Lupino, Beware My Lovely). Joe and Lana had a bit of history together before she married Carlson. Desperate to have Joe back as her lover, Mrs. Carlson does her best to seduce him. He resists her, staying true to his friend Ed and his girlfriend, waitress Cassie (Ann Sheridan, The Man Who Came to Dinner).

At that point, the film shifts gears from a gritty look at the day-to-day pitfalls of long-distance hauling to a film noir as Mrs. Carlson, driven by sensuality and jealousy, goes to extremes to win Joe. In fact, Lupino dominates the last third of the film and her emotional performance steals the rest of the picture.

They Drive by Night is two films in one. It’s the tale of brothers struggling during hard times to make a living, and it’s the story of passion gone amok as a woman’s infatuation with a man leads to her moral downfall. Raoul Walsh (White Heat, The Roaring Twenties) is the perfect director for this example of Warner Bros. social-conscience filmmaking. He shows the toughness of life on the road, but also the camaraderie of the truckers. Though they compete for gigs, they greet each other at gas stations and diners along highways, joke around together, deliver messages from loved ones, and share information about who’s hiring and who has merchandise to haul.

The film’s slip into noir changes the tone dramatically but makes sense given the circumstances and the characters’ motivations. Lupino may be somewhat over the top in a big courtroom scene, but she plays it with conviction. With glazed eyes, disheveled hair, ghastly pale face, she’s both scary and sympathetic as a woman whose Achilles heel was a fateful obsession with the wrong man.

Raft gives one of this best performances as a decent, ordinary guy, far from the gangster roles in which he’d been typecast. He’s believable as a hardworking truck driver and his natural delivery is far from his typical tough-talking thug. Bogart is in a supporting role that decreases as the accident in thefilm pushes his character into the background. He would achieve stardom only a year later in High Sierra. Ann Sheridan as Cassie is sharp and sassy as the fast-talking truck-stop waitress ready with a quip for guys who make a pass who sees in Joe a different, more sensitive person. After he spots her hitchhiking and offers her a ride, they develop a relationship that will make her the object of Lana’s vitriolic jealousy.

They Drive by Night was a success with both the critics and the public. It earned $1.2 million domestically and $504,000 abroad during its original run.

They Drive by Night was shot by director of photography Basil Emmott on 35 mm black & white film with spherical lenses and presented in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Contrast and clarity are excellent. There are no visual imperfections. Director Walsh incorporates some interesting compositions, such as a scene of Joe and Cassie talking on the phone with a telephone pole mid-screen to underscore that the call is long-distance. The two truck accidents are staged dramatically and look authentic, though they were likely accomplished with miniatures. Details are well delineated, especially in Lana’s fancy gowns, the truck’s cab, gas station pumps, and decor in the roadside diners.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an option. Dialogue is crystal clear, reflective of the Warners penchant for crisp sound. Sound mixing is effective, with Adolph Deutsch’s score nicely enhancing the action. Sound effects include truck crashes, an explosion, bodies being pummeled in a fist fight, and truck engines.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive Collection include the following:

  • Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (44:22)
  • Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive by Night (10:35)
  • Swingtime in the Movies (19:09)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (1:51)

Lux Radio Theater Broadcast – Aired on June 2, 1941, this radio show stars George Raft (in his original movie role as Joe Fabrini) and Lana Turner.

Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive by Night – Though They Drive by Night was an immediate hit, it doesn’t have as high a profile today as other Warners pictures of the period. It doesn’t fit comfortably into established genres, It’s two separate films. The studio was known for recycling scripts. Based partially on the novel Long Haul by A.I. Bezzerides, the film combined elements of the 1935 film Bordertown, starring Bette Davis and Paul Muni. Director Raoul Walsh knew how to give a film “snap.” During the silent era, he both directed and acted in films. His career blossomed with The Roaring Twenties. He was a no-nonsense director and actors enjoyed working with him because he was clear about what he wanted. George Raft played gangsters in picture after picture and was getting sick of being typecast. He was always looking to play something different, and They Drive by Night offered him that opportunity. British actress Ida Lupino was cast as Lana Carlson after a screen test. The role is the same one Bette Davis played in Bordertown. Walsh shot thefilm in sequence, which was helpful for the actors. Lupino stole the show and launched her film career. High Sierra (1941) would re-team her with Humphrey Bogart and make both of them stars.

Swingtime in the Movies – Shot in Technicolor, this 1938 Vitaphone short stars Fritz Feld (The Sunshine Boys) as temperamental director Mr. Nitvitch. In behind-the-scenes moments, we see the director working with his actors. A sequence set in the studio commissary features cameo appearances by George Brent, Marie Wilson, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield. The waitresses do a song-and-dance number, trays in hand, as they make their way around the dining room tables. Among the dancers is an attractive young woman with a Southern accent—just what Nitvitch is looking for. He instantly casts her. Songs include Drifting Along the Rio Grande, The Toast of the Texas Frontier, and Lady, Beware. The short also features John Carroll, Jerry Colonna, and Kathryn Kane.

The schizophrenic They Drive by Night works better when it’s focusing on the tough life of two truck driver brothers. Whether it’s the danger of falling asleep behind the wheel on long hauls, trying to duck creditors, or attempting to collect money they’re owed, the Fabrinis are hard, honest workers who have their eyes on the American Dream, see it evaporate before them, yet they persevere. When the film turns dark with the introduction of Lana Carlson, the brothers are no longer on the road and thefilm shifts into noir-ish territory. All four leads are very good and director Walsh gives the film a brisk pace. The screenplay by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay offers plenty of meaty scenes for Raft and a showcase for Lupino, but Bogart doesn’t get to show the unique abilities that would soon make him a top Hollywood star.

- Dennis Seuling