If you're a movie fan, you've got to love the Warner Brothers films of the thirties and forties. Everybody's a wisecracker, everybody's a tough guy, even the dames:
"You must like our coffee."
"I notice you're drinking your your seventh cup."
"I like your sugar."
Warners always cast their stars in the lead and then filled out the smaller parts with the unforgettable character actors they seemed to grow somewhere on the lot. So you'd go to a Jimmy Cagney, Eddie G. Robinson or George Raft movie and you'd get secondary players like Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, Barton MacLane, Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins thrown in free of charge. And nobody ever just phoned it in. If a guy like Roscoe Karnes had a 30-second scene at a pinball machine, he'd give it his all to make it a memorable bit. Everybody worked and everybody worked hard, and it all looked effortless.
THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is one of those Warner films that works simply because it's a Warners film. It's a great movie not because it's groundbreaking like PUBLIC ENEMY or polished like CASABLANCA, but because it's random and chaotic, held together, just barely, by the Warner players, who stitch it all together with snappy lines, dirty looks and occasional socks in the kisser. It's a double feature all by itself. It starts out as an exploration of the harsh working conditions in the truck driving business but then, it loses its social conscience and turns into a film noir before morphing into a courtroom drama. Along the way, it hints at wanting to be two or three other types of films. If Barton MacLane road in on a horse halfway through and yelled "Cheese it, boys! The Martians are landing!" and then everybody burst into song, it would hardly be a surprise.
George Raft is excellent as ambitious truck driver Joe Fabrini, playing a normal everyday tough guy for once rather than a gangster. Ann Sheridan makes the most out of her part as a wisecracking waitress, although her character gets toned down too much once she falls for Joe. Humphrey Bogart plays Raft's brother in one of those typically thankless roles that Bogey suffered through before becoming a star. As often happens, he takes the part and runs with it, showing flashes of the brilliant Bogey performances to come, but just as audiences may have begun to see what a great screen idol he could be, his character is virtually written out of the picture at the midway point.
Although this was the picture that made Ida Lupino a star, it is her scenery-chewing antics that keep this film from being a true classic. 1940s audiences loved her, but today, her maniacal overacting, while fun to watch, changes the entire mood of the picture. The film's climactic courtroom scene has to be one of the most ridiculous on record. One hopes the district attorney was fired for attempting to build a murder case out of four of the most unreliable witnesses you'd ever hope to meet, including a babbling, insane Lupino. ½ - JB
ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON
"Hey, Red, this steak's tough."
"Well, you can't send it back now, you bent it."