Taking their cue from a mindless “featurette” that has been affixed to the recently released DVD of Raoul Walsh’s estimable They Drive by Night, writers have been leaving readers with the false impression that the film lacks unity, is incoherent. Film historians and “critics” (really, reviewers), interviewed, recite some obvious facts, and, following the cues as they might Simple Simon, the reviewers of the DVD parrot these facts; they get the facts right, therefore, but draw from them the wrong conclusions. It’s true that Jerry Wald’s and Richard Macaulay’s script for They Drive by Night comes from two main sources: A. I. Bezzerides’s novel The Long Haul and an earlier film, Bordertown (Archie Mayo, 1935), part of whose plot the same studio, Warner Bros., following its frequent practice, was recycling, to get more bang for the buck. The script for Bordertown, by Laird Doyle and Wallace Smith, came from a story by Robert Lord and a novel by Carroll Graham. Yes, yes, yes.
But it’s obtuse of reviewers to conclude that the film is “schizophrenic,” really “two-films-in-one,” a movie bound to leave the viewer with “intellectual whiplash.” (I doubt that the “critic” responsible for this last remark has ever had an intellectual moment.) They Drive by Night, which most people seem to like despite its “structural” problem, is a single film, unified by a single theme and tone and disposition, from start to finish. Of course, since a certain kind of “critic” never addresses the issue of what a film is actually about, how can he or she ever know when a film—as happens—stops being about one thing and starts being about something else? The issue isn’t whether They Drive by Night derives from different sources. The issue is whether the source materials have been combined to form a unified piece, a thematic whole; and to determine this, one must do what reviewers are loath to do but critics feel obliged to do, that is, go beyond a summary of the plot in order to consider the film’s perspective, attitude, theme(s), idea(s). Reviewers often seem incapable of doing what us ordinary film viewers intelligently do each time we see a movie.
Let us summarize the plot as a starting-point, then, not as an end-point. Joe and Paul Fabrini, brothers, are truckers. Paul’s wife, Pearl, wants Paul off the road and at home; Joe’s girlfriend, Cassie, wants whatever Joe wants. The Fabrinis are behind in their payments on the truck they use. Finally, they pay off what they owe on the truck. This bit of luck, however, doesn’t last. A road accident severs Paul’s right arm and demolishes the (uninsured) truck. Joe goes to work for Ed Carlsen, who owns a trucking firm. Ed’s wife, Lana, in love with Joe, convinces her husband to promote Joe to a management position. Even before he met Cassie, Joe was adamantly nonresponsive to Lana’s advances because of his friendship with Ed. Lana murders Ed, making it look like an accident. With Ed out of the way, Lana makes Joe her partner in the business and resumes her romantic overtures. Now it’s Cassie who precludes the fulfillment of Lana’s heart’s desire. To get even, Lana confesses to having killed her husband, saying that it was all her lover Joe’s idea. When it’s clear from her testimony on the witness stand at Joe’s trial that Lana is insane, charges are dismissed against Joe. Bound for the altar with Cassie, Joe takes full charge of the business.
The Ed-Joe-Lana part of the plot is the part that derives from Bordertown, where a casino rather than a trucking firm is the business that is involved.
They Drive by Night is a portrait of human hardship during the Great Depression and, in concert with that, a critique of the unfairness and inhumanity of American capitalism. It never wavers from this perspective. The first half of the film examines the impossibility for the Fabrini brothers to get ahead, despite all their hard, risk-fraught efforts. In the second half, one Fabrini becomes indebted to the other’s charity as Joe finally does get ahead. But it’s the economic consequences from the first half that account for Joe’s moving into Ed and Lana’s moneyed world, where Joe finds himself as vulnerable off highways as he had been on them. In both cases, Joe’s life isn’t his own; the course of his life is out of his control as forces weigh in and manipulate his destiny.
