The 1938 British noir suspenser 'They Drive by Night' is one of the best films I've ever seen. First, let's address that title: is this movie related to the same-named 1940 Humphrey Bogart movie? Yes, but very distantly. The 1938 'They Drive by Night' was produced by Warner Brothers' British unit, and offered for distribution Stateside. Jack L Warner declined to release this film in the States (he must have been insane!) ... but he was impressed by its title, and he ordered one of his American production units to make a film with that title. Of all the Hollywood studios, Warners were the most efficient at cannibalising their own material: the American 'They Drive by Night' is partially a warmed-over remake of the earlier Warners film 'Bordertown'. Both "Drive by Night"s depict the culture of long-distance lorry drivers ... but the British film captures that dark world much more believably.
'They Drive by Night' (the British one) is occasionally compared to Hitchcock's 'Frenzy' (both films deal with a sex maniac who uses his necktie to strangle women, and both depict an innocent man caught in the middle), but 'They Drive by Night' more closely resembles the novel by Arthur La Bern on which 'Frenzy' was based. (Unlike Hitchcock's film, the source novel takes place shortly after World War Two.) Emlyn Williams gives a standout performance as Shorty, a petty criminal who has just been released from prison, and who goes straight away to look up an old girlfriend. When he gets to her walk-up bedsit, he discovers she's just been killed by a sex murderer ... and the circumstances of the murder make Shorty the logical suspect. In Hitchcockian fashion, he tries to stay one jump ahead of the police while seeking the real killer.
SPOILER ALERT. The scene in which Shorty tries to waken his sleeping girlfriend ... only to discover that she's actually dead, and THEN to discover that she's been murdered ... is one of the most powerful sequences ever captured on film. As the horror of the situation sinks in, Shorty stands silently ... and far away, elsewhere in London, we hear a church clock chiming the hour. Pure brilliant, that is.
That wizened old ham actor Ernest Thesiger gives one of his ripest performances in this film ... and it's giving nothing away to reveal that Thesiger plays the murderer. He makes his first appearance late in the film, but the first time we see him he's lovingly updating his scrapbook of newspaper cuttings concerning the Necktie Strangler. Later, confronted by some damp kittens, he fusses over them ridiculously. ('Oh, the little imps!') My only complaint against Thesiger's performance is that the character he plays in this film is so swishy and effeminate (just as Thesiger was, in real life), I couldn't believe that he had any sexual interest in women ... even as murder victims.
'They Drive by Night' was directed by Arthur Woods, whose extremely promising career ended far too soon. (He was killed in action during the war.) I've no doubt that, if Woods had made films for only ten years more, he would be recognised as indisputably one of the very greatest film directors. I rate this fast-paced noir thriller 10 points out of 10 ... but it really ought to be rated an eleven!