April 15, 2008

They drive by night (1940)

They drive by night was made in 1940. It wasn't one of the greatest films ever- but it is a very interesting document of American history or rather of the American depression. Rather than understanding the story, lets understand the situation. George Raft and Humphrey Bogart play the Fabrini brothers- self employed truckers who mainly take fruit up and down the highways of the United States. A film about truckers is a film about those on the borders of society- this isn't about the New Dealbut its interesting in exposing some of the attitudes of 1930s America. The life of the open road is viewed with a kind of nostalgia and also a desire which is fascinating. Raft and Bogart play two brothers but in reality one is a young man, an overgrown adolescent, whereas the other is beggining on family life and the responsibilities that that entails. One is a boy who tempts older women, the other is a husband whose wife desires kids. Of course they are sometimes opposed in those interests: but its also worth remembering that they have an identity too- they are both truckers.

One of the interesting things about them being truckers is that this film in a sense begins an American genre or continues it. The genre is that of the adolescent road movie: more realistic than its modern inheritors, the film still has an aspect of adolescence, it is about the development of two characters through journey. But its about more than that, these two believe in journeying as a hopeful activity, they need no qualities, education or creased trousers- all they need is hope and a truck to take them to their dreams. Of course that's not quite it and constantly both of them are brought up against the limits of their dreams. Destruction and near death dog the drivers at their heels- one of them loses his arm and they both witness the death of one of their friends plunging in his sleep over the curb as he chases yet another load. Hope though provides the fuel with which one of the twins, the adolescent, played by Raft, Joe acquires a business empire which his brother later joins. However again you have the contrast between the younger man who acheives something and the 'elder' brother who retreats to the home and the solidity of family relationships. The dangers to Joe are represented by the presence of a femme fatale who attempts to distract him from the woman he should be marrying and by her wiles to take revenge when he slights her. Joe sits in a more exposed position, but can succeed more because of his innate hopeful stupidity whereas Paul is more realistic and consequently less likely to taste both triumph and disaster.

Women come into this therefore in an interesting way- and in a sense represent the classic masculine tropes. You have the woman as inspiration- driving her man to success. You have the woman as incubus, trying to destroy the man she loves. And lastly of course you have the wife who keeps her husband down through children and the patterns of homely life. All these stereotypes are present in the film- and they are all twisted through the prism of the film to become signifiers of the stages of life of a man- from adolescence to comfortable and boring middle age. Its a film whose female characters are strong but definitely off centre- something I find objectionable is that women here are objects- parts of a thesis that is only about men and only important as they contribute to male lives. Adolescence marks out Joe to be battled over by sweetheart and femme fatale stereotypes and adulthood sees Paul moored to his wife.

That main theme runs like a chord through the entire piece and in that sense it maps out the American life- in the thirties and of course in the military forties. What is interesting though here is that unlike in a film from the fifties the married middle aged man, the bureaucrat, is not held in the same universal respect. You could argue that Joe is a more successful character: you could argue he is the centre of the film. And in that sense the switch between the forties and fifties was a switch in sympathy. The film noir of the forties was a much more critical creature- it sought to expose those who aspired. Even this film, such an establishment effort in terms of its attitudes to women, argues in effect that virtu matters more than perspiration in the creation of a business. In that sense it remains a fascinating document of its time- for it argues both that success is in some sense the result of real merit but that merit is not the same as bourgeois virtue. It is a bridge between a film like the Sweet Smell of Success, where all is corrupt, and the world of the Waltons and as such exposes a lot about attitudes to marriage, employment and the world in the America of the early 1940s.


anthonynorth said...

I love the old 1940s films, British and American. They highlight a world on the change, and in viewing them today, we can see where we were right, and wrong.

Semaj Mahgih said...

virtu matters more than perspiration in the creation of a business

But does it? Can it be a reality?

Gracchi said...

Yeah Anthony they are fascinating.

James/Semaj not sure- I don't know enough about business :) (by virtu I mean Machiavellian virtu not virtue as understood in any other context- its a distinction worth making- virtu in Machiavelli means a kind of creative charisma, its a term everyone argues over so I'm unwilling to go further)

Steve-O said...

Someone once said that a study of films from the past is a way to study the culture of that time.

Oh, over at my blog we did a take on this great Raft/Bogart film as well.


Gracchi said...

Yes indeed, and cheers for the link!