Joe (George Raft) and Paul Fabrini (Humphrey Bogart) are trying to beat the odds by running their own trucking service. With their one truck, They Drive by Night (1940) moving produce from one city to another. It's an exhausting and dangerous job, as they try to acquire enough money to pay off their truck and build a successful business.
This is a well-acted film with an engaging storyline that will keep you interested throughout. It's got an impressive cast, but frankly, it's Ida Lupino (Lana Carlsen) who steals the entire film. More on her later.
George Raft is convincing as the determined trucker who's trying to beat the odds in building his own business. While I'm generally not a fan of Mr. Raft, he does a good job in this film, primarily because of the actors he plays against. Raft and Humphrey Bogart make convincing brothers; there is a subtle intimacy between the two. While we witness the strain between the brothers - Paul wants to be home more with his wife, while Joe is convinced they can beat the system - there is affection and understanding too.
Humphrey Bogart's role in the film is relatively small. As Joe's brother, he is constantly complaining about the stress of their work and his ongoing reluctance to leave his wife alone yet again. Gale Page (Pearl Fabrini) is in much the same situation - she's there to represent the wives who fear for their husbands' safety. She's a much better actress than the whining Pearl allows her to be.
Ann Sheridan (Cassie Hartley) gets to wisecrack in her early scenes in the film but as she becomes more involved with Joe, she becomes more subdued. By the end, we know who is going to be in charge in their marriage; Cassie is a strong and loyal woman who will always support her man. We particularly enjoyed the scene when Joe collapses on her bed in exhaustion, and Cassie spends the night on the sofa.
It was George Raft who recommended Ida Lupino for the role of Lana (TCM article), and as we mentioned previously, she steals the film. She's crafty and scheming; disgusted by her husband but eager to spend his money. She dominates every scene in which she appears, but it is the last part of the picture where she rules. Her desire to get Joe into her bed, her growing guilt over her husband's death, and her resentment of Cassie all lead to a perfect storm in the film's conclusion.
They Drive by Night is also blessed with a number of Warner Brothers contract players, including Roscoe Karns (as pinball addict Irish McGurn), George Tobias (as fruit seller George Rondolos), and William Bendix (as another truck driver). All combine to make a very well-rounded film.
New York Times review by Bosley Crowther was positive, calling it "an entertaining ride". We concur; if you are a fan of Ms. Lupino, you must see this. And if not, there is still plenty of good acting to catch your eye. We'll leave you with the film's trailer: