Sun 18 Aug 2013
JAMES CURTIS – They Drive by Night. Jonathan Cape, UK, hardcover, 1938. John Lehman, UK, hardcover, 1948. Ace, paperback, date unknown (shown). London Books, UK, 2008. No US edition.
THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT. Warner Brothers-First National (UK), 1938. Emlyn Williams, Shorty Matthews, Ernest Thesiger, Anna Konstam, Allan Jeayes, Anthony Holles. Based on the book by James Curtis, who also wrote the screenplay. Director: Arthur B. Woods.
They Drive by Night is one of those rarities: a uniquely enjoyable book turned into a rather different but equally fine film.
The book details the travails of Shorty Mathews, a petty crook just out of gaol and anxious to return to his larcenous ways. He looks up some old mates, makes a few disparaging comments about a lady-friend currently working the streets and pays a call on said lady, only to find her brutally murdered.
Fearing the Police, Williams turns to his old partners in crime for help, is spurned by them, and takes it on the lam, hitching rides from friendly truck drivers plying the north and southbound roads through the rain-drenched night (hence the title of the piece) and narrowly escaping the pursuing authorities.
He runs into a co-worker of his murdered girlfriend — a hooker named Molly who works truck stops, hence a “Lorry Girl” — and eventually persuades her to help him. As they work to evade the law, thief and whore begin to develop feelings for each other and then . . . well that would be telling.
Curtis spins the tale in lively first-person cockney rhyming slang (as in loaf = head because bread would rhyme with head if you said bread so you say loaf instead. Get it?) dealing out action and suspense in equal measure along with some colorful characterization. One measure of an author is how much care he takes with the bit players, and Curtis meets the mark and then some, filling his tale with sharp cops, hard-edged crooks and working stiffs so real you can smell the sweaty armpits.
He also throws in one of the most real-seeming psychopaths I’ve ever encountered in literature or film: a character suffused with the shabby narcissism one finds in real-life criminals, brilliantly translated into prose. The chapters dealing with his lethal stalk through a seamy city offer a poetic realism and tense energy I’ll remember long after lesser (but better-known) serial slayers have gone their loony way. And if the wrap-up of the books is a bit prosaic, perhaps it’s all the more memorable for its tough-but-tender realism.
The British subsidiary of Warner Brothers filmed this the same year and turned it into a fast-moving, moody little thriller directed by someone named Arthur Woods, who was set to replace Hitchcock when the Master of Suspense moved to Hollywood, but was an early casualty of World War II.
Like Woods’ career, this film came to an untimely end when Warner Brothers decided to use the title and the truck-driving elements for their umpteenth remake of Bordertown two years later and “buried” this little gem for the next few decades.
Be that as it may, this version of They Drive by Night is an enjoyable bit of work. Emlyn Williams plays Shorty with just the right touch of superficial toughness. Released on the morning when another inmate is executed for murder, he casually tosses off a flip comment about the dead man, then turns movingly repentant when he finds he’s talking to the man’s brother — a haunting stretch of cinema.
For purposes of censorship, his lady-friend hooker is now a taxi-dancer (called Dance Hall Hostess over there) but she’s just as dead and the ensuing chase is just as lively, played out across a countryside that seems permanently hostile, wet and windswept. Of course Molly the Lorry Girl is now another dime-a-dance girl (played tough-but-not-brassy by Anna Konstam) and in another departure from the book, she helps him return to London to find the real killer.
At which point the film shifts gears, concentrating on Molly’s efforts to find the killer by getting to know the dead woman’s regular customers, a theme that was (coincidentally?) developed into a memorable short story by Cornell Woolrich. One of the “regulars” played with customary gothic relish by Ernest Thesiger, is a learned eccentric, fond of reading and stray kittens, and with his entry, the movie glides smoothly into the realm of the horror film, right up to a moody, memorable finale.
Existing prints of They Drive by Night are not of the best quality, but the film has enough action and intelligence to reward the viewer patient enough to give it the occasional squint. And the book is definitely worth your time.
Note: Another review of this film, the earlier one one written by Walter Albert, was posted here on this blog some four years ago.