Sometimes you simply want to relax and watch a movie without much thinking. But when you spend workdays deep into all aspects of the trucking industry, and that’s what the film’s about, it can be a challenge to just veg.
Nevertheless, not long ago I saw the 1940 Warner Bros. production of They Drive By Night, starring George Raft, Anne Sheridan, Ida Lupino, and, fourth in the credits but first in charisma and on-screen intensity, Humphrey Bogart.
No one wears a five-o’clock shadow quite like Bogie, and what better role to showcase it than as a long-hauler who showers (I’m guesstimating) maybe once a week?
The story concerns a truck-driving tandem, Bogart and Raft (playing a rare good guy, as opposed to his usual gangster movie persona) crisscrossing states trying to earn enough dough to pay off their rig. A finance company nerd is at the ready to repossess it if payments fall behind.
Bogie’s asleep in the cramped cab next to Raft in the opening scene. They’re in a gas-powered Class 5, with a canvas over the open trailer, hauling apples. I wondered what they’d think of Peterbilt’s new 579 UltraLoft. At 5’-8” Bogie would delight in its 82-in. bunk. And a 32-in. flat screen? Forget about it. He never woulda made Casablanca two years later.
Their truck is forced off the road by, as Bogie rants, a “dirty son of a road hog!”
Is that great dialogue or what? There’s lots more of it, too, by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. They were quite a successful screenwriting team back then, with Wald also excelling as a producer. He died at age 50, Macaulay at 60, and Bogart at 57. It’s so sad when talent dies young.
Moving right along, one neat scene is at a dingy truck stop, where the sultry Sheridan, playing a waitress, counters pre-#MeToo truckers with classic retorts:
Trucker 1: "Nice chassis, huh, Joe?"
Trucker 2: “Classy chassis.”
Sheridan: “Yeah? And it all belongs to me. I don’t owe any payments on it.”
Trucker 1: “I’d be glad to finance it, baby.”
Sheridan: “Who do you think you're kidding? You couldn’t even pay for the headlights. Anything else?”
As the title states, they drive by night and not always as a team. I noted there was no ELD in the cab, which made sense because the flick predated the December 2017 date to have one installed and the April 2018 compliance deadline. So they had no worries about being put out of service.
Of course, later, another trucker falls asleep at the wheel, crashes through a highway barrier, goes over a cliff, and perishes in an inferno. Too bad HOS hadn’t become reality yet.
With movie remakes popular these days, any studio taking this one on would surely need an industry expert on hand to help maintain authenticity, as OEM, ELD, HOS, OOIDA, FHWA, CVSA, AMT, APU, and FMCSA would surely need deciphering.
On their drives to make a buck, our heroes always hauled food, with firm deadlines to avoid spoilage. A reefer woulda been so much less stressful. Though they’d been invented a decade or so earlier, they cost too much for "road skinners" who chose to be "wildcat truckers" (owner-operators) rather than work for companies.
When Raft and Sheridan start a long-distance affair, they get lovey-dovey via payphones, forcing Raft to constantly break bills for change. The married Bogie is worry-free, simply preferring to surprise his wife with visits every few weeks.
“Pearl and me used to have them same silly conversations before we got married,” Bogie needles Raft.
Later Bogie also falls asleep at the wheel and drives over a cliff. Dozens of boxes of pears fly everywhere, a lost load. Raft is thrown from the truck, badly bruised, while Bogie loses an arm but survives, thankfully, because a 51-minute movie wouldn’t have made it to theaters.
Come to think of it, having truck drivers today watch They Drive By Night might end any opposition to ELDs.
Mrs. Bogie is cool with his lost "wing," as hubby will have to get a 9-to-5 job and be home nights. And here we thought most trucker wives welcomed having the house to themselves for lengthy stretches.
Bogie shows off his acting skills hiding his lost arm. Alas, the story veers into monotony as Raft and Lupino chew the scenery. Finally the one-armed man returns. I was half hoping Richard Kimble would be on his tail, but no luck; he’s morphed into a dull traffic manager. In his last scene Bogie winks, his truck-driving career over. Thankfully, so was the movie.