They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh / U.S., 1940):

The bifurcation is setup and punchline, or rather blue-collar and white-collar, the American Dream cracked: "If we go over a cliff, wake me up." A trucker’s life for Raoul Walsh’s scrabblers, "always honest and always broke," sleepless, grease-stained, hounded by collectors -- Ford is concurrent with The Grapes of Wrath, though here the desperation of a roadside existence is inseparable from its unruly jocularity. To be your own boss is the ultimate goal, so off go the brothers (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) into the realm of endless highways and greasy spoons. Really a camouflaged Western, motorized wagons and all, sparked by proletarian Warner Bros. existentialism: Finish paying for your rig, finally, and it bursts into flames. Straddling the road and the mansion is the not-quite-domesticated magnate (Alan Hale), who relishes his crummy jokes and booze ("I said thirsty, not dirty," he quips of the glass of water sent his way) too much to notice the contempt flowing from his wife (Ida Lupino). The melodrama of the narrative’s second half is but the "clean collar around the grubby neck," with a courtroom breakdown and consequences for Sirk. The ripping view of toilers and hustlers still half-stuck in the Depression is salted with loads of affectionate detail work, from forces of destiny humorously embodied in newfangled technology (the fateful joke involves the electric eye of garage doors) to Roscoe Karns’ vaudeville turn as a pinball addict. Above all, and most Walshian, is the tough-guy story whose soul belongs to the female characters: Ann Sheridan as a café waitress tired of being pawed (complimented on her "classy chassis," she snaps: "Aw, you couldn’t even afford the headlights!"); Gale Page as Bogart’s wife, quietly anxious before his accident then defiantly relieved after; and, of course, Lupino’s glance of murderous passion, an engine as fierce as any truck's. Dassin and Clouzot have variations on the plot, but only Walsh has Lupino dutifully shedding a tear for the authorities before sharing a witchy grin with the camera. With John Litel, George Tobias, Charles Halton, Joyce Compton, and Henry O’Neill. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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