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Film / They Drive by Night

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Who knew the guy on the right would come out the star?

They Drive by Night (1940) is a Warner Bros. crime drama film directed by Raoul Walsh, starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, and Ida Lupino. It's frequently cited as an early example of Film Noir. It is based on the novel The Long Haul by A. I. Bezzerides.

Two brothers, Joe (Raft) and Paul (Bogart) Fabrini, are living the perilous life of truckers, fighting to get a decent wage and living without their loved ones. Joe eventually finds love with Cassie (Sheridan) and things seem to improve when the brothers sign up with a new employer, Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale Sr.). Unfortunately, two tragedies strike: Paul loses his arm in an accident while things get rocky for Joe when Ed’s wife, Lana (Lupino), tries and begins to scheme against her husband to be with Joe.

Things only get worse from there.

Semi-remake of 1935 film Bordertown. Not to be confused with Nicholas Ray's 1948 film They Live by Night.

They Drive by Night shows examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Ed, and it comes back to haunt him when Lana uses his drunkenness as a cover up for murder.
  • All a Part of the Job: Joe and Paul have a horrible boss, and trucking is a tough job, but Joe loves being on the road. Not even the tragic death of a fellow trucker can make him stop.
  • Brainless Beauty: Irish (played by Roscoe Karns) picks up a girl who surely doesn’t know her left hand from her right.
  • The Casanova: Joe was one, but that was before he met Cassie.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Charles C. Wilburn plays the evil boss that withholds the brothers’ pay and unleashes the loan shark to collect their truck.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Cassie. Cassie all the way.
    • When Joe won’t leave her hotel room:
    Joe: When I'm relaxed, my thoughts are clear.
    Cassie: Yeah, I can even read them from here.
    • Joe compares her to a car:
    Joe: It's a classy chassis!
    Cassie: You couldn't even afford the headlights.
  • Eucatastrophe: At Joe's trial, the prosecution appears to be building a pretty damning case out of circumstantial evidence. Then they call the star witness, Lana—and she has a complete breakdown, proving herself unfit to testify. After she's led away, the case against Joe is almost immediately tossed out.
  • Every Car Is a Pinto: Trucks. They blow up easily apparently.
  • Femme Fatale: Although not exactly a noir, Lupino’s character exhibits a lot of the traits.
  • Frame-Up: When admitting her undying love pushes Joe even further from her grasp, Lana decides to frame him for the murder of her husband, saying that he made her do it. There’s enough circumstancial evidence that it seems plausible enough for the police.
  • Gold Digger: It appears that Lana only married Ed for his newly earned money.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Lana will frame you for murder and have you burn in the chair for spurning her.
  • Just One More Level!: A trucker gets stuck playing a pinball machine for hours, mostly because he keeps winning free games and thinks it would be a waste not to use them all.
  • Lady Macbeth: Lana has shades of this, and she even does one better by becoming crazy from the guilt.
  • Loan Shark: The Corrupt Corporate Executive sends his minion of a loan shark that attempts to repossess the brothers’ truck on several occasions.
  • Love at First Sight: Cassie and Joe even lampshade it.
    Joe: Do you believe in love at first sight?
    Cassie: It saves a lot of time.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Lana goes bonkers with her love (read: obsession) for Joe that she murders her dumb, but good-natured husband for him.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Ed comes back from a night out extremely drunk and passes out in his garage while in the car. Lana proceeds to leave the car idling and closes the garage doors. Her statement to the police is that it was all an accident.
  • Market-Based Title: Was released in the UK under the title The Road to Frisco.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: There’s definitely a Love Triangle for Lana, and she promptly removes her bothersome husband to get Joe.
  • Nouveau Riche: Ed Carlsen came from blue-collar roots and only earned his wealth recently. He still acts like he's a truck driver himself—which is one of the reasons Lana resents him.
  • Out of Focus: For the first third of the movie, Paul Fabrini seems to be the Deuteragonist. But after he gets in the wreck and loses his arm, he fades into the background while the movie focuses on the drama between Joe and Lana.
  • Pretty in Mink: Lana has a few furs from her marriage to Ed. He even asks Lana to wear her ermine coat one night out.
  • Sanity Slippage: After murdering Ed, Lana's haunted by her guilt and becomes terrified of any automatic doors (since they remind her of the doors to the garage where Ed died). Getting held in a prison with automatic doors reduces her to a Laughing Mad wreck who claims the doors made her kill Ed.
  • Sleeping with the Boss's Wife: Defied. Lana Carlsen clearly has a thing for her husband's employee, Joe Fabrini, but Joe never responds to any of her advances. Initially, it's because Joe considers the boss an old friend and would never betray his trust like that—and Lana responds by murdering her husband. Then Lana discovers that Joe already has another girl anyway, so she tries to have him implicated in her husband's murder.
  • Spinning Paper: Shows up for exposition after Lana goes to the District Attorney with the story that Joe made her kill her husband.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Lana and Ed. It’s obvious that his affection is real while her's is dubious at best.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Lana starts off coldly scheming and seething. But as sanity deteriorates, so too does her composure, and she spends more time crying hysterically or flying into a rage.