Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940), which plays tonight at MoMA‘s Ida Lupino retro, is bifurcated hodgepodge that pits two fundamental Walsh movies, heroes, and American ideals, against each other. In the first half, from 30s Depression, two trucker brothers (Humphrey Bogart, George Raft) devote their sleeping hours to the road. They’re variations on Walsh’s wharfinger-frontier, good-for-anything lovers whose relationship exists not apart from the routine world but as a way to process it in a time and place with jokes and play; the section’s suffuse with Walsh’s great, democratic filmmaking, deep-space staging anticipating subsequent shots, cross-current kidding, lovers’ fondling, and the nightly routines of truck drivers. In the second half, from 40s noir, a vixen trophy wife (Lupino) makes a bid for the truck company and a trucker, and as in Nicholas Ray and Lupino’s On Dangerous Ground, the filmmaking strips from low-life pluralism, a forum of hoods shooting the shit, to closed-focus, with the swell of strings and jolt of melodrama: what’s mostly memorable is a garage sensor.
The turn from broad naturalism to the operatic, democratic to tyrannical, might as well have been because Warner Brothers ran out of one film and started another, but isn’t parsed so neatly. Dave Kehr’s connected the two halves—“the same obsessional intensity that makes Raft an admirable figure in the first half is seen in the second, applied to Lupino, as something psychotic”—and the shadings between getting by in a free market, getting ahead, and gaining control root Walsh’s 40s Greekish tragedies—in which the Raft and Lupino figures merge into one in Errol Flynn, embodying the dual American dream/nightmare of democracy’s self-made man, clawing for freedom from an economy he’ll incarnate, who comes from nothing, rises to the top, and despotically remakes the world. The hero and his doppelganger aren’t such easy binaries in Walsh’s living world; by The Tall Men, they’ll stand at opposite ends of the screen called “the small dreamer” and the big. When the buck’s the bottom line, the differences are gradations.