Friday, April 24, 2015

They Drive By Night

They Drive By Night
seen on TV @ TCM

It was said that Ida Lupino referred to herself as the poor man's Bette Davis (even though they were both women, duh!). After seeing her in They Drive By Night, I can understand why. The movie is about the hard lives of truckers, in particular two brothers, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, who dream of making it in the business. Lupino plays the wife of a trucking owner. She has the hots for Raft, but he won't mess around with the wife of a friend. Besides, he's already got a girlfriend. This does not exactly deter Lupino, as you might imagine.

Apparently parts of this movie were lifted wholesale from another WB film called Bordertown, starring Bette Davis, who plays a character similar to Lupino's. (Drive isn't considered a remake, however.) Watching Lupino, I could see how the comparison to Bette is a valid one. She has that same sharp manner, sardonic smile, and waspish attitude that defined Bette throughout the 30s and 40s. In Drive, Lupino can't really say what it is about Raft that attracts her to him, but she acts like she has an almost territorial claim on him. She can't stand her husband, so one imagines she feels entitled to someone better. 

The most remarkable part is that she gives such a bravura performance at the age of 22! Looking at her, I was reminded of the first time I saw Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone. Despite her youth (she was 20 in that film), she gave such a mature performance that you just knew she had the goods. It was the same here with Lupino. Unfortunately, a third-act twist forces her to go way over the top with her character, in a matter that may have been dramatic in 1940, but looks kinda silly now.

I had first heard of Lupino as a director. I even thought she might've been a Latina with a name like "Lupino." I still find it hard to believe she was British! There were women directors before her, but they were still very much a rarity in 1949 when she stepped behind the camera to finish Not Wanted, a film she co-wrote and co-produced, when original director Elmer Clifton had a mild heart attack. 

Later that year, she co-wrote and directed the drama Never Fear (aka Young Lovers), and from there, she pursued a long career directing both film and TV shows, including The Donna Reed Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun Will Travel, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone and Gilligan's Island, in addition to acting. She was also part of the collective Four Star Productions with Dick Powell, David Niven and Charles Boyer. Quite a career.

Getting back to Drive: it's another film that I saw on Paddy's recommendation. (I haven't kept track, but I think I've liked most of the films she's recommended!) Until the Lupino story arc kicks in, it feels more character-driven than most films of the era, with a wide array of supporting players. Things happen, of course, as we follow Raft and Bogey around, but at a fairly leisurely pace, and for the first half, it's not entirely certain where the story will lead. The Lupino subplot leads to a climax and an ending that I thought was a bit too convenient, but I still liked the film overall.

Raft was part of the reason why. I've definitely seen him in other films, but this was the first time I had really paid attention to him. With Bogey around, I felt drawn to him at first, but his is definitely a supporting role. Raft is the star, and he's quite good. There's a scene early on where he takes Ann Sheridan to a hotel and gives her money for a week. It's clear that he likes her, and that he hopes to score with her, but Sheridan isn't that comfortable with him yet, and as a woman alone, hitch-hiking to LA late at night, you wonder for a moment whether or not Raft will take advantage of her. I did, anyway. In the end, he doesn't. He falls asleep, Sheridan leaves him where he lay, and by the morning, she's more relaxed around him, sensing that he's a good guy after all.

As for Bogey, he's got a good rapport with Raft, and he gets a few moments for himself, but as I said, he's still second fiddle in this one. (Can you imagine him losing his [SPOILER], as he does in this film, if he were the star?) His next film, however, would be High Sierra, with Lupino, and that would cement his status as a leading man.


  1. They certainly do pull out all the stops for that ending.

    I grew up enjoying Ida's excellent performances and it wasn't until I started reading about Hollywood history that I came across that "poor man's Bette Davis" business. From that vantage point and, in particular, looking at "They Drive by Night" it seems that Warner Brothers idea for using and publicizing Ida was the Davis comparison. "Yeah, let's use the Bordertown bit." She's that type. Ida wasn't really a "type", she was Ida.

    It makes me glad that you can find something to like in most of my recommendations. Few of them are perfect, but I hope there's always something there.

  2. Well I'm glad you're glad. :-)

    So that was just WB building her up? Okay. I thought that was more her joking around about her career than anything else.


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