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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: March 26th, 2024 Movie Release Year: 1940

They Drive by Night - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

Blu-ray Review By: David Krauss
George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, and Humphrey Bogart light up the screen in They Drive by Night, a terrifically entertaining drama about corruption in the trucking industry and twisted romantic longings. A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, robust audio, and enticing extras distinguish Warner Archive's top-notch Blu-ray presentation of an often overlooked classic. Highly Recommended.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/MPEG-4 AVC
Length:
95
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Release Date:
March 26th, 2024

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

They Drive by Night may not stand as one of Warner Bros' best films, but it defines the studio's distinctive style far better than more famous titles. Briskly paced, tough-minded, and lacking frills, this rough-and-tumble tale of overworked, underpaid truckers, the women who love them, and the industry that continually tries to screw them over examines the kind of blue-collar, common-man themes that put Warner Bros on the cinematic map. It also features the kind of fierce, hard-boiled performances that fueled the studio's success during the 1930s and '40s.

Directed with muscular flair by Raoul Walsh in between two of his greatest Warner Bros pictures, The Roaring Twenties and High SierraThey Drive by Night often gets overlooked, but it's every bit as entertaining as the films that bookend it. The cast alone is worth the price of admission. George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, and Ida Lupino lead the list, but such esteemed and recognizable character actors as Alan Hale, Roscoe Karns, George Tobias, Joyce Compton, and Henry O'Neill spice up the story as well.

That story, which recycles a huge plot chunk from a previous, unrelated Warner film (more on that below), focuses on two brothers, Joe and Paul Fabrini (Raft and Bogart), who try to eke out a living in the grueling trucking industry. Low pay, exhausting shifts, tight deadlines, days away from home, faulty equipment, and a corrupt boss are just a few of the hardships the duo must endure. Paul is happily hitched to Pearl (Gale Page), who worries incessantly about his health and safety, while Joe must juggle his burgeoning romance with diner waitress Cassie Hartley (Sheridan) with the unwanted attentions of the fiery, relentless Lana Carlsen (Lupino), who married Joe's friend Ed (Hale), a rich, boisterous trucking magnate, for his money, but finds wealth is a poor substitute for love. Lana is obsessed with Joe and she's willing to do anything to get him.

They Drive by Night was produced a couple of years before the official dawn of film noir, but it possesses many of the genre's signature elements - bruised, disillusioned heroes desperate for a break, a femme fatale, double crosses, violence, and plenty of nocturnal action. The snappy screenplay by Jerry Wald (who would soon become one of Warner's top producers) and Richard Macaulay mixes vivid characters with a potent narrative that never lets up and features several exciting and gut-wrenching scenes.

It's also more than a little schizophrenic. While the film's absorbing first half provides a fascinating window into the trucking industry's machinations and perils and depicts the brutal toll they exact on the beleaguered drivers who just want to make an honest living, the melodramatic second half takes a sharp detour as it zeroes in on Lana's longing for Joe and the lengths to which she goes to possess him. That part of the plot is ripped straight from the 1935 drama Bordertown starring Paul Muni and Bette Davis. Though only five years had passed since Bordertown's release, Warner Bros had no compunction about recycling the material right down to the motorized garage doors that play such a critical role and a memorable line that's lifted verbatim from the Bordertown script. The borrowing may be shameless, but Wald and Macaulay tweak it so well, the sequences in They Drive by Night outshine the original. (It's too bad Warner Archive didn't include Bordertown as an extra on this disc.)

Raft always lacked the magnetism and personality of his Warner Bros tough guy cronies Cagney, Robinson, and Bogart, but he files one of his best performances here, bringing conviction and sensitivity to a forthright role. He and Bogart, who was still on the cusp of stardom and reportedly more than a little frustrated by his perennial second banana status, make a fine pair, and it's refreshing to see Bogart as an upstanding, regular Joe instead of a trigger-happy, sadistic heavy. Bogart would finally hit the A list with his very next film (High Sierra) and would have Raft to thank for handing him his career on a silver platter. Raft, for various reasons, would turn down High SierraThe Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca, paving the way for Bogart to become not just a star, but an immortal cinema icon.

