I know I normally go with a really good movie in these retro reviews, but this one is OK. It just goes places that are unexpected. Well, I didn’t expect it. Being unpredictable is usually a good thing in a movie. In this movie it’s OK.
I recently borrowed the DVD box set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection. It’s a collection of 24 Warner Brothers films that feature Bogart, one of my all time favorite actors. There is a slight drawback to the collection in that most of the first 12 movies have Bogie playing second, third, or even fourth billed characters. Seeing him in those lesser roles does give viewers a chance to see him grow as an actor. And something I noticed is how he used his eyes. He would really look into a person. There was an intelligence behind those eyes.
The second half of the set starts with High Sierra (1941). And it’s his portrayal of Roy Earle, a hardened, savvy, and no nonsense criminal just out of prison and on to his next big job that began to cement the Bogie persona: Tough, resourceful, independent, cynical but with a soft side. However, he was still second billed behind costar Ida Lupino.
It’s the film in the collection just before High Sierra that I’m writing about this week. It’s called They Drive By Night (1940). Bogart receives fourth billing, behind the film’s star George Raft, Ann Sheridan, and Ida Lupino. He plays Paul, the brother of Raft’s Joe Fabrini. The Fabrini boys are “wildcat” truckers who are away from home for days, sometimes weeks, at a time working long hours hauling freight for disreputable warehouse owners. Owners who don’t always pay what they promise.
It’s a hard life, but Joe is confident they will get their truck paid off and make a real go of it. Paul, who is weary of this hard way of making a living and would rather be home with his wife, supports his brother. So, despite his misgivings, he stays by Joe’s side. While they know there is an easier way of being truckers – work for one of the trucking outfits – that would mean they would lose their independence. No, Joe is going to stick with the wildcat way, getting whatever load they can haul, get paid when they can, and try to stay two steps ahead of their creditor.
We are shown how dangerous the life of a trucker can be, when the brothers, along with Cassie a waitress Joe is sweet on who had just quit her job, are driving behind another trucker who starts driving erratically. With all those long hours on the road, sleep is an occupational hazard. The brothers try to get the driver’s attention. Paul even attempts to jump into the cab, but to no avail. The driver awakens too late and his truck crashes and is engulfed in flames.
Fed up with not getting paid and angry that the crooked man who owed them money had also set the creditor on their trail, the Fabrini boys burst into his warehouse office. They shake him down for the $300 he owes them. They get their pay and take their leave.
With some money in his pocket and an empty truck, Joe is looking for a haul.
He gets in a fight with another trucker, as one would do in those days, in the street outside one of those trucking outfits. During the fight, Joe is called into the building by his old friend Ed Carlson, played by Alan Hale. Carlson used to be a wildcat trucker like Joe, until he was able to start his own trucking business, which was doing very well. Carlson wants Joe to work for him, but Joe refuses. Carlson understands and offers his old friend a tip on where he could pick up a load of lemons for cheap and sell it for a big profit. And that profit would be Joe’s!
Let me talk a little about Ed Carlson. This guy. Possibly the most affable character in Hollywood history. He laughs and chuckles his way through every scene he’s in, except the one in which he is passed out drunk. On the one hand, he wishes he was still driving a big rig; on the other, he’s loving the lavish lifestyle all that money affords him.
He’s also one of the most oblivious characters in Hollywood history. His wife Lana, played by Ida Lupino, absolutely despises him. And she’s so obvious about. The only way she could be more obvious would be if she said straight out “I despise you” every time she spoke him. Actually, she practically does, but good old affable Ed just chuckles away remarking on what a great wit his loving wife has.
Lana also has the hots for Joe. Joe sees right through her and never gives in to her advances.
Well, the lemon tip pays off and the Fabrini brothers earn enough money to pay the rest of what they own on the truck and still have money to pick up another load. They are on their way! They’re working for themselves and it’s gonna be big.
Then tragedy strikes. Joe’s big dreams are dashed.
Joe has no choice. He accepts a job offer from Carlson. Lana made certain Joe gets a more important position than a mere trucker. One that would keep the elder Fabrini in the office, where she could work on breaking down his resistance.
Life is good. There’s a wedding anniversary party at the Carlson’s. Good old affable Ed is plenty liquored up and doesn’t want the party to end, so several revelers head to a nightclub where Ed gets even more drunk. Later, Lana drives the passed out lunkhead home. She pulls into the garage and she has an idea…
I won’t go into any more detail. I don’t want to spoil the whole movie. But, as the headline indicates there was a murder, but it was ruled an accident. Despite the accident, in some ways because of it, things were again really looking up for the Fabrini boys, when petty jealousy took hold and Joe ends up on trial for murder.
The last bit of the movie is a little ludicrous the way it plays out. I mean, that’s not how trials are conducted. Still it’s an enjoyable movie. Raft plays a tough but honorable man, who is very likeable. Ann Sheridan as the take-no-guff waitress is fun to watch. (By the way, Sheridan bears more that just a passing resemblance to Lucille Ball.) Lupino is good as the venomously jealous Mrs. Carlson, but during the trial she doesn’t quite pull off the entire scene. Some of it she hits, some she doesn’t.
And Bogie? Well, he’s a bit underused, but he has a nice comic moment in the scene where Joe is haggling for a better purchase price for the lemons they’re selling.
It’s not great, but it’s ok.
Feel free to comment and share.
Images used under Fair Use.
Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.