A number of matters bind and blend the two parts of the film, money being only one of them. Another is the theme of life’s unfairness, which also, wherever in the film one happens to be, is tied to money and the need for money either to survive or to maintain one’s position of power in the community’s socioeconomic structure. The Fabrini brothers are introduced to us when they are en route to delivering a load of (I believe) apples. As usual, it’s a beat-the-clock situation for them, with the appointed time for the delivery catching up on them, requiring their continuous driving past the point of exhaustion at night on poorly lit highways. One therefore sleeps in the truck while the other drives, but, again as usual, they’re in bad need of bed-rest. One of the wheels of their truck gives out before either of them can do anything, and Joe hopes that their employer, who already owes them an even greater sum for past deliveries they have made, will wire immediately at least the money necessary to replace the bad wheel. The fact that the employer will not even take Joe’s reversed-charges phone call to him suggests the poor prospect for such a fair resolution of the problem. Joe borrows money at a bar in order to place the call direct, but instead of sending Joe money the employer hires someone else—someone to whom he owes less money than he owes the Fabrinis—to secure the load and transport it to the appointed destination. To a certain extent, it’s a financial vicious circle, with the employer himself behind in being paid by those with whom he has contracted the shipped deliveries. On the other hand, it’s also a question of how much liquidity this man wishes to maintain at any given moment, no matter what his workers are owed, for we glimpse him in his office awash in cash. The situation is outrageous. The Fabrinis had almost completed the haul, had done, that is, the lion’s share of the work, but will be paid nothing since payment is exclusively attached to timely delivery. (In reality, much of their work is the tedious job of waiting at either end of the delivery, the loading and unloading—hours of their time for which they aren’t compensated.) Their replacement, when he arrives, explains to his comrades that he has “a wife and a child, and another on the way.” All three of the men are being screwed, and they know it, and the film conveys sympathy for the plight of each one of them and, in league with that, contempt for the employer who is manipulating and exploiting them, and for the system he (however thoughtlessly, however inadvertently) represents. Walsh is, typically, very straightforward in his thematic development of the material. Only a dunderhead could miss the unfairness of the situation in which the Fabrini brothers find themselves. But “critics” who hew to plot rather than theme are probably as blind to this unfairness in reality as they are blind to it in the film. Most of them probably can’t conceive of such basic faults in capitalism.
Keep in mind that it’s the loss of his and his brother’s truck that moves Joe into Lana’s husband’s business. The loss of the truck, at last the Fabrinis’ outright property (what bitter irony!), also keep in mind, is the result of the beat-the-clock driving conditions that truckers must endure. Paul falls asleep at the wheel. (I’m not making this up: there are reviews on the Internet that fault Paul, characterizing him as lazy. I’m perplexed. I’m despondent. Through what prism of prejudices do some people “see” movies? Yes, Paul succumbs to the monotony of the job sooner than his brother does. That’s a reasonable character point, to make the portrait of the conditions the film shows complete. But that doesn’t trump the overarching thematic point! Some people can’t see the forest for the trees.) In any case, these two points, among others, as we shall see, create continuity between the first and second parts of the film. More to the thematic point, however, and thus helping to create the unity rather than the continuity of the film, is the fact of Lana’s unfairness to Joe. She loves him, but he, who has done nothing to encourage her interest and, in fact, has done everything to discourage her attentions, does not love her. Lana’s cruel dismissal of Cassie on the basis of Cassie’s working-class status makes unmistakable, to me at least, her sense of absolute entitlement to Joe on the basis not only of her love for him but also of her superior socioeconomic status to his that, in her mind, renders his protests and objections irrelevant at best, insubordinate at worst. This aspect of the film certainly is a part of the same thematic development that Walsh pursues earlier in the film. (I wonder: Do some people also find Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, perhaps the most comprehensive sociopolitico-economic critique of twentieth-century America in fiction, “two-novels-in-one” and “schizophrenic,” giving them “intellectual whiplash” because of those two different girls, in their different socioeconomic milieus, with whom Clyde Griffiths interacts?) Lana represents another manifestation of the forces arrayed against Joe that we see from the film’s start. Her sense of entitlement to Joe echoes everything else that disadvantages Joe. A humane actress, giving here an electric (if somewhat studied) performance, Ida Lupino also, correctly, includes in her characterization (the sensational reception of which made her a star) accents of Lana’s sense of inferiority resulting from Joe’s sexual rejection; but, once again, that doesn’t undermine the thematic resonance of her power over Joe in society’s pecking order. Rather, it completes the portrait, rendering it plausible and realistic in human terms.