Sheridan rarely gets the credit she deserves for her sassy yet sincere portrayals, and though her role is far less showy than Lupino's, she supplies the movie's heart. (Her joyful expression at the fadeout sends the viewer out on a high note.) For the 22-year-old Lupino, They Drive by Night would be her breakout film and she rivets attention every moment she's on screen. Alluring, conniving, maniacal, and deliciously cruel, Lupino runs the emotional gamut, yet never strikes a sour note. Her bravura performance eclipses that of Bette Davis and would earn the young actress a long-term Warner contract. Like many Warner players, Lupino would battle with the studio over the quality of her assignments, but she brightens every film in which she appears.

They Drive by Night will never be mentioned in the same breath as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, but it's a rock-solid, taut, captivating piece of entertainment that stands the test of time. It's also a quintessential Warner Bros film that evokes nostalgic pangs for the Hollywood of yore.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
They Drive by Night arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the dis is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative yields a breathtaking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's sleek, vibrant, and wonderfully film-like. Superior clarity and contrast enhance the impact of the cinematography by three-time Oscar nominee Arthur Edeson, who would photograph Casablanca a couple of years later. Deep blacks, well-balanced whites, and a wide grayscale combine with beautifully resolved grain to produce an often arresting image that's also distinguished by excellent shadow delineation and a fair degree of depth. Costume textures are crisp and razor-sharp close-ups showcase the allure of both Sheridan and Lupino while accenting the scruffiness of Raft and Bogart. Not a single nick, mark, or errant scratch sully the pristine source, and though a few shots exhibit some softness and a touch of excess grain, they are fleeting anomalies that never diminish the brilliance of this top-notch rendering. I don't own the 2003 DVD, but it's impossible to imagine this 84-year-old film looking better than it does here.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track outputs clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale manages the highs and lows of the robust music score by three-time Oscar winner Adolph Deutsch with ease and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like rumbling truck engines, the blaring bells of a pinball machine, explosions, and screeching wheels are distinct and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been erased. 

Special Features

Ranking:

All the extras from the 2003 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. Warner Archive also adds a vintage radio adaptation as a bonus.

  • Vintage Radio Adaptation (44 minutes) - Raft reprises his turn in this truncated adaptation of the movie that aired as part of the popular Lux Radio Theater series on June 2, 1941. Lana Turner takes over Sheridan's part, but the real surprise is Lucille Ball, who brings her brassy, wisecracking style to Lupino's role. Ball really goes to town in the last act, unleashing bloodcurdling hysterics that go way over the top, but despite the eleventh hour histrionics she proves she's got the dramatic chops to pull off the portrayal. Host Cecil B. DeMille narrates the broadcast. Sadly, the cast banter that usually follows the performance no longer exists, so we don't get to hear the reaction to Ball's chew-the-scenery portrayal.

  • Featurette: "Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive by Night" (SD, 11 minutes) - This breezy 2003 featurette examines the film's split personality, celebrates director Raoul Walsh, and looks at the screen personas of Raft, Bogart, and Lupino. Comments from film historians Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax add context and perspective.

  • Vintage Short: Swingtime in the Movies (SD, 19 minutes) - This tuneful 1938 Technicolor two-reeler, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject, spoofs the movie industry in a series of comic and musical vignettes. Cameos by George Brent, Pat O'Brien, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, and Priscilla Lane brighten up the proceedings.

  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes "the high-geared saga of reckless men who find romance by the side of the road!" 

Final Thoughts

With a fast-moving script, lively direction, and a top-notch cast, They Drive by Night keeps on truckin' eight-and-a-half decades after its premiere. Raft, Sheridan, Lupino, and Bogart all file memorable portrayals and Walsh's taut direction ensures the film's engine hums from beginning to end. Warner Archive's stunning transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, robust audio, and a solid extras package make this release a no-brainer for classics fans. Highly Recommended

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