Towards the end of the interwar period, Warner Brothers’ British arm produced the thriller They Drive by Night, directed by Arthur Woods. This should not be confused with the 1940 American film of the same title, starring George Raft and Ida Lupino; although both films make reference to the long-distance lorry driving community, which is what their titles also refer to. Woods was still only in his early thirties when he directed They Drive By Night, but he’d already had a long career in the industry as a director (Radio Parade of 1935; Music Hath Charms) and screenwriter (Red Wagon; I Spy). They Drive By Night is a thriller, different from the majority of Woods’ work which was in musical comedy. Woods died in 1944 in active combat after joining the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The hero of They Drive By Night is ‘Shorty’ Matthews, played by Emlyn Williams. A the start of the film Shorty has just been released from prison, and he goes to look up Alice, an old flame who works as a dance hostess. When he arrives at her lodgings, Alice is dead in her room. Shorty panics and goes on the run, by posing as a long-distance lorry driver. With the help of Molly, one of Alice’s friends and colleagues, he keeps out of the hands of the police and is eventually able to track down Alice’s real killer. The killer is an older man with an obsession for the ‘criminal mind’, who used to often dance with Alice at the dance hall.
Although They Drive By Night is based on a British novel and set in England, the influence of the American producers on the film is marked. It is a prime example of the kind of film that met the criteria of a ‘British’ film under the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, without actually conveying the British cultural values the Act also aimed to promote. For example, the characters use Americanisms and slang throughout the film. When Shorty first gets out of prison, he meets a woman in a bar: she is ostentatiously chewing gum, and her hair is dyed platinum blonde. This was hardly the type of womanhood thought to reflect British values, but Shorty and the barman look after the woman appreciatively.
They Drive By Night’s overall narrative also espoused values that are not typical of British films of the period. The main characters are a convicted criminal and a dance hostess turned lorry girl. As Julia Laite has explored, the lorry driving community caused concern in 1930s Britain as some young women hitched rides from drivers. It was suggested that this type of hitchhiking sometimes involved an exchange of sexual favours, which in turn led to the spread of venereal diseases amongst the lorry driving community. This in turn could lead, it was feared, to unsafe road situations when lorry drivers were ill, thus neatly linking the whole matter to ongoing road safety debates.
In They Drive By Night, however, there is no suggestion that Molly sleeps with the lorry drivers that help her, and the general practice of girls hitching rides is not condemned. When one of them tries to take advantage of her, she fights him off. This driver is presented as a ‘bad sort’ and not representative of the whole lorry driving community – a second driver whom Shorty spends some time with is shown to be faithful to his wife at home. Overall, the lorry driver scene is presented as a more positive male environment than Shorty’s criminal network back in London; but ultimately the film presents a heterosexual coupling as the only truly appropriate outcome for Shorty.
The police play only a minor part in They Drive By Night, and they are not instrumental to the capture of Alice’s killer. Unlike other thrillers of the late 1930s such as The Squeaker or The Dark Eyes of London, the police inspector in They Drive By Night is not one of the protagonists who leads on the resolution of the case. Indeed, they do not feature in the film’s climax, in which Shorty and Molly are at home with the killer and he nearly succeeds in murdering Molly, at all. They Drive By Night skips over the killer’s arrest and trial – the parts of the process in which the police would be involved – straight to the day of his execution.
The police primarily feature as a plot device that gives urgency to Shorty’s actions as the police chase him. Shorty’s criminal record is no impediment to his status as the film’s hero, but throughout the film characters encourage him to ‘go straight’. First the owner of his regular bar tells Shorty not to go back to his old criminal habits. Then Molly’s steadfast support of Shorty whilst he is on the run for the police persuades him to say goodbye to his criminal life for good and turn himself in voluntarily. Only then is he able to outwit the killer and save Molly’s life as a traditional hero would. The eighteen months Shorty has done in prison for his earlier crimes are sufficient to wipe these off his slate and allow him a fresh start; arguably a philosophy more reflective of American culture than British values. Molly, too, is presented as a suitable romantic partner despite her past as a lorry girl and her work as a dance hostess; two roles which were regularly connected with loose morals.
They Drive By Night seems to represent a transitional point in British interwar cinema, where American values had influenced British culture so much that they started to permeate British films. Despite the best efforts of the legislators, they were not able to stem the tide of American cultural influence on the domestic film industry. This influence went beyond hairstyles and mannerisms to a fundamental re-appraisal of morality and social values.
They Drive By Night is available to view on Youtube.
 Julia Laite, ‘Immoral Traffic: Mobility, Health, Labor, and the “Lorry Girl” in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Journal of British Studies (2013) 52:3, pp. 693-721 (693-4)