Saturday, 24 June 2017
They Drive By Night
Cracking British thriller
Directed by Arthur B Woods, 1938
Starring Emlyn Williams, Ernest Thesiger, Anna Konstam, Allan Jeayes, Ronald Shiner, William Hartnell, Frederick Piper, Bernard Miles
This little-seen film (more or less suppressed by Warner Brothers after they stole the title for a 1940 Humphrey Bogart effort also centred on truck driving) is simply one of the best British thrillers ever made. It has a great cult reputation but is still waiting for a good DVD release (so there's no direct 'Buy' link here). Ironically, the book on which it is based is still in print.
“Shorty” Williams (Emlyn Williams) is being released from prison after doing 18 months for petty theft. He fancies himself hardened by prison, but we soon see his true nature. An execution is to take place that morning. Outside the gates Shorty is asked by one of the crowd if he knew the executed prisoner. He roughly pushes the questioner aside, but is immediately sympathetic when he learns this is the man's brother.
Going back to his old haunts, Shorty asks about a former girlfriend, Alice, who works as a hostess in a dance hall. (Bearing in mind this is 1938, you can imagine what her profession was in the book.) Visiting Alice's room, he finds her still in bed, not just dead, but strangled with a stocking. So now we enter Hitchcock territory, with the innocent man on the run. Instead of suave Robert Donat striding across the Scottish Highlands, however, we have a frightened Shorty who has to rely on fellow working-class types, in the form of long-distance lorry drivers, to make his escape, making his way from Jack's Cafe to Joe's Cafe, etc., to hitch a ride. And all in filthy weather, pelting rain and a gale blowing.
The settings for these scenes are a fascinating view of early British road transport (no motorways, only unlit main roads) and working-class life in the 1930's – imagine starting a heavy lorry with a starting-handle! If you have ever spent a night wandering in a big city you will know there are people you see at night who you never see in the day, and they are here in this film: the drivers, the tramps, the truck-stop hookers. The appearance of the film is great, too, the night-time rain-drenched look has the same quality as that in 'It Always Rains on Sunday' ten years later.
Shorty eventually finds a saviour in Molly, another dancer and friend of Alice who finds herself believing in him after he saves her from being raped (there's still some strong stuff here for 1938). The couple return to London to clear Shorty's name, assuming Alice's killer was someone she met at the dance hall.
The film now changes gear completely as we see Walter Hoover (Ernest Thesiger) pasting newspaper clippings about Alice's murder into a scrapbook and hiding it behind his books on sex and murder (he also has a stash of porn mags), before going to the dance hall. If alarm bells start ringing at this point, just be patient, please.
Walter soon learns that Molly is trying to prove Shorty's innocence. He goes to a pub where he is obviously known as a bit of an intellectual snob and eccentric, and says he knows Shorty is innocent because of his knowledge of psychology. Returning to the dance hall, he waits to follow Molly to Shorty's hide-out. Convincing Shorty and Molly he knows and can trap the real killer he invites them both back to his home, and includes a stray cat and her kittens in the invitation.
Going to freshen up in Hoover's bathroom, Molly finds lipsticks and items of girls' underwear – Hoover's trophies from his crimes. Hoover locks Shorty in his study (where Shorty finds the scrapbook and puts two and two together), then goes to feed the cats with Molly. Thesiger's performance here is superb, from being his usual effete, fussy self with the cats (“The little imps!”), he becomes a truly dangerous psychopath – half-strangling Molly with his bare hands before reaching into a drawer for a stocking. Only Shorty's nick-of-time escape and rescue spares Molly from being another victim.
The film ends as it began, outside a prison where Hoover is to be executed. Despite all he has been through, that it could be him at the end of the rope, Shorty removes his hat as a mark of respect as the execution takes place.
This is an excellent thriller with touches of film noir and even horror in its mix. Director Arthur Woods was seen as a possible successor to Hitchcock (after Mr H crossed the Atlantic), but he was killed serving as a fighter pilot in World War Two. You might wonder why Hoover was a killer (no-one could ever imagine Thesiger as the type to be attracted to floozies), but a possible explanation lies in his first scene with Shorty. He knows Shorty is innocent, he says, because Alice's murder was committed by someone with a more organised mind. In other words, he is proving his intellectual superiority.
The performances and gripping plot are both excellent reasons to see this, but the background of sleazy, greasy-spoon cafes and working class life lift it out of the ordinary 1930's thriller class and make it truly memorable.