They Drive By Night: Depression-era men, women gaining agency

Raoul Walsh’s 1940 motion picture, “They Drive By Night,” often gets a bad rap for a “bifurcated” narrative structure. That the film has two distinct parts is undisputed. But the claim that its pyramid construction is a distracting flaw misses some of what makes “They Drive By Night” such a pleasure to watch (not to ignore its clever, rapid-fire dialogue).

The first half follows two brothers, Joe (George Raft) and Paul Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart), who try to make a living as private truckers, struggling to find loads to crate from one place to another. They hide from loan collectors, ogle waitresses and kick about with fellow truckers (the role of women contrasted with the movie’s layered fraternal relationships here is key to the whole matter, but more later).

They Drive By Night Bogart copyThe depression-era plight of the brothers comes across not just because they are dependent on the same boss who takes advantage of them, but through other subtleties as well.

Joe repeatedly says he does not drink (an implied ex-alcoholic, maybe). When the brothers stop at a cafe, they sit at the bar and can barely scrape together the change for coffee (not whiskey or other liquor as we might expect). The poor coffee they can barely afford and subsist on cannot keep Paul from yielding to multiple instances of conked-out snoozing.

Joe’s stanch ambition to run his own business keeps him more alert. Joe is the one driving the operation (the metaphor is anything but coincidental in the film). Joe sleeps twice in the picture, once in the company of Cassie (Ann Sheridan), who was introduced as the waitress from earlier, and once in the company of his brother, Paul.

It is not a mistake that Joe sleeps only in the company of the two people he trusts most, or that while he naps in the truck with sleepy-ass Paul, a wreck should occur. The truck accident incurred by Paul’s fatigue is the penultimate midway point in the picture before it makes a narrative shift.

That plot shift signals a transfer of Joe’s attachment from Paul to Cassie, from brother (male) to future wife (female). In what follows, there is not much in the way of conflict between the two brothers as much as there is a narrowing (and thus expansion) of Joe’s relationships.

They Drive By Night Bogart WalshThe movie does not break into two halves, but makes a character-level transition from men wrestling to achieve ambitions to women doing the same thing.

The scene indicating the transition is one where Lana Carlsen (Ida Lupino), supplied with an immature and femme fatale determination to capture Joe’s affections, persuades her older husband, Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), to hire Joe as a manager in his trucking outfit. Joe maintains a romantic fidelity to Cassie that Lana cannot abide, and Joe’s decision to marry Cassie sends Lana to a place desperate enough to murder her husband.

The story shift in the “They Drive By Night” screenplay is obvious, one that Walsh spoke to, saying, “I guess they ran out of the trucking idea and tacked on that ending with Lupino going nuts on the stand” (quote taken from Marilyn Ann Moss’ “Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director”).

Interpreting Walsh’s comment as an indictment underplays—a personal tactic of Walsh’s—the way he delivers the story’s two separate building blocks as part of a richer narrative.

In his audio commentary on the laserdisc of “Bad Day at Black Rock,” filmmaker John Sturges takes a cue from Alfred Hitchcock about the importance of editing in the construction of a narrative (the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” rule).

Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh

Walsh may have shot “They Drive By Night” sequentially, something filmmakers are hardly ever able to do due to production constraints, but the final product is not a sequence of “they do this, then they do this, then this happens” (or of one movie beginning and another movie finishing).

Instead, “They Drive By Night” fits Sturges’ description of Hitchcock’s “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” rule. Sturges said:

“You want to have two things going. You reach the peak of one, and then you go to the other. You pick the other up just where you want it. When it loses interest, drop it. Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”

In his landmark interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock discussed another similar concept, telling Truffaut he preferred to approach each episode in “The 39 Steps” as if it was its own self-contained short film:

“As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.”

Not only does “They Drive by Night” avoid lingering longer than it should with one storyline before hopping to the next, but the effect of the movie’s tight construction enriches the story. And more. Here, film critic Dave Kehr nails it.

“The switch may not make sense on first viewing, but director Raoul Walsh brings a thematic (and rhythmic) continuity to it: the same obsessional intensity that makes Raft [Joe] an admirable figure in the first half is seen in the second, applied to Lupino [Lana], as something psychotic. Walsh may not have been directly responsible for the structure (the second half is a remake of an earlier Warners melodrama, Bordertown), but his personal response to the material puts it across.”

Kehr is right to point out Lana’s “psychotic” behavior as a foil for Joe’s “obsessional intensity,” but there is even more to appreciate in Lana’s narrative role.

Throughout Walsh’s feature, the women compel a level of interest from the viewer that is comparable to that invested in the men (Paul’s wife gets brief treatment, but then, Paul does, too). As mentioned earlier, Joe and Paul eyeball and flirt with Cassie. She holds her own, rebuffing all men’s come-ons, even quitting her waitressing job when her boss gets handsy.

They Drive By Night Walsh copyRight away, we have a parallel lined out between the exploitation of workers, both male (Joe, Paul) and female (Cassie), by their bosses. But where the first half of the movie is more concerned with the exploitation of men, the second takes up the business of a woman’s (Lana) exploitation.

Ed all but calls Lana his trophy wife, constantly pointing her out to Joe and the other men around him. Ed is anything but a caring marital partner. He does not engage with her on as near an equal level, with as near a helping of admiration as he does and gives Joe.

Ed puts Lana on a pedestal, spoiling her like a child (again, not a coincidental portrayal. It is to the film’s strength that Lupino’s performance really draws out her youth and immaturity; she is less obsessed with Joe than she is infatuated and bratty) in order to call more attention to her.

This take on the male gaze is cinched by the “eye” of the garage sensor, which drives Lana to a psychotic break. Even after she has murdered her husband who has objectified her as a visible trophy, she cannot escape the male gaze that has trapped her, hiding behind house curtains. The same eye shows up as a prison door sensor—even in prison, the eye locks her in more. And it is also worth pointing out that Lana goes from Ed’s pedestal to the witness stand, too (and her hair in that scene is such a great touch, split in two schizophrenic halves).

They Drive By Night Walsh LanaLana’s story is a tragedy precisely because she is so much like a child whose sad marital situation closes her in, who only achieves some level of self-awareness after murdering. Unlike Cassie, Lana is the waitress who let the truckers ogle her, who let her boss have his way. And so, Cassie emerges as the foil for the exploited and driven-to-murder Lana.

Where Lana deviously manipulated her husband and Joe in order to collect Joe (just as she had been acquired by Ed) and his affections, Cassie develops into an independent woman just as cunning as Lana but with believable maturity. Cassie does everything Lana did wrong.

When Joe considers giving up his share of the trucking company he had wanted so badly earlier, Cassie takes advantage of the fraternal bond between Joe and his fellow truckers. She lovingly manipulates Joe in order to keep him at his post.

Unlike Lana, Cassie is not won by her soon-to-be husband, Joe. Like Joe, Cassie has gained agency apart from other men, and it is Cassie who wins, Cassie at the center of the motion picture’s final close-up.

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