5 January 2006 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Never shifts into high gear.
Warner Brothers were always the Hollywood studio most firmly connected with social commentary and crime crusades. Here's a very low-budget Columbia picture that seems to have the same intentions as those Warners potboilers, but without nearly the same degree of appeal. Part of the problem is down to the fact that the crimes and criminals in Warners films had some degree of glamour -- they were bootleggers and gangsters, whom movie audiences might vicariously envy -- whereas the criminals in 'The Devil Is Driving' are drink-drivers and hit-and-run drivers: cowards whom movie audiences wouldn't want to identify with, even vicariously.
It doesn't help that this movie has a portentous and melodramatic title, which it borrowed from a Paramount crime drama made only five years earlier on. At least the 1932 Paramount 'Devil Is Driving' dealt with an organised ring of gangsters, whereas in this '37 Columbia effort the crooks are corrupt politicians.
Handsome Paul Driscoll (Richard Dix, showing his age) is the lawyer defending young Tony Stevens against a charge of drink-driving, following an incident in which a woman was killed and her child crippled. Veteran actor Elisha Cook Jnr is perfectly cast as Tony Stevens, a spineless weasel who expects his rich father's money to get him out of trouble.
Driscoll gets the lad off, to the delight of Stevens's wealthy father (Henry Kolker). Unfortunately, this costs Driscoll the affections of crusading newswoman Eve Hammond, played by nonentity actress Joan Perry (who?).
SPOILERS COMING. After young Stevens beats the rap, Driscoll learns that a defence witness committed perjury. This is enough to turn Driscoll into a crusading prosecutor. He decides that hit-and-runs and drink-drivers are the worst criminals in the world, and he begins a one-man crusade to prosecute them all. But the senior Stevens and his cronies (Walter Kingsford, Paul Harvey, the usual suspects) are determined to stop Driscoll. Why a bunch of millionaires are so determined to quash a man who wants to lock up hit-and-run drivers is never made convincing, much less clear.
This movie has excellent intentions but is difficult to take seriously. Aye, hit-and-run driving *is* a terrible crime, and driving while intoxicated is unconscionable. But the criminals in movies tend to be murderers, kidnappers, rapists ... and this film utterly fails to create a context to suggest that DWI (driving while intoxicated) is anywhere near so serious as those other crimes. Also, the villains in this movie are guilty of graft and other white-collar crimes, so it's difficult for the audience to get worked up about vehicular manslaughter while the porkbarrels are rolling.
I have a very high regard for Harry Lachman, the extremely underrated director who helmed this film. But Lachman is hampered here by a weak script that doesn't focus properly.
This 1937 'The Devil Is Driving' and the 1932 film of that name are unrelated. By coincidence, obscure actor Francis McDonald plays small roles in both films. I was very impressed when I saw McDonald as the lethal Ricardo in 'Dangerous Paradise', a role previously essayed by the great Lon Chaney (in 'Victory'; same story, different title). McDonald isn't in Chaney's class, but I was sufficiently impressed with McDonald's performance in that role to seek out more of his performances. He's wasted here, alas. I'll rate this 'Devil Is Driving' only 4 points out of 10, mostly for Elisha Cook's splendid performance in a supporting role and some sincere efforts by Richard Dix.