Related to the theme of unfairness is another that overarches it. This is the theme of unpredictability. We have already seen this manifest itself as injustice. For instance, just when the Fabrinis get ahead a little and finally own their truck, disaster strikes and they lose the truck; and just when Joe’s life seems settled on a secure economic base, Lana’s commission of murder and accusation against Joe threatens to pull that from under him. But there are two larger senses to this unpredictability that permeate the film, contextualizing these reversals of fortune. One has to do with human death, which shadows the Fabrinis, first, in the form of the two trucking compatriots of theirs who lose their lives in a sleep-induced highway accident as prelude to their own brush with death, and, secondly, in the form of Ed’s death as prelude to the state execution of Joe that a guilty verdict against him threatens to trigger. One might refer to this as cosmic unpredictability, except, again, its connection to the theme of unfairness binds it to systemic failures dealt by humans against humans. Thus emerges the other sense of unpredictability in They Drive by Night, the implicit sense that life’s unpredictability is sheer rationalization for the unfairness and injustice that the pursuit of profits imposes on ordinary people—workers struggling to survive. The two themes come together by a stunning metaphor: the beat-the-clock atmosphere in which truckers desperately try to make their deliveries implies their continual race to beat death. All the action in the film unfolds in the pressure cooker of that idea.
Nor is Lana above the fray herself, for all the coolness and collectedness of her image as she spends her husband’s money buying a parade of expensive dresses and hats to fill the void of her aching heart in a marriage to which, for all its comforts, she can bring no love. Her mental instability echoes the unpredictability dogging the truckers; the madness that shadows her echoes the death just up ahead of their trucks or at the heels of their wheels. Is there a tangible connection between the two in the film, though? Yes, there is: doors opening and shutting—Walsh’s central symbol, suggesting the teasing promise of the American Dream. Doors opening and closing in They Drive by Night function like the green light at the end of the dock, across Long Island Sound, luring Gatsby with the hope of social acceptance, of finding a home in Daisy’s world, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. In Walsh’s film, that aspect of the American Dream that the opening/closing doors represent is the pursuit of happiness—economic security for the truckers; for Lana, love.
Throughout the film we see and hear, over and over again, the opening and closing of doors of trucks; it becomes a symphony of workers’ aspiration, their hope for the future as they load and unload their trucks, fill up their gas tank at gas stations, get back behind the wheel for the transport, rest and eat at this stop or that. Doors open, close and open again as they keep going, keep trucking, with each load hoping to get ahead a little so that they can take the longer, much needed rest, but knowing that unless they get back on the road again in fairly short order they could lose everything. The manual opening and closing of truck doors finds a grim echo in Lana and Ed’s world: their palatial home garage whose doors automatically open when a sensor beam is interrupted and automatically close when the ray is next interrupted. Marriage has brought Lana everything but happiness; she snatched the American Dream and found it bankrupt. In love with Joe Fabrini, she is miserable at her own anniversary party. Joe keeps telling her he can’t betray his friendship with Ed, so she murders her husband by leaving him, drunk and passed out, in their car in the garage, with the motor running. The doors of the garage so obligingly opened when the car pulled in through the gate with the sensor; she hesitates walking back through the gate, because she doesn’t want to commit murder, but, pursuing the happiness she imagines finding with Joe once Ed is out of the way, she takes those fateful steps, and the garage doors shut. Ed’s death by carbon monoxide elliptically connects with the deaths of truckers, theirs on the highway, his in his home garage. His death is the socioeconomically higher version of theirs, for his American Dream, like his wife’s, has turned out to be an illusion. On either economic end of the pursuit of the dream, it seems, there is little hope and great dissatisfaction.
Doors opening and closing. Fate mocks Lana in prison, where there is also an automatic door she must pass through. Fate mocks her big time, driving her to the brink of insanity, when, as repairmen work on the controls, the door opens and shuts and opens and shuts in rapid succession. On the witness stand at Joe’s trial, she is insane, made so by terrible guilt, the weight of the collapse of all of her dreams, including the one that Joe would ever love her. Hysterically she explains why she committed murder: “The doors made me do it! The doors made me do it!” And, in a way, they did.
They Drive by Night isn’t a great film. It certainly isn’t as great as another one that same year that touches on similar themes: John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. But it’s one film. The “two parts” cohere, one leading to and blending into the other. Moreover, there is unassailable thematic unity. It’s a good film.
Lupino’s striking performance certainly stands out, but good also are George Raft as Joe, Ann Sheridan as Cassie and, particularly, Gale Page—the one of the Four Daughters (Michael Curtiz, 1938) not played by a Lane sister—as Pearl Fabrini. Roscoe Karns is wonderful as Irish, one of the truckers. Humphrey Bogart may be no more than adequate as Paul, but High Sierra (Walsh, 1941) and The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), and hence stardom, lay only a strip of road ahead.
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