Joe is compelled to work for wealthy Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), a gregarious truck operator. Ed's blatantly femme fatale wife Lana (Ida Lupino) convinces Ed to promote Joe to garage manager, because Lana has designs on Joe. But Joe has no romantic interest in Lana, preferring gorgeous former waitress Cassie (Ann Sheridan).
Lana murders Ed but convinces the police that it was an accident. She believes clears the way for her to romance Joe, whom she promotes again to partner. But instead he announces his upcoming wedding to Cassie.
Lana then loses her mind. She confesses to the police about Ed's demise, saying Joe put her up to it. Joe is prosecuted for murder, but the case falls apart, just in time for a happy ending.
They Drive by Night was a fairly low budget movie, suitable for a second-tier Warners lead such as Raft, instead of Bette Davis or James Cagney. Nonetheless, it was a box office hit, mostly to the benefit of Lupino, who has the most difficult role.
Although ignored by film festivals in its day, the movie is well-regarded today. It helps that fourth-billed is Humphrey Bogart, who soon became the greatest Warner Bros. star of the 1940s. At imdb.com, the movie has a respectable 6500 user votes, and the user rating of 7.3 (out of 10) is more than respectable.
Some viewers note that there are two movies here. The first movie, which costars Bogie, is a truck driving saga fated for an unhappy ending. The second movie is about when Lupino will finally get punished for her outrageously bad behavior.
Lupino does make things interesting, in the near-absence of Bogie, and Ann Sheridan is always a pleasure to look at. But as the plot veers from remotely plausible to eye-rolling preposterous, some viewers admit the film has "jumped the shark."
How I felt about it. The customary dig about a movie is that it is the equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit. We've seen it before, and done better. Here, the plot twists are telegraphed long in advance: the truck accident, the romance between Joe and Cassie, the death of Ed Carlsen at the hands of his selfish and obsessive wife, the courtroom break down of the star witness, etc.
All along, we can be sure that the characters will never escape their stereotypes. Ed Carlsen will be oblivious to the fact that his wife despises him, Irish will always be the class clown, Joe will always be right and will win the girl, Lana will never drop her obsession over dullsville Joe, Farnsworth will be hated everywhere he goes, Williams will always cheat his drivers, etc.
If the film is watchable, and it is, credit mostly goes to the actors, who mostly hit the right notes. When they don't, such as Lupino's final-reel rants, we can blame the script and the director. That combination, of director Raoul Walsh and writers Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, did make The Roaring Twenties (1939). But even that movie was more good than great, and most of the trio's output is unmemorable.