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They Drive By Night (1939)

Main image of They Drive By Night (1939)
DirectorArthur Woods
Production CompanyWarner Brothers First National Productions
From the novel byJames Curtis
Screenplay and DialoguePaul Gangelin
 James Curtis
 Derek Twist

Cast: Emlyn Williams (Albert Owen "Shorty" Matthews); Anna Konstam (Molly O'Neil); Ernest Thesiger (Walter Hoover); Julie Barrie (Pauline); Allan Jeayes (Wally)

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A recently released criminal is accused of a murder he didn't commit, and seeks to prove his innocence.

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They Drive by Night (d. Arthur Woods, 1939) was made as a quota film by Warner Brothers at Teddington, which had been bought and modernised by the studio in the early thirties. The fruits of these improvements show, particularly in the atmospheric soundtrack and the fluid cinematography by Basil Emmott.

The protagonist, Shorty (Emlyn Williams), is presented through his colloquialisms, accent and location as the embodiment of working-class London. But the use of London as a microcosm of British life is complex.

The capital is presented as the site of all that is wrong with society - a place where a convict is the closest one can get to a hero, where a young girl can be murdered in her own home, and where a pillar of the community is actually a murderer.

Nonetheless, when Shorty leaves the city he finds himself literally and metaphorically stranded. Unable to prove himself innocent of the murder of his ex-girlfriend, he is eventually forced to return to London to seek out the real murderer.

Warner Brothers were not confident of the film's commercial potential, and after having gained an American certificate (minus a shot of a book entitled 'Sex in Relation to Society' in Hoover's collection) they told the censors that they couldn't get a negative out of Britain, and were therefore not planning a US release.

Nonetheless, the film's American influence can be seen in Shorty's James Cagney-style characterisation and the various floosies that populate the picture, as well as its 'road movie' leanings (albeit in the setting of British lorry driving).

The presence of Warner Brothers (along with other American involvement in the industry at the time) begins to account for this, but the film was also the product of a film industry that was unsure of its future audience as it approached the Second World War.

Paul Moody

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