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Charles Halton

Boys at Work: ‘They Drive by Night’ and ‘Manpower’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

They Drive by Night and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.

They Drive by Night is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel Long Haul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown [1935], seems to have been the source for this section.)

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Stranger on the Third Floor: Notes on the First Film Noir

German expressionism flowers in American cinema

Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.

Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.

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